by Danielle Ross, Associate Professor, Utah State University

Movie Night

“We should watch Zuleikha,” my husband said as we cleared the table after dinner. It was April 2020, about a month into the COVID lockdown, so going out for the evening was not an option and entertainment was limited to activities that could be done at home. Meanwhile, news of a new film about Tatars circulated through social media, first in advertisements and then in heated reactions by Tatars who had watched it. And so, my husband and I joined the other nine million viewers who tuned into the premier of channel Rossiia-1’s eight-part miniseries, “Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” (Zuleikha otkrivaet glaza) on YouTube.

The series received critical praise in the Russian press. Tatar commentators were enraged over everything Zuleikha had gotten wrong about Tatar language, culture, and history. To me, as an historian, the series seemed so bizarre that I sought out the novel on which it was based. Clearly, I thought, something had been lost in translation from page to film.

And that was how I ended up reading Guzel’ Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes.

An International Sensation

In 2015, Guzel’ Yakhina, then employed in public relations and marketing in Moscow, published the Russian-language novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes with Moscow’s AST Publishers. Zuleikha tells the story of a Tatar woman arrested as a kulak and deported to Siberia in the 1930s. The 2020 mini-series launched the novel to international fame and, to date, Zuleikha has been translated into over twenty languages.

The international visibility of Zuleikha is especially significant given that Yakhina is a Volga Tatar. A Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group of about seven million, Volga Tatars make up the Russian Federation’s largest Muslim minority, but they are relatively unknown beyond the post-Soviet states. Although the Volga Tatars possess a rich literary heritage and a vibrant contemporary literary sphere, Tatar-language novels, plays, and films are available only sporadically in Russian translation and barely at all in western European languages. For many readers outside the Tatar community, Zuleikha represents their first and only exposure to Tatar culture and history. As such, the novel has elevated Yakhina to the status of an informal ambassador of Tatar culture to the world.

Zuleikha is not unique in this way. There have been many examples of Western critics and readers crowning non-European authors the “voice of their people” on the basis that their books are available into European languages and distributed through major international presses. The problems of this phenomenon— how European and American intellectuals designate themselves the arbitrators of world literature, how capitalism and chauvinism limit ethnic minorities’ access to mainstream publishing, and how indigenous literary canons are erased or silenced—have been discussed at length by scholars of postcolonial literatures. What is specific to Zuleikha’s case is the novel’s relationship to discourses on the past and present position of Muslim minorities in Russia. The novel’s title suggests that Yakhina intends to contribute a new entry to the long list of literary portrayals of Tatars’ struggles to maintain, redefine, or reconnect with their culture and faith. However, it becomes clear that Yakhina has written a very different kind of work. The disconnect between what the title of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes promises and what it delivers become especially evident in the novel’s portrayal of Tatar Islam.

Islam in Zuleikha

Yakhina,by choosing to name her Tatar heroine Zuleikha, positions her novel in relation to other Volga-Ural Muslim and Tatar literary works about being Muslim in a non-Muslim society. The best-known of these works is Qūl ʿAli’s Yūsuf kitābı (The Book of Joseph), a medieval Turkic-language poetic retelling of the story of the prophet Joseph and his master’s wife, Zuleikha. Another prominent work that makes use of this motif is Gayaz Iskhaqi’s play Zuleikha (1918; adapted to film in 2007) about a Muslim Tatar woman accused by the Russian state of being an apostate from Christianity and torn from her family and community. While the specifics of Zuleikha’s character vary from one Tatar work to the next, the Zuleikha persona usually embodies spiritual transcendence through suffering. The cause of her suffering is, in some way, her relationship to Islam, and resolution of her story comes about through her conversion to or remaining within the faith. In the pre-Soviet period, Tatar women found the persona of Zuleikha, a woman who found redemption in Islam, to be empowering, and The Book of Joseph was commonly read as a didactic and inspirational work. Iskhaqi’s Zuleikha employed this cultural knowledge to call attention to the state-sanctioned hostility directed at Tatars in late imperial Russia as they tried to preserve their culture and faith.

In interviews, Yakhina has named The Book of Joseph as an inspiration for Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes. However, her use of the Zuleikha persona departs radically from its literary roots. At the beginning ofthe novel, the thirty-year-old Zuleikha leads a bleak existence in a village near Kazan in 1930. Forbidden to leave the house, she spends her days doing chores and taking care of others. Her only companions are her husband, Murtaza, a man twice her age who beats her, and her mother-in-law, nicknamed the Vampiress, who verbally abuses Zuleikha and torments her for failing to bear Murtaza healthy children. Zuleikha leads a life of ignorance and misery, but she is not fully aware of how awful her situation is because she never interacts with anyone outside the house and therefore has nothing with which to compare it. Yakhina draws direct connections between Islam and Zuleikha’s state of ignorance, isolation, and dependence. Zuleikha recalls how the women in her village did not attend Friday prayer but waited at home for their husbands to inform them of the mullah’s weekly teachings. Whenever male guests visit her husband, she hides from their view in the women’s side of the house.

Zuleikha’s spiritual world is populated with numerous spirits who must be propitiated through prayers, rituals, and gifts of food. Above these spirits stands Allah, who holds Zuleikha’s fate in his hand. For Zuleikha, Islam is a source of fear and despair rather than hope. She dreads the malevolent spirits that she believes lurk in the deep woods. Her mother-in-law threatens that fiery angels will come and drag Zuleikha to hell. At one point in the novel, when Zuleikha is drowning, she recites the Sura al-Fatiha as she sinks into the water.

God does not save Zuleikha from her tribulations; Soviet power does. Early in the novel, Zuleikha hears the Russian-language song of the brigade that has been sent to arrest the kulaks in her village. She understands the lyrics to promise “freedom and salvation.” This promise is soon fulfilled. The GPU officer Ignatov, the leader of this brigade, kills Zuleikha’s husband and arrests and deports Zuleikha. Zuleikha is at first frightened by her sudden changes of circumstances, but Soviet power repeatedly becomes a source of salvation for her. Ignatov saves her multiple times during her deportation by defending her during an interrogation, pulling her from river after their barge sinks, and hunting to feed her and the other deportees through their first winter in exile. Through her romantic relationship with Ignatov, she learns that women can experience desire and enjoy sex without shame. As Zuleikha adjusts to her new life in the special settlement of Semruk on the banks of the Angara River, all references to God disappear from her speech and the woods are no longer populated by spirits. She realizes that “…it was good that fate had cast her here. She resided in a closet in the infirmary, lived among people not of her own blood, spoke in a language that was not her native tongue, hunted like a man, did as much work as three people, and it was good for her.” Deportation liberates Zuleikha and enables her to become someone she never could have been had she remained in her native community.

Deportation gives Zuleikha access to resources that were lacking in Tatar society: this is Yakhina’s message! In her village, she lost four children in infancy. By contrast, when she discovers during her deportation that she is pregnant, the German doctor Leibe takes care of her, delivers her son, Yuzuf, and treats Yuzuf’s medical conditions so that he survives to adulthood. The elderly Leningrad intellectuals, Konstantin Arnoldivich and Izabella, befriend Zuleikha and teach Yuzuf to speak French. The Leningrad artist Ikonnikov trains Yuzuf in painting. For Yuzuf, also, Muslim Tatar identity is an obstacle. Yuzuf longs to study art in Leningrad, but his status as Murtaza’s son makes this dream impossible. Ignatov again comes to the rescue, issuing Yuzuf paperwork in which he is no longer Yuzuf Valiev the Tatar kulak’s son, but Yosif Ignatov, the son of an ethnic Russian Red Army veteran.

What Zuleikha Tells Us about Russia and Russian Studies

Yakhina has tried repeatedly to situate Zuleikha outside contemporary discourses on Islam, Tatar nation, and the legacy of the Soviet Union. When confronted with accusations of being pro-Soviet, anti-Soviet, anti-Muslim, or anti-Tatar, Yakhina has stated that she is uninterested in politics and that her novel is meant only to be the story of individuals living through difficult times. She points to her grandmother’s experience of being deported (as a young child) as a major influence for the novel. However, Zuleikha’s “individual” experiences are a patchwork of Soviet and post-Soviet tropes and clichés, including:

1. The Soviet government as a savior of women oppressed by the traditions of pre-Soviet society.

2. The Russian "elder brother" guiding his non-Russian "younger brother" to communism and civilization.

3. The blaming of the failures of Soviet policies on corrupt individuals rather than the government or the system.

4. The ideal of the post-national Soviet Man.

To these Stalinist tropes are added the more recent third-wave feminist ideal of women finding empowerment only through employment outside the home and sexual liberation. These tropes have made Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes popular with non-Tatar readers. Zuleikha does not reveal Tatar Islam to non-Tatar audiences so much as it tells those audiences what they think they already know: that Islam is a barrier to modernity and gender equality, that European (and Russian) high culture is superior in its ability to enlighten and uplift, even in the worst of circumstances, and that people of any race or faith can thrive in Western (and Russian) societies, so long as they are willing to work hard and leave their backward customs behind. By framing Zuleikha’s and Yuzuf’s experience of Stalinism as liberation from Islam, Yakhina pathologizes both non-Russian identity and Islam. And in doing so, she absolves her Russian readers of any concerns over the contemporary policies and attitudes that undermine non-Russian national languages, marginalize Central Asian and Caucasian migrants, or stigmatize Islam as a threat to Russian culture and national security. In the world of Zuleikha, such policies and attitudes are fully justified given the presumed dysfunctionality of Islam and Muslims’ pernicious, archaic cultural practices.

Western scholars’ and publishers’ embrace of Zuleikha has revealed what little impact thirty years of scholarship on Russian and Soviet Islam, colonialism, and orientalism have had within the larger field of Russian studies. The latest exemplar has been Janet M. Hartley’s The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River (Yale University Press, 2021), which cites Zuleikha as an historical source on the Tatar experience of Soviet rule in the 1920s-1930s. One hopes that Russianists would recognize Stalinist and orientalist tropes when they see them, or that they would do some research before championing a non-Russian literary work, so as to understand its place in the ethnic community and the scholarly field. A glance at Tatar writers’ contributions to Russian-language online periodicals would have revealed that Zuleikha does not reflect the current state of Tatar literature and that Yakhina has no connection to Tatar academic and artistic circles. By praising and citing Zuleikha outside Russia, Western scholars silence dozens of Tatar historians, artists, and activists who have dedicated their careers to recovering and representing their community’s history. They also perpetuate the orientalist and Soviet interpretations of Islam that their colleagues in Central Asian, Caucasus, and Volga-Ural studies have been fighting for decades.