This is a harrowing tale, the story of a 20th century peasant coming of age in communist Siberia. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably have a fixed idea about the region as a wintry place where people who disagreed with the Russian regime might be sent, to rot in the inhospitable wasteland. Maslov draws a different picture though – it’s only snowy in the winter and in the summer, boys can swim in the lakes and absorb the beautiful if barren countryside.
Unfortunately, however, such happy and care-free times are short-lived in Maslov’s life, brought under the spotlight in this graphic autobiography. Its basis in fact only makes such hardship more poignant, and the story behind the creation of the book, detailed in the afterword, is almost as dramatic as the book itself. And why not? This isn’t a piece of isolated fiction, it’s a life.
That it’s a bit different is part of its charm. It’s drawn entirely in pencil, giving it a sketchy, washed-out look, which perfectly suits the barren landscapes, log cabins and fading memories. But while Maslov is willing and capable of capturing the beauty in a pylon or a munitions factory, his characters are a different story. His Siberian locals are vodka soaked, chronically fatalistic and have the mad eyes, bad teeth and twisted faces of people who drink themselves to sleep on a nightly basis, ground into the floor through generations of poverty and governmental neglect.
What we’re left with is a deeply moving story of a young man trying to find his way, proud of his country but let down and all but forgotten by its government. It blends its pictures and words seamlessly, creating something that would be less of an experience in any other media. This is Nikolai Maslov’s story, told how he wanted to tell it, and it’s a story that’s well worth listening to.