Friday, August 16, 2019

New Russian Novel Detailing Nenets Revolt against the GULAG Attracting Attention

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 14 – There are now fewer than 50,000 Nentsy, a numerically small people of the Russian Far North; but they continue to attract attention because of their commitment to freedom and their willingness to rise up despite all odds against Russian occupation and Soviet oppression. 

            For more than four centuries, they have fought back against Russian efforts to suppress them by coming together in what they call “mandala” actions, a Nenets word which translated as “a group of armed people.” Led by their shamans, they often fought for decades at a time against Russian settlers (  

            Their resistance attracted attention as a result of Edward Topol’s 1986 émigré novel Red Snow about a Nenets revolt against the Soviets and because of suggestions by some Russian nationalists that the Nenets are conspiring with the West to overthrow the Russian state (

            But now the Nenets and their conflicts with the Soviet authorities have become the subject of a new Russian novel, I will Always Be With You by Aleksandr Yetoyev, one that has attracted enough readers and enough attention to be short-listed for the National Bestseller in Russia this year.

            The novel is set in 1943 and involves contacts between Nenets shamans who are organizing their people to resist Soviet occupation and officers of the German navy who have come by submarine to the coastline where the members of that small nation live, contacts that actually took place.

              In an interview with Andrey Filimonov of Radio Liberty’s SibReal portal, Yetoyev says  he was inspired to write the novel after reading the unpublished memoirs of a man who was there and decided to write it in the form of “a tragic grotesque” in order to capture the spirit of the GULAG (

            Yetoyev says that Tyumen historian Aleksandr Petrushin says that the 1943 Nenets mandala was in fact “inspired by NKVD officers” who wanted to make use of the rising in order to suppress it and win preferment from their superiors (немецкие-лодки-на-ямале-вымысел-или-пр/

            But the GULAG jailors would not have succeeded had it not been for the fact that “the Nentsy were really upset by many things,” Yetoyev says, and where prepared to fight even to the point of losing more than 80 percent of those who took part. “My heroes,” he says, “are the generation of the condemned … by the times themselves.”

            “Such complicated periods as war and repression are our entire history,” the novelist says. “It is necessary to write about these things so that people will not forget. I tried to do this in a grotesque manner. Why not? Remember the style of Andrey Platonov, laughter through horror and horror through laughter.”

            “I very much like such combinations in literature,” Yetoyev says. “I did not make the novel simply full of moaning and groaning as do many who write about this. I tried to introduce a certain element of humor as well. In my opinion, I achieved something.” His increasing number of readers appear to agree.

            The novel is clearly worth reading – Filimonov provides sizeable excerpts to suggest the nature of the text – but it is also important not only as a reminder of the brutality and stupidity of the Stalinist state and the heroism of those who resisted it but of the new ways these things can be discussed even as the Putin regime promotes an entirely positive image of Stalin’s regime.

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