A Charming, Poignant Middle-Grade Memoir of Soviet Russia

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By Vera Brosgol

Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
Written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Everyone has some means of escaping the difficulties of reality. It’s especially important for children. When I was young, I drew. (And I still do!) My mom would bring home used printer paper from work and I covered the backs of the sheets with dense drawings and wordless stories. The dusty space under my bed was crammed full of my self-soothing doodles. I didn’t care if anyone saw them; I just had to make them. As a first-generation Russian immigrant, I found it a welcome distraction from a life that wasn’t always easy.

Eugene Yelchin’s illustrated memoir, “The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain,” is a darkly humorous escape into the world of a boy, Yevgeny, with similar coping mechanisms for much bigger problems.

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    It’s 1970s Leningrad and Yevgeny lives with his family in one room of a communal apartment with a mixed bag of neighbors. One is a K.G.B. spy, lurking around corners and leaving a scribbly wisp of cigarette smoke. Space is tight — there is no official bedroom, so all the furniture must be repositioned like Tetris every night. Little Yevgeny sleeps under the dining table. There is only one family pencil, belonging to his father. Every night Yevgeny steals it and covers the underside of the table with secret drawings. The illicit pencil is his escape from an unfriendly world; the family is Jewish, not an easy thing to be.

    We never get to see beneath Yevgeny’s table, but it’s easy to imagine what it’s like under there. Yelchin’s breezy pencil illustrations brim with a charm and childlike energy few artists can capture. His drawings of his mother are especially hilarious; her mouth an expressive O, she leaps across the page, like the dancer she’d hoped to be. And there are some top-notch portraits of Stalin — not something you see every day in a middle-grade book.

    Everyone in the family has their personal artistic panaceas. His father is obsessed with Russian poetry. His mother is the No. 1 fan of the legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. And his brother Victor is an ace figure skater, which his parents hope will be his ticket to a better life. Yevgeny is desperate to find a talent of his own. But in their oppressive situation as Jews under Communism, he is less concerned with expressing himself than with surviving.

    Even in as inhospitable a place as Soviet Russia, art flourishes. Some artists bend to the demands of society, some break and flee, some find a place (or table) where they can secretly let off steam. Incredible dance, literature and painting spring forth under pressure. The regime is unable to control it however hard it tries. People line up all night in the snow for a new book of poetry; they are even willing to give their lives for it. As necessary as it is for artists to make art, it is just as vital for people to consume it, to escape into it. It is as essential for survival as food and water.

    “The Genius Under the Table” isn’t about the Yelchins fleeing the Soviet Union. The idea looms large and you wait for the story to take that turn, but life is not so tidy. The ending is abrupt and a bit unsatisfying, leaving you waiting for a sequel (hopefully in the works). You don’t always get to escape when you want to; sometimes terrible things happen before you get the chance. In the meantime, you find other ways to live.

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