Guzel Yakhina :Дети мои (A Volga Tale)
The Volga Germans were German nationals who, at the invitation of Catherine the Great (herself German) emigrated to Russia in the late eighteenth century and settled alongside the River Volga. Catherine the Great referred to them as my children, which is the Russian title of this book. This book follows a community of Volga Germans and one man in particular, in the early twentieth century.
Jacob Ivanovich Bach is a schoolmaster in a Volga German village, called Gnadenthal. He is paid in kind rather than cash. He has only one classroom so all the children are taught together, learning about German culture and language, as well as other basic subjects such as rudimentary Russian, enough for them to trade at the Pokrovsk Fair. For him the key part is German poetry. He is a lover of the traditional poets, particularly Goethe. The children, however, are not.
Most of the people speak a German dialect which gives Jacob some problem so his relationship with his fellow Germans is limited. He has two loves – German poetry and storms. As soon there is a storm he rushes outside and has nearly been killed more than once.
One day, he received a letter, the first letter he had ever received. It was from a man called Udo Grimm, of whom he had never heard. Grimm is inviting him to dinner to discuss one small thing. He is met by a Kirgiz man, who seems not to speak a word of German, who takes him downriver to a large house. On entering the house he sees a huge feast spread out and a large man consuming it. This is Grimm but he does not offer anything to Jacob, except a drink. However, he tells Jacob that he has a seventeen year old daughter who is an idiot. He adds There’s nothing in her head but air! A granny’s fairy tales, and a woman’s caprices. Whoever would marry her? He wants Jacob to teach her. Teach my daughter to speak nice and correct! And if not to speak, then at least to understand a thing or two! Though a silent woman is still the best.
Jacob reluctantly accepts. However when he returns to teach her, there is only an elderly old woman spinning in the room. He notices a screen and hears a voice from behind it. It is Klara, the daughter and she is to be taught without Jacob seeing her. I will become a receptacle of sin if I look at a strange man, she says. He is reluctant to teach her under those conditions but then accepts when she pleads with him and he finds that she knows virtually nothing. Her mother died when she was a baby, her father is frightening and the old woman, Tilda, is half-deaf, though we later learnt that this might not be the case. Indeed, to deceive her, Klara and Jacob pass cryptic messages to one another.
Despite not having seen one another the pair grow close and she tells him that she does not want to go to Germany and get married, as her father plans. Then suddenly, she tells him they are leaving the next day. Jacob is devastated but there is nothing he can do. However, a couple of days later, returning home from his walk, he sees a woman by his door. It is, of course, Klara and she is neither ugly nor handicapped but, in his eyes, lovely. She had managed to escape from the train. She moves in but the locals do not, of course, approve. They want to get married but there is no proof of her age nor a certificate of confirmation, both essential for marriage. Gradually the locals withdraw their children and the couple are ostracised. Klara flees and Jacob follows her – back to her farmstead. The place is, of course, abandoned but much has been left behind and the couple move in and soon, between them, are able to manage the farm and feed themselves.
But we know what happens in the early twentieth century. Some time later, Jacob decides to go back to Gnadental and is horrified by what he sees. The place has been ransacked. Later the couple will espy people seemingly fleeing. It is, of course, World War I and the Germans are the enemy. This is followed by the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil \War and the Sovietisation of Russia.
Jacob and Klara try to keep away from it all. While they do see refugees, they do not really know what is going on. They can manage on their own. Klara would like a child, it does not seem to happen. But they cannot avoid the chaos forever and when three Russian thugs turn up, it does get worse, particularly when Klara realises she is pregnant. The attack has also affected Jacob as it has made him mute. He can make noises but not articulate words. A child is born – a girl he calls Anna but he uses Antje. But sadly, Klara dies in childbirth. He goes to Gnadental and milks a goat to feed Antje but is caught. Gnadental is now under Soviet control but he is given milk in return for writing down what he knows about Gnadental and then to write fairy stories, which Comrade Hoffman, who is now in charge, seem to think wil help him communicate with the locals. We see these fairy stories which are mixture of fairy stories Klara told him (it is presumably no accident that her surname is Grimm) and his own experiences.
However, nobody knows of Antje and he has to bring her up though he cannot speak but they struggle along and find their own way of communication.
One of the fascinating things about this book is that it it suddenly changes tack in a most interesting and unexpected way. Two things happen now. The first is that we meet an unnamed character who makes an odd visit to the Volga Republic. He is never named but we are able to work our who he is. He will appear again in the book but not in a positive light.
The second change is that Jacob finds that the fairy stories he is producing – those passed onto him by Klara and then more current ones he invents himself – turn out to come true, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. Yakhina uses magic realism here to good effect but also later in the book. But things do not work out well and he again retreats to his remote house, determined to bring Antje up alone. But life, the Soviet Union and the unnamed character have a way of intruding and Jacob finds that you cannot cut yourself off completely, particularly if you have another person to care for.
There are lots of things going on in this novel. Firstly we get the story of the Volga Germans , from their first arrival in Russia under Catherine the Great to the end of the story in Stalinist Russia , when large numbers fled, were exiled, imprisoned and/or killed. Secondly we see the Russian Revolution/Civil War, primarily though certainly not exclusively from the point of view of the Volga Germans , from the initial horrors, the idealistic phase and the horrors pf Stalinism. Primarily, we follow the story of a Volga German who does not really fit in, struggles with life but tries to help the child he is left with, while she is brought up by a father who cannot speak but, will, eventually, endeavour to fit in and make a normal life for herself. Above all, Yakhina tells a superb story, using both realism and magic realism showing the horrors of the Soviet Union and how one man tries desperately to keep out of it but cannot.
First published in 2018 by АСТ
First published in 2023 in English by Europa Editions
Translated by Polly Gannon