This winner of an English Pen Award – and several other Russian book prizes – has been translated from the Russian by Lisa C Hayden. Yukhina tells of events that follow on from a small group of people caught up in the “anti-kulakisation” of the 1920s. By following Zuleikha, a Tatar women from the Kazan area, as she is rounded up, transported and then dumped in an as yet to built Siberian camp and with a new baby she then survives into the years that follow up to and through the Second World War. We are shown the scale and diversity of Russia, the still evolving politics of the Communist regime and the impact this inevitably had on a huge number of people.
Zuleikha, from an isolated rural community, had been married early to a controlling older husband who lived on a farm with his mother. There she had to cope with lack of status in the household, undertake all the female responsibilities of household and farm, and provide additional labour in farming the cold and harsh farm landscape. Bearing and losing four daughters along the way. Her story will be revealed in greater and greater detail as the story progresses and as she has to come to terms with living in different places under different rules.
The young officer tasked with removing her and other kulaks from their farms finds, to his horror, that he is expected to transport his charges (and increasing numbers of others) in transit to Siberia where he is then told to set up the camp they will all live in. Set it up with minimal supplies and food with winter (in August) already approaching. He will still be there until discharged after the war for not having the correct attitude. His personal tale will reinforce the scale of the chaos that ensued by central bureaucrats issuing dictats to the wider nation – with no real understanding of the day to day impact of their requirements. The requirement for political obedience runs through the tale – and the implications and personal risks that followed if people did not co-operate. Some skills will help survival but certain characters will inevitably come to greater power.
In the transit phases and camp Zuleikha will meet a broad range of people – other kulaks, intellectuals and misfits and common criminals. Some of whom are given greater roles in the novel. Life’s path and survival are shown as totally random – but that ultimate survival depends on the community and networks you build with others.
This is a very clever novel melding deep political themes, with the harsh implications of these on a number of people. It explores the realities on people in a way that is deeply compelling and pulls the reader along at pace. For most people, politics is theoretical. Actual day-to-day living is what is really important so Zuleikha is the representation of that. The realities of what went on are drip fed into the story – the chaos, the indignities the death rate – nothing of the years is eventually hidden. There is no visceral gore or “bite” to most of the actions – that has to be provided by the reader’s imagination. That could be regarded as a reason for criticism – but ironically it reflects the political ethos of the lack of importance of individual people against the greater political good. This is a very fine story that merits re-reading to reveal the subtleties of what is being quietly told.
Hilary White 5/5
Zuleikha by Guzel Yukhina
Oneworld Publications 9781786076847 pbk Nov 2019