Born in a Tatar village near Orenburg, Dzhalil early on showed a gift for poetry, He studied at the Orenburg medrassah which after the revolution was renamed the Tatar Institute of Public Education and then moved on to Moscow State University where his roommate was Varlam Shalamov, one of the most important chroniclers of Stalin’s crimes.
The Russian author of Kolyma Tales later recalled their time together: “Musa was not yet Dzhalil but internally he was prepared for that role. Poets often predict their own fate and try to guess the future, at least that’s true for Russians: Both Pushkin and Lermontov talked about their deaths long before they died.” Shalamov identified Dzhalil as one of his heroes.
Captured by the Germans in the early years of World War II, Dzhalil continued the fight for freedom along with ten other Tatars who sought to turn other Tatars from cooperating with the Nazis against Stalin. That is why he was executed; but the Tatar poet was too consistent a fighter against tyranny for the Stalinists.
After the war, the Soviet state security ministry opened a case against Dzhalil, accusing him of treason and cooperation with the Nazis via the Idel-Ural legion. “But the Wehrmacht did not trust the Idel-Ural fighters,” Aysin points out. And in fact they had good reason because that group was not fighting for the Nazis but for the peoples of the Middle Volga.
From 1946 to 1953, Dzhalil’s name was included on the Soviet list of “especially dangerous criminals. Totalitarianism was in this sense a machine which rejected any effort at free heroism. The experience of heroes even ‘there’ was dangerous … [Stalin] preferred his own torture places into which were thrown not a few worthy people.”
After Stalin’s death, several copies of Dzhalil’s remarkable poetry collection The Moabite Notebook surfaced and his role began to be appreciated. Russian writer Konstantin Simonov took up his cause; but as a result, Dzhalil in death was coopted by the system he opposed when he was posthumously declared a hero of the Soviet Union.
In one sense, of course, he was that, Aysin says; but he was more than that. And his memory poses a challenge to Tatars to this day: “Who is Musa Dzhalil for you? A great poet, a Tatar national hero, a Soviet literary figure of the first half of the 20th century, or [more simply] a man with a very controversial biography?”