Monday, March 15, 2021

Intertwining of Good and Evil in Soviet Times Informs New Yakhina Novel about the 1920s

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 13 – A major reason that people in Russia have shifted from condemning the Soviet past in the 1990s to having a more positive view of it now, Guzel Yakhina says, is that good and evil were so closely intertwined in many aspects of that period that many take the easy way out and focus on only one or the other.

            The author of the best-selling Zuleyka Opens Her Eyes and My Children says that her new novel, An Echelon to Samarkand, functions on many levels but that she hopes it will stimulate among people in the Russian Federation now a recognition of the duality of the Soviet past and thus make future discussions of it more balanced (

            The novel is based on a real event, the evacuation of orphaned children from the Middle Volga because of the famine to Central Asia. But both the children in the story and the leading character, a Bolshevik who earlier had killed their parents but is committed to saving these children, are invented, combining characteristics of many people described in the archives.

            The Bolshevik Deyev is himself “a cog” in the Soviet system. He kills for it, but he also is informed by its ideological message of treating all nations equally and protecting children. As such, Yakhina says, he reflects the way in which good and evil were intertwined in individuals and groups in Soviet times.

            Although as many as five million children died in the famine in the first years of Soviet power, the Tatar author continues, few want to talk about them or about this conflict of good and evil. The evil is so obvious that it is unpleasant to write or read about, but the good that was true of some is too important to be ignored.

            Yakhina has been criticized for her earlier novels which also focused on the 1920s and 1930s and reflected the tensions she is still exploring in the current one. This time around, she has been criticized as well for supposed plagiarism but suggests the charge is misplaced: she uses many of the same archival sources other writers have. 

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