Exiled to Siberia: A First Novel Revisits Stalin’s Great Purge
- Share full article
- Apple Books
- Barnes and Noble
When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.
By Francine Prose
- March 1, 2019
ZULEIKHA By Guzel Yakhina
Whenever I have taught Andrei Platonov ’s hallucinatory masterpiece, “Soul,” a novella about the Soviet expansion into Central Asia, I’ve noticed that many of my otherwise knowledgeable undergraduates have only a vague idea of what happened in Eastern Europe between the Russian Revolution and the 1980s liberalizations of Glasnost . It often seems that the terror and mass murder orchestrated by Stalin and his henchmen have somehow acquired, at least in the West, a weirdly kitschy, ironic patina. In Manhattan, a charming bar called KGB hosts literary readings in a space decorated with Communist-era memorabilia; one can hardly imagine similar events in a swastika-festooned Cafe Gestapo. Nor can one envision Hitler’s final days in the bunker portrayed with the zany slapstick that animated Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film, “The Death of Stalin.”
As we watch its heroine’s existence devolve from an oppressive domestic servitude into something disastrously worse, Guzel Yakhina’s sprawling, ambitious first novel, “Zuleikha,” reminds us just how brutal the Soviet system was. A devout Muslim living in a Tatar village in the Kazan region, Zuleikha is married to the much older Murtaza and is in thrall to her blind and deaf mother-in-law, a sadistic bully Zuleikha thinks of as the Vampire Hag, who in turn refers to Zuleikha as “a pitiful hen.” Zuleikha begins her day by emptying the old woman’s chamber pot and — after gathering wood, feeding the livestock, cooking, cleaning and being beaten by Murtaza — is finally allowed to sleep on the tin trunk, studded with protruding nails, that serves as her bed. Having borne four daughters who died in infancy, Zuleikha is lonely and unhappy, but patient, submissive — and unable to imagine a life significantly better or worse than her own.
Among her unpleasant duties is the task of hiding food from the Red Army soldiers who periodically arrive to raid the family larder: “At first they collected only grain. Then potatoes and meat. And during the Great Famine , in 1921, they began making a clean sweep of everything edible. Poultry. Cattle. And everything they could find in the house.” Now the government has decreed that the kulaks — the wealthier peasants — need to be wiped out. Their land is to be seized and turned into collective farms, while the farmers are to be slaughtered or deported to prison camps.
“In the middle of February 1930, the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic … approve the decree ‘On the liquidation of kulaks as a class in Tataria.’” When Murtaza refuses to surrender some seed grain to the cavalryman who demands them, he is shot and killed. Zuleikha — “as a kulak element of the first category. Active counterrevolutionary” — is evicted from her home and sent on the long, punishing journey that will occupy much of the novel.
As Zuleikha sets out on her odyssey, the novel’s point of view temporarily switches to that of Ignatov, the soldier who killed Murtaza and who finds himself in charge of a ragtag band of dispossessed farmers, now homeless refugees. Ignatov is a fervent Communist, a committed ideologue, but already we sense that his compassion and moral scruples will set him at odds with the harsh demands of official policy. Meanwhile, another major character has joined the ranks of the displaced, a formerly brilliant surgeon, Prof. Volf Karlovich Leibe. Despite a case of dementia so severe that he was unaware he was living in a communal apartment, he has been designated by the government as a German spy.
When Zuleikha shares a crust of bread with the elderly professor, they become “conversation partners, if peculiar ones. In moments when his flickering consciousness flashes, he will occasionally speak, throwing in unconnected medical terms, recalling and clarifying diagnoses of former patients, and asking professional questions that demand no answers. She will listen gratefully, not understanding even the slightest bit of this blend of arcane Russian and Latin words but feeling an important meaning concealed behind them and rejoicing at her interaction with such a learned man.”
Their friendship will prove sustaining as the journey becomes more harrowing. First they are billeted in a deconsecrated mosque, then a grim transit prison, before being packed onto overcrowded cattle cars headed for Siberia — a trip that will prove fatal for many of the passengers. “They bury the dead along the tracks in one common pit. They dig it themselves using wooden shovels, with the escort guards’ rifles aimed at them. Sometimes they don’t have enough time to finish digging graves or cover the corpses properly with crushed stone before the order ‘To the trains!’ booms.”
After a terrifying accident, a small group of stranded survivors (among them a scholar, an artist and a corrupt prison guard) establish a camp of their own along the banks of Angara River in the Siberian forest. Ignatov remains their resourceful leader, while Professor Leibe — miraculously restored to intermittent sanity — serves as the community doctor. Unlike the monstrously abusive penal colony so powerfully portrayed in Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales,” and despite the unforgiving climate, their settlement shows signs of growing into the equivalent of a functioning collective farm. Forced to contend with new hardships and demands, Zuleikha might finally be able to act for herself, realizing the potential that had been stifled in the bleak household ruled by her husband and mother-in-law and discovering hidden reserves of physical and moral strength.
Winner of both the Yasnaya Polyana Book Award and Russia’s Big Book Prize , and a finalist for the Russian Booker Prize , “Zuleikha” does such an admirable job of dramatizing a historical period rapidly receding into the forgotten past that one can’t help wishing it were a slightly better book. Lisa C. Hayden’s valiant translation does little to disguise the passages — such as this description of an overcrowded barracks — that seem sketchy and generic: “Two tiers of bunks are crowded with people. Others sit on crates, on heaps of old clothes and on the floor. There are so many people that there’s nowhere to move to. There’s the sound of loud scratching, of snoring and low voices.”
In addition, Yakhina’s tendency to overwrite shadows our enjoyment of the growing affection between Zuleikha and Ignatov: “She senses herself, all of her, gradually turning to honey. Her hands, which place the pot on the table and seem to flow along it, her feet, which stride along the floor and seem to stick to it, and her head, which wants to drive her right out of this place but softens, fusing and melting under her very, very tightly tied head scarf. Her husband’s killer is looking at her with her husband’s gaze and she’s turning to honey.”
Dramatic and eventful, “Zuleikha” sweeps us into a distant era, even as, at moments, it makes us long to be reading Shalamov or Platonov, Anna Akhmatova or Nadezdha Mandelstam , writers whose genius and firsthand experience of that terrible time allowed them to combine history, authenticity, depth — and something closer to magic and art.
Francine Prose’s most recent books are an essay collection, “What to Read and Why,” and a novel, “Mister Monkey.”
ZULEIKHA By Guzel Yakhina Translated by Lisa C. Hayden 484 pp. Oneworld. $26.95
Explore More in Books
Want to know about the best books to read and the latest news start here..
Barbra Streisand’s 970-page memoir, “My Name is Barbra,” is a victory lap past all who ever doubted or diminished her, our critic writes .
Rebecca Yarros drew on her experience with chronic illness and life in a military family to write “Fourth Wing,” a huge best seller that spawned a spicy fantasy series .
Dann McDorman, the executive producer of “The Beat With Ari Melber,” gave up writing fiction in his 20s. Now, he’s publishing his first novel at age 47 .
Do you want to be a better reader? Here’s some helpful advice to show you how to get the most out of your literary endeavor .
Each week, top authors and critics join the Book Review’s podcast to talk about the latest news in the literary world. Listen here .
The Two Lives of One Woman: On Guzel Yakhina’s “Zuleikha”
December 14, 2019 • By Olga Ware
- Member Login
Written by Guzel Yakhina Review by Marilyn Sherlock
Soviet Russia in 1930. The gradual accession of Stalin to power in the 1920s eventually ended the liberalization of society and the economy, leading instead to a period of unprecedented government control, mobilization, and terrorization of society in Russia and the other Soviet republics. In the 1930s, agriculture and industry underwent brutal forced centralization, and Russian cultural activity was highly restricted. Purges eliminated thousands of individuals deemed dangerous to the Soviet state by Stalin’s operatives. This book covers this period. Zuleikha is a Russian peasant girl living in a small community with her husband and mother-in-law when the military arrive, kill her husband, and take her and other local inhabitants to Kazan, the capital of the area. She is then forced to board a train bound for Siberia. In her story, we meet some of the people she travels with and live, with her, the deprivations she encounters. Life is grim.
This is what I term a serious book. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award, was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize and also won the Russia Big Book Award, and I can see why. This edition is translated from the original Russian text; beautifully done, the characters walk off the pages, and the descriptions of the time are graphic. It is a book that students of this period in Russian history will love, as it leaves very little to the imagination, but it was far too dark for me. I found it interesting but did not really enjoy reading it.
Share Book Reviews
Dive deeper into your favourite books, eras and themes:
Here are six of our latest Editor’s Choices:
Browse articles by tag
Browse articles by author, browse reviews by genre, browse reviews by period, browse reviews by century, browse reviews by publisher, browse reviews by magazine., browse members by letter, search members..
- Search by display name *
Fuel your life with wanderlust
Book review of ”Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” by Guzel Yakhina
My book review of ”Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” by Guzel Yakhina emphasis how Zuleikha’s life turns upside down when she is brought far away from her homeland into a Gulag. Have you ever imagined that life in a Gulag in Siberia can be much better than in your own home? Sounds unimaginable, but continue to read my book review of ”Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” by Guzel Yakhina, one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read so far.
Zuleikha, a young Tatar, Muslim, illiterate woman lives with her husband, 30 years older man than her, together with her evil mother-in-law. Every day, she endures their severe attitude and regular punishments. Even though, she thinks everything that happens to her is normal and that she is lucky enough to get married and to have food to eat.
One of a sudden, the communists come to her village and put her on a train together with other people. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak Russian and barely understands the situation around.
Nevertheless, the people on the train become her new home and her new family. All of them end up in Siberia where they have to re-start their lives again and build up a new Gulag.
For Zuleikha, that’s where it all began – she becomes a mother and for the first time the baby does not die shortly after the delivery. Also, she fells in love and her feelings are mutual. Not only but also, she feeds the village, she goes hunting, she becomes a nurse and helps people to survive the severe weather conditions. In a word, she lives, she breathes…….and finally Zuleikha opens her eyes and sees life’s beauty!
Main values in the book
”Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” by Guzel Yakhina is a novel about identity, religion, family values, conservatism, respect, love, political regime, education, character, skills and human nature. Above all, it’s a love story in a time of starvation and deprivation.
Russian Series based on the novel
There is a series based on the novel worth watching in Russian : ”Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” by Guzel Yakhina
Did you appreciate my book review of ”Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” by Guzel Yakhina ? Read the book and you won’t regret it!
Thanks for reading!
- 25 Questions
- 10 Questions
- Witnesses Against War
- Anna Goes Ukraine
- What We Say
- Remember the Date
- In Memoriam
- Archive 2010 – 2020
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.
- Post author: Rights in Russia
- Post published: January 28, 2021
- Post category: Book Reviews / Collectivisation / Stalinism / Teresa Cherfas book review
- Post comments: 0 Comments
You Might Also Like
Viktor Kogan-Yasny: “Doctor, you swear not like a miner, but like a shoemaker”
Remember the Date: On 8 March 1944 the Balkar people were deported to Central Asia
Rights in Russia interview – with Andrea Gullotta, an expert on the history of the Gulag
Leave a reply cancel reply.
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.
Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes
When the novel Zuleikha appeared in Russia in 2015, its young debut author, Guzel Yakhina, was met with instant acclaim. A work of historical fiction, Zuleikha tells the story of its titular character, a Tatar woman, who is exiled to the Siberian wilderness for the crime of being a “kulak,” or relatively wealthy peasant. Recently translated into English by Lisa C. Hayden, Zuleikha’s Russian title translates literally as “Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes.” This phrase, repeated several times throughout the novel, underscores the central irony of the narrative: despite the fact that she is being repressed by the state, Zuleikha’s exile actually allows her to expand her horizons beyond the small village and traditions that have confined her.
The history in Zuleikha is likely to be unfamiliar to English-language readers, except perhaps through the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Zuleikha offers an opportunity to learn about a tumultuous period in Soviet history while reading an enjoyable and fast-paced narrative. The campaign of Dekulakization carried out in the USSR during the first five-year plan was set in motion by Stalin to break the back of the peasantry, allowing for the redistribution of agricultural land into collectivized farms. A vast propaganda campaign featured the kulak (literally, “fist” in Russian) as an “enemy of the state” clinging to private property. From 1930 to 1931, over 1.5 million people were deported to the Far East.
Yakhina, who studied screenwriting and originally imagined the novel as a film, writes about these events in a highly visual, fast-paced style. In the novel’s first chapter, Yakhina gives us a painstaking description of a day in Zuleikha’s life, which is spent, from morning to night, caring for her husband, Murtaza, and her mother-in-law, whom she has dubbed “The Vampire Hag.” The Vampire Hag, in turn, calls her the “Pitiful Hen.” Zuleikha cannot read or write and has never left the confines of the small village that she lives in, not even to travel to the nearest city of Kazan. When she is almost lost in a snowstorm while collecting firewood, her husband Murtaza treks to the woods to find her, and she is both surprised and grateful, assuring herself that her husband is a good man. The reader, meanwhile, watching as Murtaza verbally berates, beats, and rapes her, is unlikely to agree. Exhausted, treated not unlike the family’s horse, Zuleikha falls asleep standing up while trying to prepare her mother-in-law’s bath. She has given birth to four daughters, none of whom lived more than a month. Her sole act of agency consists of sneaking into the attic to steal a sweet treat from the family’s foodstuffs, which she takes to her daughters’ graves, hoping to please the spirit that she believes resides in the cemetery. Zuleikha’s grief over her lost children suffuses the novel’s early pages and her worldview is sadly resigned toward the life circumstances she has grown accustomed to, “just as an ox grows accustomed to a yoke and a horse to its master’s voice.”
The novel’s plot is set in motion with the arrival in the village of a group of Red Army soldiers. When Murtaza refuses to give them the family’s grain stores, he is shot dead by the Russian Commander Ignatov. Zuleikha is soon packed on a crowded train with a group of other kulaks and her blind and deaf mother-in-law, deemed too old to survive the journey, is left behind to die. In Yakhina’s novel, the perilous nature of the journey is shown in a lengthy section recounting months spent on the train:
They bury the dead along the tracks in one common pit. They dig it themselves using wooden shovels, with the escorts’ guards rifles aimed at them. Sometimes they don’t have enough time to finish digging graves or cover the corpses properly with crushed stone before the order “To the train!” booms. The bodies are left to lie in the open, with the hope that kind people will turn up on the next special train and scatter something over them. They themselves always scatter something when their train stands by open graves like that.
Of the over eight hundred “enemies of the people” originally on Zuleikha’s train, only about half survive the train journey. Most of the remaining survivors drown when the boat they are taking down the river into the Siberian wilderness sinks, leaving only a dozen people alive, including Zuleikha and Ignatov.
Finding themselves alone in a vast wilderness with dwindling supplies, the survivors work quickly to build an underground house so that they may survive the winter. Zuleikha, who discovered she was pregnant during the train journey, gives birth to a son, Yuzuf. Zuleikha had been convinced the child would not survive and contemplated committing suicide with a lump of poisoned sugar, but after her son’s birth, she finds a renewed reason to live, determined for him to survive. Zuleikha’s will to live at this point in the novel is clearly tied to fulfilling her role as a mother. She also forms friendships with several of the other exiles, members of the intelligentsia from Leningrad, and a gifted doctor from Kazan who later takes her on as a nurse.
As time speeds up in the novel’s second half, readers witness the growth of this small outpost in the wilderness into a functioning labor camp, with Ignatov serving as commandant. Zuleikha discovers that she is a talented hunter and is assigned to the camp’s hunting detail, one of the most prestigious of the labor camp positions and a duty she balances with caring for her growing son. When a long-smoldering attraction between Zuleikha and Ignatov turns into a passionate affair, Zuleikha has to reconcile her traditional beliefs with her new, more secular worldview, and she discovers how much her experiences have changed her: “She’s not ashamed. Everything she was taught and learned by rote as a child has left her, gone away. What’s new and has come in exchange has washed away the fears, just as a flood from melting snow washes away last year’s twigs and decayed leaves.” It’s only when she comes to see the affair as a threat to her son’s safety that she ends it, despite being broken-hearted. The novel ends with Yuzuf’s departure at sixteen to become an artist in St. Petersburg. Zuleikha’s grief at his move is softened by the knowledge that she can now be with Ignatov, both of them not yet fifty, but prematurely aged by the hardness of life in the labor camp.
The final line of the novel hints at the contradictions in Zuleihka’s journey. Yakhina writes, “while the pain that fills the world hasn’t gone, it has allowed her to breathe.” Inasmuch as the physical circumstances of her life remain largely outside of her control, Zuleikha’s transformation over the course of the novel is an inner one. From a person with no sense of independent worth outside her ability to serve her husband, Zuleikha has grown into an individual with an awareness of her own talents, a mother who is able to let go of her son so that he can realize his own potential, and a woman able to be an equal partner in a romantic relationship of her choosing.
When asked in an interview whether she sees Zuleikha as a feminist novel, Yakhina allowed that, “It’s a novel about a woman who acquires new strength. It’s a novel about the metamorphosis of a woman. You can call it feminist, be my guest.” Yakhina based the character on her grandmother, who also was deported from Tatarstan under Stalin, and whose life, like Zuleikha’s, was, in paradoxical ways, enriched by her forced travels. Western critics might bristle at calling Zuleikha a feminist work, as Zuleikha so often conceives of her own identity in relation to the men around her. She is perhaps most self-realized when she discovers her talent for marksmanship and takes Ignatov as her lover, yet she ultimately subordinates her own desires to the demands of motherhood. But the novel is perhaps most interesting when it grapples with the contradiction between Zuleikha’s budding self-awareness and her commitments to others. This is a different sort of feminism, one that makes room for the relational self rather than insisting on the dictates of radical individualism—and one that feels truer perhaps to both Russian and Tatar culture.
Zuleikha is both a satisfying work of historical fiction as well as a moving portrait of a difficult historical period. Its most surprising element is also its most paradoxical. Yakhina’s novel, perhaps in spite of its author’s intentions, posits a woman whose life is expanded and even enriched while being repressed by the state. Zuleikha’s deportation frees her in some ways from the constraints of a traditional Tatar woman’s life—even as she remains very much a prisoner.
This piece was originally published on November 6, 2020.
London Review Bookshop
- Podcasts & video
Out of stock. More coming soon
We send all orders via Royal Mail: within the UK, choose from 1st Class, 2nd Class or Special Delivery; for the rest of the world, International Standard or International Tracked. Delivery and packaging charges are calculated automatically at the checkout.
To collect orders in person from the Bookshop, choose Click and Collect at the checkout.
From the publisher
WINNER OF THE BIG BOOK AWARD, THE LEO TOLSTOY YASNAYA POLYANA AWARD AND THE BEST PROSE WORK OF THE YEAR AWARD SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2020 READ RUSSIA PRIZE RUNNER-UP FOR THE EBRD LITERATURE PRIZE, 2020 Zuleikha is the model of a dutiful wife. Biddible and meek, she has resigned herself to brutal treatment at the hands of her cruel husband and the carping of her despotic mother-in-law. While Russia reels in the aftermath of its recent revolution, life in her small Tatar village is relatively untouched. Or so it seems to Zuleikha, until the day her husband is executed by communist soldiers. Zuleikha is exiled to Siberia and forced to leave behind everything she knows. Yet in that harsh, desolate wilderness, she begins to build a new life for herself and discovers an inner strength she never knew she had. This is a supremely ambitious epic about one woman's determination, not only to survive, but to flourish in the face of the greatest adversity.
A Bookish Type
Zuleikha, by guzel yakhina.
There are certain periods of history that, when I read fiction or primary source accounts of them, I marvel at anyone’s ability to survive them. The Soviet Union during the 1930s (and the late 1910s and World War II) is one of those times. Guzel Yakhina’s hypnotic novel, Zuleikha , captures part of the upheaval and deadly politics of the1930s in the Soviet Union. The eponymous character, a Tatar woman, is deported to Siberia during “ dekulakization “—a practice in which the Soviet government rounded people up because of their social class, ethnicity, or other reasons and sent them far from their homes to labor until they died or had their status as a kulak revised and they could regain their freedom. As I read Zuleikha’s story and the stories of other characters who, mostly because of bad luck, ended up creating their own prison-settlement along the Angara river , miles from any kind of civilization. This novel is one of the best, most accessible, books I’ve ever read set in this time and this place. Lisa Hayden did outstanding work translating it.
When we meet her, Zuleikha lives a life that wouldn’t look very much different if it had been set in 1830 or 1730. She does her best to faithfully keep house for her brute of a husband and his mother (who is always called the Vampire Hag, a very appropriate nickname) in spite of frequent verbal and less frequent physical abuse. She’s been raised up in this culture and doesn’t expect any different. Zuleikha mourns the loss of her four daughters, who died in infancy, more than she laments her own situation. Life might have gone on like this forever if Zuleikha’s husband hadn’t snapped after yet one more demand from the Soviets for the family’s food. On their way back from hiding their grain stores, Zuleikha’s husband is shot. In short order, the family home is confiscated by the local soviet and Zuleikha is deported to Siberia as a kulak . The rest of the book shows us how Zuleikha adapts and finds herself in the cold, famine-ridden land of Siberia.
Zuleikha isn’t the only one who has to adapt. We spend a lot of time with two other characters who have to remake themselves to survive in a settlement that becomes known as Semruk (named for seven of its prisoner-founders). Volf Karlovich is a surgeon and gynaecologist who rode out the upheavals of the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed by retreating into his mind, behaving and talking as though he was still a star member of the Imperial Kazan University. Being the only person with medical training for miles around forces him to come back to reality. More time is spent with Ivan Ignatov, a Soviet official who is ordered to shepherd hundreds of Tatars, suspected kulaks , and other members of ethnic minorities to Siberia and then oversee the building and running of their prison-settlement. He asks over and over to be returned to regular duties, only to be told to stay put indefinitely.
Zuleikha spans 1930 to 1946 as Semruk and its inhabitants survive hungry, freezing winters; voracious insects; and the vagaries of Soviet dictates. It’s a miracle that anyone lives to create the thriving little town that Semruk becomes. But while the book details an eventful plot, there are many chapters in which we are privy to Zuleikha and other characters’ thoughts about what they left behind and the environment we live in now. In so many novels, I’ve only seen Soviet life from the perspective of characters who managed to hang on in the big cities of the Russian Wes—St. Petersburg/Leningrad, Moscow, and Kyiv—while being threatened with deportation, imprisonment, or execution. Characters would disappear and maybe return, years later. It’s only rarely that I get to see what life might have been like for the people who were put on the trains.
Because Yakhina spends so much time developing her characters, I had sympathy for nearly all of them. (The character who set himself up as a lackey for the regime was an asshole, though.) I felt particularly badly for Ivan. Ivan just wanted to serve his country. He just wasn’t enough of a wheeler-dealer to keep himself out of Siberia. I also pitied Zuleikha…at first. I hate to say it but being sent thousands of miles from Tatarstan was the making of Zuleikha. This is not to say that being deported was forgivable. It absolutely wasn’t. But being separated from her in-laws and pushed to drop much of her religion and culture meant that Zuleikha was free to reinvent herself, to a certain extent. She kept what worked for her: her belief in the wild sentience of the taiga , her devotion to her sole living child, her insistence that no man would take advantage of her body ever again. The impractical gender segregation and the subservience to a husband could all be jettisoned. I daresay that the Zuleihka of 1930 would never imagine the woman she would become by 1946.
Zuleikha is the kind of historical fiction that I would recommend to readers who like big books that allow them to immerse themselves in history. This book was an incredible read.
- Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window)
- Click to email a link to a friend (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Pocket (Opens in new window)
Leave a Reply Cancel reply
- Already have a WordPress.com account? Log in now.
- Follow Following
- Copy shortlink
- Report this content
- View post in Reader
- Manage subscriptions
- Collapse this bar