Monday, April 27, 2020

Criticism of TV Serial ‘Zuleyka Opens Her Eyes’ Highlights a Much Bigger Problem

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 25 – The just-concluded eight-part Moscow television series based on Guzel Yakhina’s novel Zuleyka Opens Her Eyes (in English: Zuleika (London, 2019)) has sparked enormous controversy with criticism coming from Tatars, Muslims, Russian rights activists, and communists and ranging from demands that it be corrected to it be banned outright.

            The novel which tells the story of a young Tatar woman who is de-kulakized and sent to Siberia and then has an affair with a Russian guard reflects the complexities of a time when people often had few good choices and thus made compromises which current generations have not been forced to make and often don’t forgive.

            For many in Russia and not just there, the past must conform to their ideas of what is right and wrong and the only people worthy of being remembered and respected are those who choose martyrdom rather than finding a way to live in what were often inhuman and even barbaric conditions.

            Moreover, the critics of this television serial want the world simplified in another way: they do not want to accept that the world is more complicated than their vision of it. Tatars have retained many pre-Islamic traditions, and they remain Tatars even if they have been forced by circumstances to speak Russian or intermarry with Russians.

            Demanding that every work of art, be it a film, a television program or a novel, conform to their understandings is tragically a mirror-image of the Procrustean bed that Soviet ideologists imposed when they were in control.  Life is more complicated than the Soviets imagined or than those who do what they did for different purposes think now.

            That is not to say there aren’t shortcomings in the film. As its director has acknowledged, the list of Muslim leaders exiled was inaccurate. But the very complexity of life that Yakhina showed in the novel and that remains in TV film is the message and the best way to remember and condemn what was done to Zuleyka, Tatars, Muslims, and peasants in Soviet times. 

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