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.