There’s a Problem with Zuleikha

A new primetime TV drama about Russia's Tatars under Stalinism, 'Zuleikha Opens her Eyes,' has divided audiences and the Tatar community itself.

Based on a successful first novel published in 2015 by Tatar writer Guzel Yakhina, the series Zuleikha Opens her Eyes, which recently aired on Russian federal channel Russia-1, tells the story of a Tatar woman who is deported as part of ‘dekulakisation’ the Soviet drive to collectivise agriculture in the 1930’s. Presented as a story of emancipation (for Zuleikha opens her eyes!), the story has met fierce opposition among nostalgics for the Russian Stalinist past, but also among Tatars. 

A much loved Russian cat meme showing four cats trying to wake their owner has struck again. One cat says: “Zuleikha, open your eyes”, another says: “Tatars are pissed”, and another: “Stalinists are also pissed.” The fourth cat concludes: “To be fair, everyone is pissed.” And that’s possibly a good summary of the reaction to the series which recently aired on Russia-1 in prime time, to good ratings. 

Some of us got excited that Russian TV was finally showing a series about dekulakisation (the repressions affecting kulaks, that is to say relatively wealthy peasants), and about Tatars. We decided to watch. The series, like the book, opens in a small Tatar village in 1930. Zuleikha lives in a loveless marriage where she slaves for her husband and her mother in law, who hates her. It’s cold. Everything is grim. The four daughters that she gave birth to all die at an early age. Zuleikha almost never speaks. She is a Muslim but prays to forest spirits. She is raped by her husband in the first episode. He is then killed for trying to hide grain, and she is deported, first detained in Kazan, then sent along members of the Leningrad intelligentsia on a cattle train to Siberia. Eventually (spoiler!), Zuleikha will give birth to a son, Yuzuf, and fall in love with Ivan Ignatov, the NKVD officer who killed her husband, oversaw her deportation and heads a camp set up by deportees on a remote spot by the Angara river in Siberia. The aesthetic of the whole series is consistent with that of many contemporary Russian productions about the Second World War – very sepia, abusing slow-mo and romantic music in climatic moments. At the end (spoiler!), Ignatov is demoted for being too honest. He makes a fake passport for Yuzuf, giving him his Russian last name, so that Zuleikha’s son can leave to get an education and fulfill his dreams. 

Was the intensity of the public reaction just corona cabin fever, like Yakhina herself suggested? The writer herself has said that while she hadn’t authored the script, she was mostly happy with the adaptation. On 15 April, the Communist party of the Communists of Russia, a small party of Stalin-sympathisers which was once at the fringe of the CPRF, announced they would write to Russia-1 a letter that read: “Any libel to the Soviet past spits in the face of our entire Russian people. These people [who made the series], being anti-Soviet, are trying to drag in any facts that allow them to tarnish the Soviet past.” Chulpan Khamatova, a well-known ethnic Tatar actress who plays Zuleikha, said she had received a torrent of online abuse for “defiling the memory of [her] motherland. Meaning not only Tatarstan, but the history of modern Russia.” And Zuleikha’s producer, Irina Smirnova, told RBC: “We perfectly understood that the Communists and fundamentalists in Tatarstan would be indignant, as well as a lot of people who deny the very fact of dekulakisation.”

We got interested in reactions from Tatars, emanating not from “fundamentalists” but from academics, feminists, people who really didn’t seem to have a conservative agenda. Speaking on the phone from Kazan, Tatar historian Alfrid Bustanov, who specialises in the history of Islam in Soviet times, said it’s hard to criticise the book, as fiction doesn’t necesarily aim for historical accuracy, and also because there had been a variety of trajectories among Tatar deportees. He told us: “Initially, I thought, I’m not going to take part in the crazy discussion about the book, the opinions are too radical on both sides. But when I saw some scenes of the series I realised it’s become part of an ideological stream, as it appeared on federal TV, and I ended up writing a piece about it. My main point is: one can disregard both the book and the show, because of their colonial representation of Tatars in Russia. And the danger is as follows: if we don’t invest resources and energies in the [depiction of] the many faces of Muslim culture in Russia, everybody will judge it by reading Zuleikha.” 

Yet, many were happy that the book had been written and the series aired at all. This might be a sign there is renewed interest in the legacy of Stalinist repressions in Russia, as the wide success of Youtube star Yuri Dud’s very long film about Kolyma (which currently ranks at more than 20 million views) might have shown. 

Historian Irina Shcherbakova, one of the founding members of Memorial, an organisation partly dedicated to recording and publicising the memory of political repressions in the Soviet Union, responded to some of Yakhina’s queries as she was writing the novel. She’s much fonder of the book than of the series. Speaking on the phone from Moscow, she said: “One should distinguish [the two]. The book has been a bestseller for some years now. A lot of people have read it. And of course, aside from some weak parts and some creative licence, it has some very strong moments – Guzel is undoubtedly a talented writer, and the beginning, set in a Tatar village, is written as few people could.”

In Tatarstan, some are just really happy that there’s finally a Russian series about Tatars, one that feels more relevant to Russia’s recent past than The Golden Horde series, aired two years ago. Bulat Mukhamedjanov, who works for a human rights organisation, watched some of it with his wife while self-isolating in Kazan. “Tatars are Russia’s second larger ethnicity after Russians so it’s super important that this series was shown, and that it was shown on Russia-1 in prime time. That it was about collectivisation and dekulakisation and showed the suffering taking place along the deportation journey, with children dying and half the people in a carriage dying, is also important. It sheds a light on what happened in the 1930’s. It reminds people these are not times we want to return to.” Mukhamedjanov was unfussed about the fact the adaptation to screen had involved some changes, such as a greater emphasis on the romance, which he thought were aimed at making the story interesting to a wider audience. He doesn’t like most historical Russian films made today – “It’s as if life had been sucked out of them” – and says that most people under 40 don’t watch TV anyway. But he was disappointed there had only been one Tatar word uttered in the whole series – “ulym” (son). “Even if Khamatova doesn’t speak Tatar, she could have learnt a few sentences, she’s a good actress. She’d have done it if it was English”. 

Among Tatars, some objected to the very trajectory described in the novel – and reproduced in the series – that of a feminine emancipation, and to the love story central to the plot. Nuria Fatykhova, a Tatar and the founder of a feminist organisation based in Moscow, strongly objected to the book. In a Facebook post which became viral (and led to her being commissioned a review of the series for Colta), she wrote that her two Tatar grandmothers had been dekulakised and absolutely never forgave those responsible. Speaking on the phone from Moscow, Fatykhova explained that the love story depicted, between a repressed Tatar woman and an NKVD officer, was unthinkable for her. “When we watch a film about the Second World War and the Holocaust, like The Night Porter for instance, and there’s a love story between a prisoner and a guard, they call criminals criminals and victims victims. [This love story] legitimises what is a literary fantasy. For me its theme is not legitimate because in Russia they never said who had been a criminal and who had been a victim. The authorities never apologised to the peoples of Russia, including Tatar women. And this love story is presented without any thought given to trauma”, she said. 

In fact, while watching the series (and reading the book) one feels uneasy at a sudden shift: initially, the relationship between NKVD officer Ignatov and Tatar deportee Zuleikha is one of power. He controls her and calls her stupid. She is scared of him. Suddenly, and without much of an explanation, the power unbalance turns to “love” – materialised by harrowing soapy love scenes in the series. Something feels not right. Love and violence are undistinguishable. 

As readers, we found the book interesting because of its shortcomings, and quite puzzling. It has a darker streak, and takes a particular interest in the struggle of childbirth. In interviews, Yakhina seems sincere. She has been living in Moscow for a long time but says she loves Tatarstan and is very attached to her Tatar roots. She wrote the story as a tribute to her grandmother, who had been dekulakised and deported to Siberia. Yet, some of the story seems to involuntarily betray a very problematic mindset. 

Bustanov is eager to point out that “the book makes a wrong impression of illiteracy among Tatar women. In the 19th and 20th century madrasas for women had been established. Some women would inherit whole libraries. The level of education of Tatar women could be higher than the level of education of Russian women living nearby. Writing poetry and engaging in private correspondence was a norm for a Tatar women in the 19th century.” And when discussing the book, Fatykhova said: “How is Tatar culture represented? It’s just cold, dirt and violence.”

Yakhina has benefitted from a relative gap. Tatar historian Marat Safarov said: “It seems to me that, unfortunately, there were no major Tatar writers in Soviet times, no Chingiz Aitmatov nor Nodar Dumbadze, who respectively created Kyrgyz and Georgian universes, imperfect but very charming. It’s as if a Russian reader’s first acquaintance with the Tatar world is to happen with this book, hence the reaction.” He thinks the novel, which he liked, triggers Tatars’ fear of assimilation and their defensiveness when seeing their culture not portrayed in a benevolent way. Today Yakhina, who writes in Russian, has probably become the best known Tatar writer. Yet the lack of successful Tatar stories means that her novel is put under intense scrutiny and asked to represent what hasn’t been sufficiently represented before. It doesn’t do a very good job at it. 

For a book which was marketed as a Tatar story, it is indeed surprisingly empty of Tatar elements. “The problem of the book is one of authenticity”, Bustanov says. “For anyone who is familiar with Tatar history and literature, most of the literary cliches and images are completely alien. They obviously stem from Russian literature. This book was intentionally written for the market, making the Tatar milieu rural, backward. The story is a classic one, the transformation of a subaltern who integrates into a world. She is oppressed, at the start. This is all too familiar literature. The setting that supposedly tells us where [Zuleikha] comes from is complete fantasy – that’s something that historians and literary scholars say. It’s a misrepresentation of religious culture. She goes into the forest to pray to the spirits. It makes the picture all too easy. Then we don’t need to learn anything about non Russian Muslims. This is orientalism. We are all sick of [Edward] Said but the truth is that this is pretty much orientalism and the success of the novel tells us that orientalism is very much with us.” 

In fact, the main character’s transformation sees her no longer praying, having her headscarf slide off and then disappear, forgetting the old ways. One cannot help to notice that her supposed emancipation comes with an erasure of her Tatar identity. 

“What kind of emancipation is that? You mean she learnt to shoot?” Fatykhova asks. “Remember that at the end of the novel she is still imprisoned. It’s her son who gets away. The man, Ignatov, freeds him, so that he can study in Leningrad, of course. [Zuleikha] remains a detainee. This is a classical colonial anti-feminist novel that tells the story of an oriental woman undergoing Soviet emancipation.”

In a context marked by increased tension between Moscow and Kazan, which culminated on a conflict on the teaching of the Tatar language in schools in Tatarstan – in 2017 Russian lawmakers decided daily compulsory Tatar classes would be replaced by non mandatory classes limited to two hours a week – both Bustanov and Fatykhova were left completely aghast at the fact the series used names of historical Russian muftis and prominent muftis still alive to this day to name political prisoners. She says: “It’s a bit like watching James Bond and seeing that when needing to come up with a name for a Russian they use Pushkin or Gogol. It’s the same old ignorance. It’s again, this colonial perspective. Why would you do that? It could be seen as insulting. It’s as if they didn’t think.” 

At a deeper level, Fatykhova believes that the series was made and aired to convey the sinister message that everything that happened was necessary, and that the repressed were heroes who built a great empire. In the novel (and the series), Zuleikha shares a carriage with repressed members of the intelligentsia from Leningrad, who will become her friends and give an education to her son. Fatykhova thinks this was unlikely to happen in real life. Judging from her grandmothers’ experience, the two groups had very different statuses. She also objects to the fact that Ignatov, the NKVD officer who oversees the deportation of the group, is depicted as, essentially, “a character who doesn’t get everything right but is good”. For her, “[the airing of the series] is a sign that the authorities want us to make peace, say that all of us Russians, whether ethnically Russians or not, we are at the same time the descendants of victims and executioners. So enough, calm down now! Together, victims and executioners built a great country!”, she says. And indeed, it feels that the repressions are shown so that they can be forgiven. The summary of the series used by the channel ends with this sentence: “In difficult circumstances, Zuleikha will have to face many trials to become a woman who can truly love and forgive.” 

For both, what is left is pain and frustration that Tatar history, which should have been part of Russia’s history, has been erased. Bustanov says: “From my experience of collecting interviews from relatives of those repressed I can see there is much hidden pain. There is no space where you can articulate these feelings.” 

And Fatykhova says: “Almost all of these grandmothers have died. [The story of repressions] is memorable to us. Because of these repressions I can’t establish the story of my family. I don’t know anything about the history of my family during the 19th century. The Soviet authorities destroyed everything, all the archives. No one ever apologised for this. And now when they shoot this film, not about Stockholm syndrome but about a tender love story, it’s like they’re dancing on the graves of my grandmothers. And it hurts.”

After Fatykhova published an article where she mentioned the diary of one of her grandmothers (these diaries written in Tatar in arabic script are hard to decipher), Bustanov told us he planned to get in touch with her, as he might be able to help. It’d be great if a mediocre book and a bad series could lead to more historical research into Tatar history, and hopefully, better fiction too. 

About the Author

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a writer based in London. She has contributed to the LRB, The New Statesman and L’Obs.

Vera Shcherbina is a writer from Russia currently based in Edinburgh. Her maternal grandmother was a Tatar.