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Guzel Yakhina: History is of primary value for me

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Guzel Yakhina: History is of primary value for me


Vladimir Emelianenko

Guzel Yakhina. Photo credit:

Guzel Yakhina has gained international fame and appreciation with Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes and The Children of Mine, her two books translated into 31 languages, as well as with the Big Book literary prize and Book of the Year award. The writer told Russkiy Mir about the choice between screenwriting and literature, her attitude to criticism and scandals, as well as her understanding of the historical novel in general.

Have you heard of being compared to J.K. Rowling? She also could not publish the Harry Potter series for a long time, and you spent a lot of time going to editorial offices with Zuleikha.

I do not really know if the comparison to J.K. Rowling is a compliment, but thanks.

At first, they didn't want to publish your work. Nevertheless, you continued to believe in the successful debut of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes?

That's a given. There was a risk due to the topic being unpopular and delicate. It tells about dekulakization of a Tatarian village in the 1930s, about ethnic issues, and, finally, about life in a labor camp, as typified in the GULAG later. All the minefields for publishers were in one place. But the best of all possible things happened to my book. Lyudmila Ulitskaya, a renowned Russian writer, read the novel and wrote an introductory note to it. So I got the green light.

Once you defined your literary style as magical realism or history as viewed through the myth. Could it be another reason for you to be compared to Rowling?

Even so, any comparisons are conditional. When I was a child and read fairy tales, and later, as a student, I loved to conjecture magic stories. And finally, while writing, I realized that I love to find the living history of human destinies in mythology. Perhaps, this is the magic of J.K. Rowling, but when it comes to oeuvre, I feel closer to the magic realism of Mikhail Bulgakov or Gogol.

One of the key arguments of your critics is that the work lacks Tatarian spirit. The author does not understand or perceive Tatarian life, traditions, or Tatarian identity as such...

My Tatar is poor - I have lived in Moscow for more than twenty years and forgotten some of my native language. I can still understand, but speaking requires efforts. I think and write in Russian, but I am a Tatar, that I am. And the criticism was, is and will still be there. This is normal.

I cannot say that I have no issues with it. Of course, it is not so. For example, I was concerned for being criticized in my native Tatarstan for “denigrating a Tatar woman” and for a bomb planted under the national consciousness. How could this be? One of Zuleikha’s prototypes was my beloved grandmother Raisa Shakirovna. She was from the village of Zyuri in the Sabinsky region of Tatarstan. My grandmother was seven years old when her parents were de-kulakized and the whole family was exiled to the Angara. They were debarked on an empty bank in remote taiga. At first, they lived in dugouts, and then they rebuilt houses, worked at the Ayakhta gold ore plant.

What stories told by your grandmother did you include in Zuleikha?

I remember the story of how a barge with settlers sank before her eyes. She and her parents were on the second barge... I also remember that my grandmother as a child together with other children washed gold on the Angara. Having washed a few grains, she carried them to hand over. She had to keep up with the plan. And that every morning she ran to school through a dense forest being terribly afraid of wolves. My grandmother had bad shoes, so from time to time she took off her hat, warmed her feet, put on her hat again and ran on... There are a lot of such stories.

Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, a movie still. Photo credit:

Another argument of your critics is that Russian is unable to convey the full depth of Tatarian identity. What response will you give them?

I feel rather comfortable when they call me a Russian Tatar or a Russian writer of Tatar origin. What makes me confused in this definition is the second part only - the writer. I still feel like an emerging author. And it's not about the success of one or two books, but about the view of life. Mine is clear - I am not ashamed of any of my texts. Both Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes and The Children of Mine are very different, including linguistic and stylistic terms...

Zuleikha is mostly about the fact that even misfortune may have a seed of future happiness. The Children of Mine is a novel about a silent generation of Germans who have a lot to say but leave for Germany.

Does the fact that the Russian Germans invited you to dictate Tolles Diktat-2020 for nine countries mean that they appreciated your novel?

After all, I am a philologist, a teacher of German. And I would not mind writing a dictation in German and refreshing the language at the same time. However, I was assigned the role of a reader, and I did my best. I grew up in Kazan, so multinationality is the norm for me. Thus, there is a combination of Russian, Tatar and German characters in Zuleikha. As to The Children of Mine, it is a rather mono-ethnic environment: the Germans in the Volga region lived in an enclave, so I put a lot of nationalities into one street child Vaska.

The Children of Mine, the books title, were the words by Catherine the Great addressed to the Germans who had moved to Russia from Germany when they chose the Volga region to settle. The German translation of The Children of Mine for Germany has been published as a trial run; the main run is being prepared.

So far, there are reviews from Russian Germans only. One review was received from a former Russian German living in Germany. The themes of Zuleikha and The Children of Mine are intertwined in his fate. He grew up in Engels, survived the deportation, ended up in a settlement, and did agitation in a club. Then he immigrated to Germany and became an artist there. He sends me greetings.

You graduated from the Moscow Film School, but you write books. Have you found your place between cinema and literature?

I wanted to become a screenwriter or director since childhood. But only after graduating from the Moscow Film School and working on my projects for several years, I was finally able to articulate the difference between literature and screenwriting. It is about the degree of freedom. A screenwriter depends on the opinions of many persons, such as directors, producers, and actors, as well as production requirements and rigid rules of the filming industry. There are no such restrictions in the literature.

Why did you choose historical novels for writing?

I am still not very good at writing about todays world. There is Schweipolt, a story published in the Esquire literary issue in Russian and as a separate booklet in German. By the way, I also planned a contemporary storyline in Zuleikha. It was about Zuleikhas great-granddaughter, me in some sense, who investigates her grandmothers fate through archival documents. I wrote those chapters, but they turned out to be kind of artificial and did not go well with the historical material. So I cut out that whole part.

I understood that history is of primary value for me. I mean both the history as the past of the country and the story which the text is based on. This is not only about a storyline or, speaking the script language, a story arc. It is also about the character, the characters context and language. The main thing is the interaction of those history and story, the interaction of big and small, national and personal, mythology and reality. After all, many lines described in Zuleikha or The Children of Mine continue today. Another reason behind my interest in history is the unspoken trauma of the last century.

Will your next book also be a historical novel?

There is a historical plot. It is about my home grounds. Ill hold back the further details for now.


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