Berdi Kerbabaev: Aĭgytly ădim (Der entscheidende Schritt) [The Decisive Step]
One of the (admittedly relatively few) literary advantages of the separation of the two Germanies was that, at least for those of us who can read German but whose Russian is somewhat basic, the East Germans did manage to translate some books into German, that would otherwise not have been available to non-Russian readers, usually published by Volk und Welt. (It has now disappeared, though the name is owned by Random House!) This one is a case in point. It is not a great work of literature but is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a part of the world most Westerners will never visit, just before and after the Russian Revolution. It follows a standard plot that we have seen in other works from Soviet republics. Young Turkmen, from relatively poor background, has trouble with the rich and powerful but is a fiercely independent young man. He is in love but cannot afford to marry. He befriends a revolutionary Russian and, of course, is on the right side during the revolution.
Our hero is Artyk. His father was a poor peasant but is now dead. Artyk lives with his mother and younger sister. He has to struggle, not least because he feels he is not getting his fair share of water from the communal water system. The system is managed by a man who is elected every year and the current holder of the post (called a mirab) favours his friends, of which Artyk is not one. Artyk is in love with Aina (and his feelings are reciprocated) but he cannot afford to marry her. He also has a rival. Bally, the son of Chalnasar, one of the beys, as the rich men of the village are called, is married but his wife dies on the day of his cousin’s wedding. (Kerbabaev gives an excellent dual portrait of the wedding celebrations and the death of the unfortunate woman, whose husband is indifferent to her plight.) Bally and, more importantly, his parents consider Aina a suitable prospect. Fortunately, her parents do not want her to marry a widower. Unfortunately for Artyk, they do not want her to marry a poor man, either.
The Russians are pushing the Turkmeni to provide resources to help them fight World War I and poor Artyk even has to give up his beloved horse. He considers hobbling it, so that they won’t take it, and even makes a half-hearted attempt to do so but the Russian vets are well aware of these tricks. The Russians (the Turkmeni call them all Boyars) also want large quantities of the special woollen hats the Turkmeni make. Then the Russians decide that, as many of the Turkmeni are exempt from fighting, they have to go and do the labouring work that the fighting men would normally do. This is completely unacceptable to their dignity and there is considerable resistance. Chalnasar offers to fund them in return for a share of the harvest and, naturally, he stands to make a good profit out of this. When Artyk is “selected” for this “voluntary” work by a dubious lottery and he then learns that Aina’s parents have decided to marry her to Bally, things get worse.
Of course, we know that the Russian Revolution is about to take place. There is an uprising in 1916, in which Artyk is involved with his Russian friends and we gradually move towards the Revolution with the fairly standard approach of the oppressed but fearless workers and peasants standing up to the evil capitalists and Russian oppressors. The story takes us through the post-Revolution Civil War, in which Artyk is involved. It is not great literature but an interesting read, seeing what happened in Turkmenistan before, during and immediately after the Russian Revolution. Artyk is not your typical Soviet saint, as he has his faults. He is impetuous and hot-headed, which gets him into a lot of trouble but he is devoted and loyal to Aina, his mother and sister and his friends, as well as to his fellow peasants and is not afraid of standing up for what he sees is right. The chances of this book ever being translated into English are probably nil, so, sadly, unless you read German or Russian, you will not be able to read it.
First published by Turkmenistan dȯvlet neshiriaty in 1947
No English translation
First published in German as Der entscheidende Schritt in 1952 by Volk und Welt
Translated by Walter Phillip