Exiled to Siberia: A First Novel Revisits Stalin’s Great Purge

Exiled to Siberia: A First Novel Revisits Stalin’s Great Purge

As Zuleikha sets out on her odyssey, the novel’s point of view temporarily switches to that of Ignatov, the soldier who killed Murtaza and who finds himself in charge of a ragtag band of dispossessed farmers, now homeless refugees. Ignatov is a fervent Communist, a committed ideologue, but already we sense that his compassion and moral scruples will set him at odds with the harsh demands of official policy. Meanwhile, another major character has joined the ranks of the displaced, a formerly brilliant surgeon, Prof. Volf Karlovich Leibe. Despite a case of dementia so severe that he was unaware he was living in a communal apartment, he has been designated by the government as a German spy.


When Zuleikha shares a crust of bread with the elderly professor, they become “conversation partners, if peculiar ones. In moments when his flickering consciousness flashes, he will occasionally speak, throwing in unconnected medical terms, recalling and clarifying diagnoses of former patients, and asking professional questions that demand no answers. She will listen gratefully, not understanding even the slightest bit of this blend of arcane Russian and Latin words but feeling an important meaning concealed behind them and rejoicing at her interaction with such a learned man.”

Their friendship will prove sustaining as the journey becomes more harrowing. First they are billeted in a deconsecrated mosque, then a grim transit prison, before being packed onto overcrowded cattle cars headed for Siberia — a trip that will prove fatal for many of the passengers. “They bury the dead along the tracks in one common pit. They dig it themselves using wooden shovels, with the escort guards’ rifles aimed at them. Sometimes they don’t have enough time to finish digging graves or cover the corpses properly with crushed stone before the order ‘To the trains!’ booms.”

After a terrifying accident, a small group of stranded survivors (among them a scholar, an artist and a corrupt prison guard) establish a camp of their own along the banks of Angara River in the Siberian forest. Ignatov remains their resourceful leader, while Professor Leibe — miraculously restored to intermittent sanity — serves as the community doctor. Unlike the monstrously abusive penal colony so powerfully portrayed in Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales,” and despite the unforgiving climate, their settlement shows signs of growing into the equivalent of a functioning collective farm. Forced to contend with new hardships and demands, Zuleikha might finally be able to act for herself, realizing the potential that had been stifled in the bleak household ruled by her husband and mother-in-law and discovering hidden reserves of physical and moral strength.

Winner of both the Yasnaya Polyana Book Award and Russia’s Big Book Prize, and a finalist for the Russian Booker Prize, “Zuleikha” does such an admirable job of dramatizing a historical period rapidly receding into the forgotten past that one can’t help wishing it were a slightly better book. Lisa C. Hayden’s valiant translation does little to disguise the passages — such as this description of an overcrowded barracks — that seem sketchy and generic: “Two tiers of bunks are crowded with people. Others sit on crates, on heaps of old clothes and on the floor. There are so many people that there’s nowhere to move to. There’s the sound of loud scratching, of snoring and low voices.”

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