“Learn to live with it, even forgive.” Russia’s bestselling author Guzel Yakhina on the traumas of Soviet history

“Learn to live with it, even forgive.” Russia’s bestselling author Guzel Yakhina on the traumas of Soviet history
A scene from the TV adaption of Zuleikha

To mark the publication of her first novel in English this week, Guzel Yakhina sat down with The Calvert Journal to talk about overnight success, contemporary Russian literature’s obsession with history, and why she didn’t set out to write a feminist story

4 March 2019

It was the death of her 87-year-old grandmother that made Guzel Yakhina start work on her debut novel, Zuleikha, based on her relative’s experience of arrest and exile in the 1930s Soviet Union. “I realised it would be impossible to remember the things she said as her stories were not recorded,” Yakhina says. “There was a feeling of guilt.”

But Yakhina’s personal story has had huge popular resonance. Since it was published in 2015, Zuleikha has sold almost a third of a million copies and been translated into 31 languages, a phenomenal achievement for a living Russian writer (print runs of 20,000 for new novels are usually considered impressive). When her second novel, My Children, also became a bestseller, the quiet-spoken Yakhina, 41, was hailed as one of the new stars of Russian literature.

Image: Guzel Yakhina/Facebook

Petite and precise, Yakhina spent over a decade working as a PR-manager in Moscow before enrolling at film school in what she says was a mid-life crisis. Zuleikha was her student screenwriting project, which she later re-wrote as a novel. The story explores some of the most traumatic episodes of Soviet history, female emancipation, and the identity of Russia’s Tatars, a largely-Muslim ethnic group whose capital is the city of Kazan.

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The release of Zuleikha by OneWorld later this week means English-language audiences will now also be able to read Yakhina’s prose. The vivid English translation was done by Lisa Hayden, who describes Zuleikha as “unpretentious mainstream historical fiction.”

During a recent interview in Moscow, Yakhina freely admits she is fascinated by the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s, when revolutionary idealism withered amid the mass violence of Stalinism. Both Zuleikha and My Children are set in this period. “It’s a strange combination of life and death,” Yakhina says of the 1920s. “It’s very rosy and there is a very sincere sense of belief and hope in the future… but on the other hand there are tragedies, blood, terrible crimes, and genocide.”

Russia’s recent past is a focus for many Russian writers, not just Yakhina. Despite the pleas of literary critics and publishers for novelists to address the state of modern Russia, prominent authors — from Zakhar Prilepin and Yevgeny Vodolazkin to Vladimir Sharov and Dmitry Bykov — remain obsessed by history. Some explain this as literature doing the job that politicians should have done, others that it represents a reckoning that was impossible under Communism. The traumas of the Soviet period have never been properly processed, Yakhina explains, and historical fiction “is like psychotherapy… maybe you can understand something, or learn to live with it, even forgive.”

Zuleikha follows the fortunes of its eponymous hero, who is caught up in Stalin’s brutal policy of dekulakisation. Arrested in her village in Tatarstan, she is exiled to Siberia where she and other convicts are forced to build a village from scratch. This plot arc is drawn from Yakhina’s grandmother’s life, but Yakhina also did her own research, including studying memoirs and histories. “Through reading and writing literature the past becomes closer… I tried to find out how my grandmother operated, to understand her character and how it had become that way, I wanted to dive into her real past,” says Yakhina.

But the novel is no straightforward testament to the horrors of Stalinism: rather, its power lies in its portrayal of contradiction and nuance. The reader witnesses mass death and starvation, but the book also charts Zuleikha’s emancipation; from superstitious villager in thrall to her brutal husband, to a young mother shaping her own destiny and that of her son. Some of this idea of journey was lost in the English translation: in Russian the book is called ‘Zuleikha opens her eyes’, a phrase that is repeated like a mantra throughout.

A scene from the TV adaption of Zuleikha

Yakhina says this ambiguity is a reflection of the views of her grandmother who — despite her suffering — did not hate the Soviet system, nor Stalin, and regularly returned to Siberia for reunions with those with whom she had been exiled. Asked to explain this, Yakhina looks genuinely baffled. But she points out that her grandmother’s life when she returned to Tatarstan in the late 1940s was not noticeably easier from exile. “It’s not a justification for what happened, it’s just the historical process,” Yakhina says. “[But my grandmother] returned from exile as an educated woman and stood out from her female Tatar contemporaries who had spent their youth in a Tatar village. My grandmother was an intellectual, she was well-educated, she had a middle school pedagogical qualification, diploma and could speak Russian.’

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While some readers have seen a feminist story in Zuleikha, Yakhina is more ambivalent. “It’s a novel about a woman who acquires new strength. It’s a novel about the metamorphosis of a woman. You can call it feminist, be my guest,” she says. In the book, Zuleikha is always defined by the men around her: whether husband, son, or lover.

Praised by critics, writers and public figures including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Yakhina is modest about her achievements. She works from a small apartment suburban Moscow in the same building as the apartment where she lives with her family. To one side of her writing desk, which looks over a courtyard and more towering apartment blocks, is a large flip chart for planning plot lines. On her bookshelves she has drawings of Tatar poet Ğabdulla Tuqay and the famous monastery island of Sviyazhsk, near Kazan.

Zuleikha opens with a beautiful description of life in a traditional Tatar village and Tatar culture is obviously an important part of Yakhina’s identity. The book also uses transliterated Tatar words throughout and the first language into which it was translated was Tatar. Yakhina was born in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, which she describes as a “frontier city” balanced between east and west. Although she moved away in 1999, Yakhina says she returns to the city regularly. “I really like it when people call me a writer from Kazan,” she says.

The novel is no straightforward testament to the horrors of Stalinism: rather, its power lies in its portrayal of contradiction and nuance

The popularity of My Children, Yakhina’s second novel, which draws on the experiences of her grandfather, was no surprise after the success of Zuleikha. Published in May, it has sold over 170,000 copies and was the second best-selling book in Russia in 2018 after a Russian translation of Origin by American thriller writer Dan Brown. Both My Children and Zuleikha are currently being adapted for the screen. Russkoe Film Company is turning Zuleikha into a TV series that will be shown on the channel Rossiya 1 later this year, in which the part of Zuleikha is played by prominent Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova — who, like Yakhina, was born in Kazan and has Tatar roots.

Despite her film school training, Yakhina says she did not write the script for the TV version of Zuleikha, preferring to use the time to start on other projects. At the moment, she is working on another novel, but reveals little about the plot except that it is also set in the early Soviet period.

Asked if she will ever write about contemporary Russia, Yakhina points out that authors are also responding to the wishes of their audience. “We have to write about the past while it’s being talked about and while it’s being read,” she says. “Maybe it’s too early, maybe we haven’t matured enough for a novel about modernity.”

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