Today you take a train with five hundred children from Kazan to Turkestan, tomorrow you execute a detachment of Cossacks, the protagonist of Train to Samarkand from the doctor who accompanied him on his mission. “With one hand you save, with the other you kill.” Train commander Dejev’s reaction: ‘I don’t kill, I punish the enemies of the revolution! Everyone does now, right?’
After the deportation of the kulaks to Siberia (Zulajka opens her eyes) and the expulsion of the Volga Germans (Volga children) in his third novel, the Russian-Tatar Guzel Jachina tells about a painful, often hidden episode in Soviet history. Read this work and with each book you will better understand how Russia became the country it is today.
Train to Samarkand takes place in 1923. Russia has endured a revolution and a civil war, and now, thanks to the new regime, there is a terrible famine: to feed the Red Army, the Bolsheviks deprived the peasants of the Volga region of their grain supply, tens of millions of people is practically without food. The same regime – in fact: the same man, head of the intelligence service Dzerzhinsky, also head of the Children’s Commission – also organizes dozens of evacuation trains for ‘starving children’ to recover in the nutritious south. (Samarkand is in present-day Uzbekistan.)
‘With one hand you save, with the other you kill’: Dejev, a civil war veteran in addition to being a train commander, appears to be a very literal embodiment of the regime with its high ideals and its militants. This also applies to his co-star, the straightforward Children’s Commissioner Belaya, who wants to comply – much more strictly than Dejev – with the rules imposed by Moscow. But much in this novel is more complex than meets the eye.
Train to Samarkand is a travelogue with features from an adventure novel: Dejev often goes on perilous expeditions to find food for his five hundred passengers. It is precisely in the relatively small story – six weeks, one train journey, a few main characters – that the author takes all the space necessary to deepen nuances.
Jachina does not shy away from atrocities. She describes in detail the consequences of extreme hunger: In seemingly deserted villages, people are huddled in one hut, barely able to move. Their bodies are disfigured emaciated or, conversely, disfigured. ‘In the cold pans stones, earth and rotten grass. Fields without winter grain. Barn without animals. Grinding without stock.’ More than once, parents suffocate their children to spare them further suffering. A weakened girl is thrown to the wolves by her own mother in the hope that she and her stronger son will come to town.
It’s not fun on the train either: from day 1 the ambulance is full. Dejev cannot bring himself to take only healthy children who have a good chance of surviving the journey. Much to the anger of Children’s Commissioner Belaja and van Boeg, the train doctor. When cholera breaks out and children die every day, Dejev prefers to immediately fill their places with new, often weak and dirty stowaways. Is it noble, or impulsive and reckless?
Jachina therefore raises moral questions – almost between the lines – which do not only play a role in a famine or under an autocratic regime: what is a good person, when do the interests of the collective come before those of an individual? IN Train to Samarkand the answers are never straightforward.
The book also has a welcome, light-hearted side. There are Dejev’s sometimes improbable but always exciting forays – culminating in a night in a barn with a pregnant cow about to calve at any moment. Jachina always maintains tension by playing with perspective or leaving pressing questions unanswered. At the same time, the novel is rich in quiet scenes: an intimate evening between Dejev and Belaya, the cook’s boy, who irons sacks of grain and speaks calmly in his own language (he comes from a distant region and does not speak a word of Russian).
The children, who come from all corners of the world, also find comfort in language: they love nicknames, made-up words and rhymes. And blame them for once: ‘You couldn’t lose your language on walks. They couldn’t take elderly troublemakers or night thieves from you. The language didn’t wear out like shoes, didn’t get lice like underwear, but just got richer and more beautiful every day.’ Despite all the sadness, Arthur Langeveld’s inventive translation makes this book a joy to read.
Guzel Jachina: The Train to Samarkand. Translated from Russian by Arthur Langeveld. Querido; 520 pages; €27.99.