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Guzel Yakhina: a Novel With History

The beginning of March saw the publication of one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of 2021, Guzel Yakhina’s A Special Train to Samarkand. This novel can be understood as more than simply a literary work: it is also about attachment to a particular type of reflection. Before our eyes, the novel becomes a way of making sense of the past. What does this mean? Is it an attempt to understand what is happening in the here and now through a historical context? Or a desire to liberate ourselves from the burden of the past? Or a “replacement therapy” against a background of something unanalysed and lacking in consensus? At a reception at Noôdome, Guzel Yakhina talked to publisher Yelena Shubina about these unexplored parts of history.
On the pull of the 1920s
All three of my novels are about the first decades of the Soviet period. For me, it’s an unusual time. The deeper into it I go, the more interesting and incomprehensible I find it. On the one hand, it’s a time of crime and tragedy. The famine of the 1920s and the terror are two examples of this. On the other, it’s when developments began whose fruits we enjoy today: the law on universal education was introduced, women’s emancipation began, and the foundations were laid for Soviet man, which are still alive in us today. The seeds that were sown then are still sprouting today.
On national history and family history
The early Soviet period contains answers to questions I’ve been asking myself. My books have helped me to understand what happened in my own family. For example, the origin of Zuleikha was my personal motivation to try to work out exactly who my grandmother was. Her family were dispossessed and exiled to Siberia, and that’s where her austere character was formed. My grandmother isn’t in the book and she’s not the prototype for the heroine, but immersing myself in that material was my attempt to find out about her and understand her.

There aren’t any prototypes for A Special Train to Samarkand either, but there are references to my paternal grandfather’s history. He was one of many siblings in a peasant family and after 1917, he was given up and sent to a children’s home. He was taken from the Volga region to Samarkand on one of the “Dzerzhinsky” trains. That’s how he escaped, although half of the children died on the way. After the war, my grandfather wanted to give up his own third child to a children’s home because it was a time of hunger. Fortunately he didn’t though, because that third child was my father. The question that has always upset and haunted me is this: why do good people suddenly give their children up to children’s homes? How is such a thing possible? Now that I’ve immersed myself in the materials, I’ve started to understand why.

On the one hand I write novels in order to answer personal questions. But on the other, my family’s history is interlaced with that of other families, and similar to theirs. Perhaps through the personal I’m trying to answer questions that might trouble other people.
From historical events to ordinary people
In constructing a novel, I try to combine two things: the first is history on a grand scale. All my novels could be called historical; I try to make them all historically accurate. The second is the history of ordinary people. I’m very interested in how ordinary people — whether it’s an illiterate Tatar peasant woman or the head guard of a special train — develop, change, perish and re-emerge within that history on a grand scale. These two strands — the pattern formed by the fates of ordinary people and historical events — are what I try to weave together in my novels.
Killing can’t be avoided
A Special Train to Samarkand is a story about how a common idea unites social enemies and eradicates their hostility. In the main protagonist I tried to explain what I understood about Soviet power. Deyev was at once a murderer and a saviour, and there were many Deyevs in the country back then. They were young at a terrible time, when you had to pick a side, and they were forced to choose to kill. In the novel, the hero saves children whose parents he could easily have killed. So who is he? A saviour or a murderer? He’s both. It’s still an open question. It embodies the ambivalence of everything Soviet, which contains both black and white, which are difficult to separate. Maybe that’s why we have such a complicated relationship with our past, because we can’t distinguish the bright and wonderful from the terrible and bloody.
On the scale of horror
Once I had chosen the subject of the famine, I needed to understand what level of horror I could permit myself. Having read various sources — from archive documents and records of children’s reception centres to memoirs about how street children were dealt with — I understood that when it came to the intensity of the horror, the topic was inhuman. At a certain point I realized that I had stopped being horrified: this was my psyche protecting itself. And so I was left with the question of how to write the book so that people would want to read it, but so that they would also be able to cope with it emotionally. How could I make the text absorbing and make people want to read on, assimilating the material as part of the plot? There was also an ethical question: these children were once living human beings. I thought that if I described the physical details of someone dying from starvation or, let’s say, the truth about childhood drug addiction, sexual activity or alcoholism, I would be showing disrespect to those people.
A Red Western
I started to work on the plot and I realized that making it a travel story would give it a certain variety, allow a change of protagonists and landscapes, and suggest the ending of the story — and perhaps not the worst ending imaginable. I tried to make the journey as dynamic as possible: it has rifles, chases, adventures, and desert. It’s a sort of Red Western.

I constructed the scenes and dialogues cinematically, showing the characters through their external actions: film-like stories are easier to read. This counterbalanced the terrible subject matter of the famine. There are chapters that are very difficult to read, which are based on documentary archives, but there are also chapters where you can smile or even laugh.
A novel without ethnicity
In a sense, A Special Train to Samarkand is a sort of Noah’s Ark. I don’t specify the protagonists’ ethnicity, because it has no significance. The novel is not about who speaks which language. It’s about the tragedy of an executioner who understands his culpability and in trying to atone for this, saves both himself and the children. It’s about the tragedy of a human being and his inner demons — and as we know, there’s no ethnicity when it comes to this.
Who is to blame?
Is my hero to blame? I don’t know, just as I don’t know how I would have acted if I’d lived then. The problem about the Soviet past is that there isn’t anyone you can confidently point a finger at and say, “That’s who’s to blame for what happened!”

We would like to thank AST Yelena Shubina, our partner and curator of the Words and Meanings track, for organizing the event.