The Genius Under the Table: Grow­ing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

Eugene Yelchin

  • Review
By – February 7, 2022

Grow­ing up in the post-Stal­in Sovi­et Union, Eugene Yelchin attempts to under­stand the seem­ing­ly arbi­trary rules that gov­ern his life. One incon­tro­vert­ible truth com­mu­ni­cat­ed to him by his father is that peo­ple with tal­ent can become excep­tions in Sovi­et soci­ety, earn­ing priv­i­leges denied to the mere­ly ordinary.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, young Eugene lacks the ath­let­ic abil­i­ty of his broth­er and the incred­i­ble gifts of bal­let dancer Mikhail Barysh­nikov. Even­tu­al­ly, his fam­i­ly learns that Eugene does have a spe­cial skill; he can draw, even if his pic­tures resem­ble, not the real world, but the world as I want­ed it to be.” In his new illus­trat­ed mem­oir, Yelchin looks back with humor, irony, and ten­der­ness at ambiva­lent rela­tion­ships with his lov­ing, if imper­fect, par­ents, and his strug­gle to sur­vive in an oppres­sive world.

Eugene’s life is both strict­ly lim­it­ed and para­dox­i­cal­ly safe. The suf­fo­cat­ing phys­i­cal close­ness of his apart­ment, with five peo­ple liv­ing in one room, is also a source of com­fort­ing secu­ri­ty. Arrang­ing their makeshift bed­ding for the night requires Eugene’s father to move fur­ni­ture as if he were com­plet­ing a puz­zle, a metaphor for the dai­ly machi­na­tions of their lives. This frus­trat­ed poet, in speak­ing with his son, some­times alludes to the ter­rors of total­i­tar­i­an­ism, only to draw back from the truth. Eugene sleeps under his grandmother’s pinewood table; the table­cloth affords him pri­va­cy, or at least what pass­es for pri­va­cy in their tiny war­ren. Rather than com­plain­ing, Eugene ques­tions why his father longs for a larg­er apartment.

While he may be accus­tomed to the lim­i­ta­tions of their home, the ubiq­ui­tous anti­semitism of their neigh­bors is a more painful real­i­ty. All Jews are filthy yids” whose loy­al­ty is in ques­tion and who are held respon­si­ble for con­flicts in the Mid­dle East. They are also pres­sured to remain silent about Stalin’s para­noid tar­get­ing of their rel­a­tives. Eugene’s father fought against Hitler in the Sovi­et army but was ulti­mate­ly dis­charged because he attained a rank for­bid­den to Jews. This intense hatred of his peo­ple is an under­cur­rent through­out the book, a part of Sovi­et life that can­not be ratio­nal­ized, even in Eugene’s fer­tile imagination.

That rich imag­i­na­tion, along with the unique tal­ent that his father is relieved to find in Eugene’s draw­ings, is at the cen­ter of Yelchin’s com­ing-of-age sto­ry. Using the only avail­able pen­cil stub, stolen from his father, Eugene draws on the under­side of his grandmother’s table. This sur­face becomes the ceil­ing of his pre­his­toric cave,” which he cov­ers with pictures.

Yelchin steps out­side the nar­ra­tive to address the read­er, explain­ing that the draw­ings in his book are not the exact same pic­tures. I am draw­ing them from mem­o­ry.” Words and images inter­act with one anoth­er, each essen­tial to under­stand­ing Eugene’s expe­ri­ence. There is Eugene bun­dled up in impos­si­ble over­sized win­ter gear, his mother’s attempt to pro­tect him from both the weath­er and bul­lies. Read­ers see the young artist at his teacher’s home, paint­ing while sur­round­ed by inspir­ing vol­umes of Cha­gall, Kandin­sky, and Male­vich. The book opens with a gallery of fam­i­ly por­traits, includ­ing a face­less grand­fa­ther, too dan­ger­ous to depict after the gov­ern­ment des­ig­nat­ed him an ene­my of the peo­ple.” Yelchin’s genius, which first appeared under the table, is here to enlight­en everyone.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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