Over the summer BlackRaven reviewed this book and I immediately recognized the name of the author. Eugene Yelchin illustrated/co-wrote one of my favorite books, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, and BlackRaven’s review made The Genius Under the Table sound too good to pass up. And indeed it is! Eugene Yelchin was born and raised in the Soviet Union, and The Genius Under the Table is a memoir of his childhood in Leningrad, a childhood marked by secrets and repression.
Yelchin was born in the mid-1950s, and this book focuses on his life in the 1960s/70s when Stalin was dead, but he still was able to cast a shadow over life in Russia. Like the vast majority of people in the USSR, especially city dwellers, the Yelchins lived in cramped and crowded conditions. Several families lived in an apartment that we would consider single family, and everyone shared the kitchen and bathroom space. One fellow resident was a KGB (secret police) informer named Blinov. Naturally, even though one had much to complain about, doing so out loud could lead to trouble with the law and consequences such as demotion, arrest or exile. Eugene lived with his parents, older brother and grandmother in a loving family. Eugene’s father was some sort of government or party functionary, his mother a ballet teacher and his brother Viktor a figure skater who performed on the international stage. The Genius Under the Table focuses on two formative aspects of Eugene’s childhood: his quest to discover what talent he might have and his desire to understand the truth about his family and his country’s past.
Regarding the discovery of his talent, Eugene describes his frustrations as the younger brother to a sibling who was very talented in athletics. This was something valued both nationally as a sign of Soviet greatness and within the Yelchin family. Eugene’s parents felt that in order to make it in the USSR it was essential for a child to have some talent. Clearly Eugene’s was not in the area of sport or dance, much to the chagrin of his mother. Mrs. Yelchin, we learn, was a talented dancer herself but never made it on the national stage. Through her work at the ballet academy, she is able to see the young Baryshnikov develop into a major international talent and she often takes Eugene backstage to watch “Misha” perform. Rumors that he might defect to the west upset her terribly and she takes it as a personal blow when he does so in 1974. Eugene’s talent is discovered quite by accident. He enjoys drawing and steals his father’s pencil in order to doodle under the dining room table at night (it’s so crowded that Eugene sleeps on a cot under the table). His art teacher at school declares him without talent but when his dad discovers the drawings, he is overjoyed. His mother arranges private art lessons with a friend from the ballet academy and a new world is opened to Eugene.
Meanwhile, the real world of Leningrad/the USSR and the country’s past encroach on Eugene’s consciousness and lead to questions that make those around him very uncomfortable. The Yelchins are Jewish, and Eugene begins to hear anti-Jewish propaganda on the radio and on the streets. He notices that his grandfather’s face has been cut out of family pictures but no one will tell him why. He sees that once an artist like Baryshnikov has defected, they are erased from history and you are not supposed to mention them ever again. Eugene’s father, a lover of poetry and Russian poets like Mandelstam, tells him that great poets are great because they tell the truth, but it is also why they die. Young Eugene begins to understand that to be an artist in the Soviet Union will eventually force a person to make some hard choices: to leave to make the art you want; to stay, make the art you want and be punished; or stay and make art by the rules.
This book ends while Eugene is still young, a teenager, but it’s clear that he sees he will at some point have to make a choice. He sees the compromises that people like his art teacher and his father have made, and he sees that something in his grandfather’s past prevented his mother from realizing her dreams of becoming a ballerina. What kind of artist will he be? Even as a child he sees that hope and happiness are evident in the eyes of the people he meets in the world of the arts. The reader knows that Eugene will eventually choose to live a life where he can make the art that he wants to make without interference, but in this memoir, we see how the seeds for that desire were rooted in his childhood experience in Leningrad.
This is a terrific book and an excellent way to teach kids about the not-so-distant past of Russia. It’s also an encouraging story about finding the thing that makes you happy, that you are passionate about, and pursuing it despite obstacles thrown in your way.
Side note: I recommend getting this book in print and not going the e-book route as I did. For some reason in e-book form the print at the start of each chapter is out of whack, with words imposed over words.