Out of those conversations, was born "Zuleikha," Yakhina's widely acclaimed debut novel that tells the story of love and friendship on the brink of death in Josef Stalin's camps. The novel became a national best seller, received two prestigious literary awards in Russia, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. In February, "Zuleikha" comes out in English from Oneworld Publications, an independent global publisher based in London.
More than four decades after Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for exposing the horrors of Stalin's purges, Russian literature is again returning to the subject, examining an unhealed wound. The renewed interest comes as many Russians are dismayed by the efforts of some officials to gloss over Stalin's crimes and paint him in a positive light.
"Russian society suffered a great deal of trauma during the early Soviet period and unfortunately you cannot work through this trauma very quickly," Yakhina said in an interview in a Moscow cafe over the summer.
In the book, Zuleikha, a slender 30-year-old Muslim woman, lives in a Tatar village in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, a near-slave to her abusive husband and cruel mother-in-law. She knows no love, no warmth and her world is limited to the confines of her village. "Lie still, woman," orders Zuleikha's husband Murtaza, as he beats her with a broom for a transgression she did not commit, but then he cools off quickly. "She was given a good husband after all," Zuleikha reminds herself.
Written in a rich and highly visual prose, the novel is interspersed with Tatar words, as Yakhina pays tribute to her heritage and painstakingly recreates the fabric of Tatar life of the time when men and women lived in separate quarters and where Zuleikha prays both to Allah and to pagan spirits. The book is translated into English by Lisa Hayden.
That life ends for Zuleikha when Red Army soldiers show up to confiscate Murtaza's property and force him to join a collective farm. When he refuses, blood is spilled and Zuleikha is taken away. Much like Yakhina's grandmother, Zuleikha spends months traversing the vast Soviet empire by sled, in overcrowded train cars, and then by boat only to be left on the barren bank of the Angara River with just a handful of fellow "heads," as they are referred to, who survived the journey. The deportees dig pit-houses to hide from Siberia's merciless cold and feed off what they can find in the forest. Many still die.
"She told me scary things, but on the other hand, she told me about some warm moments," Yakhina said of her grandmother. "The warmest moment was friendship, a very peculiar kind which is stronger than family ties."
Yakhina, 41, petite and soft-spoken, was born in Kazan, the capital of the mostly Muslim Russian province of Tatarstan, to an engineer and a doctor. Yakhina moved to Moscow to work in public relations, but her grandmother's story was always on her mind. The woman's death eight years ago finally gave Yakhina the determination to quit her job and devote herself fully to writing.
Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov and other Soviet authors whose books are based on their first-hand experience in the camps, Yakhina offers a new perspective, trying to examine that period from a distance and relying on her grandmother's recollections and archive materials. Zuleikha's story is one of injustice and pain, but also of a woman's emancipation and renewal.
"For the modern reader, I think, it is very important to understand how light and total darkness existed at the same time," said Russian literary critic Galina Yuzefovich. "How people who lived in Stalin's hell had the courage to fall in love, have children and simply live."
In recent years, Stalin has been making a comeback in the public eye in Russia, with monuments erected in several cities and his face dotting souvenir stands. Russian president Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that Stalin killed millions of his compatriots, but at the same time warned against "demonizing" him.
"Stalin is a tyrant and his rule was a tyranny and this is what my books are about," Yakhina said. But despite all that her grandmother lived through, Yakhina said that the older woman loved and respected Stalin, something that Yakhina is still trying to grasp.
"This silent generation absorbed all the hardships of the early Soviet years and preferred to remain silent in order to protect us," Yakhina said. "Now we want to make sense of all that on our own. I want to tear through this veil of silence."