Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘Zuleikha’ by Guzel Yakhina: “The scenarist’s quest for a good story […] has romanticised a period that was by any measure dehumanising and brutal.”

28 January 2021

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina. Translated by Lisa Hayden. Hardback 496pp ISBN-9781786073495 (Oneworld Publications, London, 2019)

Guzel Yakhina graduated as a screenwriter from the Moscow Film School and Zuleikha, her first novel, began life as her student screenplay there.  It was the only way she knew how to navigate through the complicated story that she wanted to tell.  That exercise provided her with the key to unlocking the narrative arc of the novel that she published to great acclaim in Russia in 2015.  It went on to win two prestigious literary prizes – the Yasnaya Polyana literary prize and the Big Book award – and was serialised on Russian state television as an eight-part drama, starring Chulpan Khamatova as the eponymous heroine.  

The novel has retained that original cinematic sweep.  The action moves from a village in the forests of Tatarstan to the capital of Kazan, and from there, on the longest of slow journeys, through Siberia to Krasnoyarsk, along the Yenisei and to the banks of one of its tributaries, the Angara.   The cast of characters is kaleidoscopic, from all walks of life and all drawn with a visual detail that makes them inhabit the page.  

The story was inspired by Yakhina’s grandmother, who, as a child of seven, was arrested and deported with her parents for the punishable offence of being kulaks, class enemies of a state that was on a mission to collectivise agriculture.  Any small-holder who resisted that drive was labeled a ‘kulak’ (a term inherited from tsarist Russia to denote a rich peasant, but given a much wider remit under the Soviets), arrested and sent into forced labour in Siberia or Central Asia.  Dekulakisation began in 1930; it was the first instance of the deportation of a social class.  Yakhina’s grandmother was among them.  Her family were Volga Tatars and in the opening chapters of Zuleikha, Yakhina describes everyday life in a Tatar village through the eyes of her heroine, not a seven-year-old child like her grandmother at that time, but a grown woman.   The book has been much praised for its evocation of the Tatar way of life, which Yakhina found largely unchanged when she experienced it as a child on visits to her grandmother’s house.

Although centred on Zuleikha’s story, Yakhina’s book has a dramatis personae that ticks all the boxes for a novel set during the purges of Stalinist Russia: the poor and dispossessed salt-of-the-earth peasants, the bourgeois elements from the Leningrad cultural and artistic elites dressed in unsuitable fripperies, the lowlife criminal elements, the old-school physician with a German name (and an illustrious family pedigree of medical specialists at the Imperial University of Kazan), and of course the Party stooges and NKVD functionaries, some of whom are true believers, others on the make, and still others choosing to be on the right side of history.

The novel was published in Russia under the title Zuleikha otkryvaet glaza (Zuleikha opens her eyes).  This English translation, published in 2019, has simplified the title to Zuleikha.   The original title offers a clue to the book’s main takeaway: an altogether novel way of seeing Stalinist forced deportations.  It’s all a question of perspective, and if you are an oppressed Tatar woman, it could be the making of you. 

When Zuleikha first opens her eyes, it is before dawn in her husband’s house in the Tatar village where she has lived since first married as a girl of 15 to Murtaza, a man twice her age.  She is, to all intents and purposes, a slave in his household, beholden to him and her mother-in-law, the Vampire Hag.  She is uneducated and blinkered, her life suspended between the material and spirit worlds, as she struggles to appease both for the terrible tragedies she has suffered: four baby daughters all dead in their first few months of life.  Her mother-in-law and husband blame her.  She appeals to the spirits and, as an offering to them, steals sheets of apple pastila from the cellar where Murtaza has laid down stores against the day when another famine strikes.

Murtaza is a man who would rather kill his livestock and bury his grain than let the collective farm have it.  Out in the forest where he and Zuleikha have taken their cow and horse and sacks of wheat to hide from the communists, they are startled by a group of NKVD men on horseback.  In the standoff that ensues, Murtaza is shot dead by the Red Hordesman, Zuleikha’s name for the NKVD officer whose destiny fate decides to cast with hers.  

With Murtaza dead, the Vampire Hag will surely not survive for long either.  Zuleikha alone is arrested, accused of being a kulak, and taken on a long and halting journey from the village and forests she knows.  Her head covered, she is shoved into a crowded prison cell scarcely able to move or breathe, loaded on to a cattle car, destination unknown and driven East, with a large and motley crew of prisoners all under the scrutiny of that same Red Hordesman – her husband’s murderer.  

It is from this point on that Zuleikha really opens her eyes; this devout Muslim woman, shy, downtrodden, illiterate and superstitious, a class enemy and prisoner, gets her first taste of freedom incarcerated on the long journey to exile and resettlement in the untamed tundra of eastern Siberia.  She just doesn’t quite know it yet.  Her companions are the kindly doctor, Volf Karlovich Liebe, living in a delusional world of his own making, the old Leningrad intelligentsia couple with the unsuitable clothes, the bourgeois Leningrad artist who reminisces about the quais and cafés of Paris, and the dark and gruff peasants and labourers. And if Zuleikha had thought she’d escaped Murtaza’s clutches, it is the demented doctor who recognises the physical changes in her on the never-ending train journey east: she is carrying a child.  The dead Murtaza’s seed is flowering inside her.  

After several months of being shunted around the country, with casualties and fatalities along the way, they arrive at their destination on the banks of the Angara.   Zuleikha gives birth to a son – Yuzuf.   The prisoners survive their first winter, they build a settlement, the settlement expands, life takes over, everyone finds their niche – fishing or hunting, foraging, cooking, felling trees – even down to the artist, who takes on the task of painting agitprop posters for the clubhouse and a ceiling of Socialist Realist dreams.  

The novel spans 16 years, from 1930 to 1946.  Zuleikha nurtures and protects her boy.  Dr. Liebe is in charge of the makeshift medical clinic and takes Zuleikha and Yuzuf under his wing.  Zuleikha discovers her hidden talents as a huntress, providing elk and other beasts for the settlement (another eye-opening moment).  Slowly she comes to see the Red Hordesman in another light.  Her sexuality is awakened and nighttime visits begin to the camp commandant’s cabin.  Ignatov, the man who saved her and her unborn child from drowning in the turbulent currents of the Angara when their boat capsized has become her lover – the very same Red Hordesman who murdered her husband.  

Zuleikha opens her eyes to a world of possibilities that life as a wife in her Tatar homeland could never have revealed.  The prison settlement comes to resemble nothing so much as an idyllic commune, far, far away from the meat-grinder of Stalinist persecutions of the later 1930s, and the ravages of invasion by Hitler’s army in 1941.  This motley crew of enemies of the people and convicts knits together, teaches one another, nurtures and sustains the small community.  Yuzuf enjoys an ideal childhood, where the water is clean, the air is pure and he can choose between apprenticing himself to the doctor or the artist, with all the other acquired skills of the commune there for the learning.  

The novel has a redemptive quality to it, perhaps best encapsulated by its denouement, when Zuleikha’s 16-year-old son finally sets off from Semruk for Leningrad; his dream is to enroll at the Academy of Art, and make his way as an artist.  And it is the Red Hordesman who makes this possible:  his mother’s lover and his father’s murderer, adopts him, putting his own name down as Yuzuf’s father in the internal passport, without which the boy will go nowhere.  In this one gesture, Ignatov erases Yuzuf’s kulak heritage, sets him free and gives him a future. 

Yakhina has a beautiful feel for the natural environment.  She describes so well the perception of the outside world from the viewpoint of the settlement that becomes known as Semruk (from the ‘seven hands’ that originally built it), whether it is the outbreak of war thousands of kilometres away that for the first time gives the settlement a sense of patriotic belonging, or the classical buildings and statues of Leningrad, the bridges and resorts of Europe seen through the eyes of a boy who has known nothing but the tundra.   

Although Yakhina has researched her material meticulously and, whilst she may have created fictional characters and merged real events and stories, she hasn’t strayed from documented sources, there is still a question for me.  It is this: the prism through which Yakhina observes this history.  Looking through the eyes of her heroine, Yakhina’s vision is of a community that has something quintessentially Russian about it, hidden away from officialdom and modernity in the Siberian forests, a kind of Utopia of simplicity and simple kindness.  It would be easy to forget in this telling, the human casualties and sacrifices that motored the Five-Year Plans.  More than 1.8 million peasants were deported in this period.  Estimates vary as to how many perished en route or on arrival, but the figure is in the region of 600,000.  

I also found myself thinking of Memorial, the organisation that began as a depository for Gulag archives and oral histories of the Stalinist persecutions, but fanned out to defend contemporary cases and abuses and paid a very high price for its work in Putin’s Russia.  In 2016, Memorial was designated a ‘foreign agent’ and its offices and programmes have been a constant target of harassment and closure.  And yet, here is a prize-winning novel about the very history that Memorial has worked so hard to safeguard and for which it gets no prizes and little recognition.  

And then there is the question of a prime-time state TV serialisation of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, with an even happier ending.  The contradictions in Putin’s Russia are disturbing and were brought into even sharper contrast by the recent photograph of Aleksei Navalny under arrest and on trial in a local police station, where clearly visible on the wall behind him is a framed portrait of Genrikh Yagoda, head of the NKVD between 1934-1936.

Much as I admire Yakhina’s achievement, it is a novel for a new generation, raised under Putin.  It never gets to the heart of darkness that makes the novels and memoirs of the time so unforgettable.  The scenarist’s quest for a good story, astonishing coincidences and a more-or-less happy ending have romanticised a period that was by any measure dehumanising and brutal.  I’ll stick to the greats, novelists and memoirists from those very dark times: Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Evgeniya Ginzburg, to name but a few.

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