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Guzel Yakhina: Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha)

This novel is set from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s in the Tatar part of Russia (where Yakhina is from). Zuleikha is married to Murtaza. She was fifteen when she married him and he was forty-five. She thinks they have been married some fifteen years. They have their own farm in a period when collectivisation is the norm and have had run-ins with what they call the Red Hordes. Indeed, they now hide much of their food, to prevent it been taken by the Soviets.

They have quite a large nice house by the standards of the period and region, though, as they are Muslims, there are separate women’s and men’s quarters, although there are only the two of them. They had four daughters but all have died. Zuleikha regularly tends their graves and calls on the spirits to take care of them. In the immediate adjacent house, Murtaza’s mother lives. While her name is Ubyrly Karchyk, Zuleikha calls her the Vampire Hag. She claims to be a hundred and is blind and deaf. Zuleikha is expected to look after her, which includes emptying her chamber pot promptly every morning, bathing her and feeding her. If Zuleikha does not perform to her satisfaction, she calls on her son, who is very devoted to her, and he beats Zuleikha. She constantly abuses Zuleikha, for example blaming her for having only girls and no boys and for the fact that the girls died, as they clearly came from Zuleikha’s weak stock.

Life is harsh. When the novel opens, it is the depth of winter and they have to go out and cut wood. Zuleikha, who is small, is expected to pull her weight like a man. When they get home, there is a good chance that Murtaza will rape her, beat her or both.

Worried about further searches, Murtaza decides that they should go to the village cemetery and bury some of their food there, which they do. On the way back, they are confronted by soldiers, who see that they seem to be returning empty-handed and that there are traces of grain in their empty sacks. Murtaza gets violent and is shot and killed by Ignatov, the leader of the group, but he spares Zuleikha. Zuleikha manages to get his body home but, back home, the local officials come round and she and others are immediately told that the house has been confiscated and they are being sent to Siberia as part of the dekulakisation programme.

The group set off and we follow their adventures, which are colourful but often grim. They are taken to Kazan transit prison, where Lenin had been a prisoner many years before, and then put on a train. We soon learn that there are so many political prisoners that the prisons, the train and the tracks are massively overcrowded. Ignatov, whose job has been to escort kulaks to Kazan, is now told he must accompany the prisoners to Siberia by train. He is reluctant to do so and but is ordered to do so by his old friend but now superior, Bakiev. When he comes to complaint the next day, he finds that Bakiev has been arrested.

The train journey is chaotic as tracks are overcrowded. Much of the time is spent waiting and food is short. Some people make an escape from Zuleikha’s wagon but she is too scared to do so. She makes friends with Volf Karlovich Leibe, whom we have already met. He is a former leading gynaecologist. He lost his job, his practice and his flat and seemingly has lost his mind. He has been arrested as a counter-revolutionary, primarily because his former assistant wants his flat for herself.

They get to Siberia but things are much worse than expected. They have no food or shelter, most of their fellow prisoners have died and Zuleikha is pregnant.

The rest of the book is about they cope – Zuleikha, Ignatov, Leibe and many others. Indeed, we follow them to the end of World War II. Yakina goes into great detail about their problems – weather, food, work and relationships between the prisoners and their captors. Though we follow Zuleikha in particular, we certainly do not follow her alone, as Yakina aims to show what life is like in a Siberian camp, with the changing conditions, both seasonal and, politically, over a a period of time.

Clearly the aim is to show how Zuleikha herself develops. Key for her is her son, Yuzuf. Not surprisingly, she is very protective, given that she had previously lost four daughters. However, Yakhina clearly wants to show how she develops as woman and, in particular, as an independent woman. She still feels beholden to Murtaza for some time and feels guilty when she does anything that he might not have approved of. On several occasions, she imagines her mother-on-law appearing and berating her, though, presumably, she is long since dead.

More particularly, given the circumstances of the camp, the proximity to men and her dependence on men other than her husband, she has to change her views. Everything her mother once taught her – what was considered correct and necessary in her half-forgotten life in her husband’s house, and what seemed to constitute Zuleikha’s essence, foundation, and substance – is being taken apart and destroyed.. However, there is no question that she becomes stronger and more independent.

Yakhina writes very well and there is no question of the reader being bored with life in the taiga, as she develops her story and the relationships between the main characters. The Russian title translates as Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes and, indeed, she does.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Redakt︠s︡ii︠a︡ Eleny Shubinoi
First published 2019 in English by Oneworld Publications