These people had many names, each one stranger and more incomprehensible than the last: the Grain Monopoly, HarvAssessment, the Requisition, HarvTax, the Bolsheviks, HarvTroops, the Red Army, Soviet Power, provincial Chekists, the Komsomol, the GPU, Communists, Representatives Plenipotentiary…

These long Russian words came difficult to Zuleykha, and she did not understand their meaning completely, so she called all these people the Red Horde. Her father had told her many stories about the Golden Horde, whose cruel, narrow-eyed emissaries collected tribute from the people of those parts for several centuries and brought it back to their ruthless leader, Genghis Khan, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The Red Horde also collected tribute. But to whom they brought it, Zuleykha did not know.

Zuleykha Opens Her Eyes, Guzel Yakhina

Yakhina just won the Big Book and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker prize for her debut novel. About a quarter of the way in, I can see why. The book starts off quiet, slow, pastoral, in a village outside Kazan. The harsh realities of post-revolutionary Tatarstan begin to creep in early, with references to the Great Famine of the early 20s, but they are distant enough that it’s almost possible to forget the book is set in the Soviet era. With the two paragraphs above, the novel shifts gears and the Red Horde comes riding in.

I have only the vaguest sense where the book will go from here — mainly from reviews and Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s short introduction, which boldly frames the book as “women’s literature,” noting Zuleykha’s background of “the work camp, a hellish reserve invented by one of the greatest villains humanity has ever known.”  I do know that I am hooked and eager to spend the holidays finding my way to the end.

Original text:

У этих лиц было много имен, одно другого непонятнее и страшнее: хлебная монополия, продразверстка, реквизиция, продналог, большевики, продотряды, Красная армия, советская власть, губЧК, комсомольцы, ГПУ, коммунисты, уполномоченные…

Зулейхе сложно давались длинные русские слова, значения которых она не понимала, поэтому называла всех этих людей про себя — красноордынцами. Отец много рассказывал ей про Золотую Орду, чьи жестокие узкоглазые эмиссары несколько столетий собирали дань в этих краях и отвозили своему беспощадному предводителю — Чингисхану, его детям, внукам и правнукам. Красноордынцы тоже собирали дань. А кому отвозили — Зулейха не знала.

«Зулейха открывает глаза», Гузель Яхина