Mikhail Sholokhov, “And Quiet Flows the Don” (1940) (translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry) – This is a panoramic view of Cossack society in the turmoil of war and revolution. It’s also considered the great socialist realist Russian novel, written by an author who managed to retain Stalin’s favor despite doing things like writing him letters about how things were bad in the Ukraine.
I probably should have read “War and Peace” before reading this! Even with my cursory knowledge, it seems like Sholokhov is trying to be a socialist realist Tolstoy, and I have no idea to what extent he succeeds, or even if that’s a good goal. Guess I’ll just have to evaluate this one on its own merits!
The merits are pretty good. We start before the First World War with the inhabitants of the Cossack village of Tatarsk. The Cossacks are a people apart, a military caste, proud and poor. We mostly follow the Melekhovs, a typical Cossack family. They farm, they drink, they mess around — there’s a messy love triangle involving son and closest thing to a main character Grigori — yell at each other, and so on.
Their lives are all interrupted by World War One. Grigori and his generation of Cossacks follow their atamen (chiefs, semi-democratically elected) into the meatgrinder. Sholokhov himself was not in the war, I don’t think, but the details — cold, wet, confused, a big divide between the common Cossack and his officers — read true enough. Rumblings of discontent go through the ranks, mostly of the simple “we want to go home” variety, some shaped by Bolshevik agitators.
The Russian Revolution comes and everyone has complicated choices to make. The White officers think the Cossacks will play their traditional role as suppressors of popular uprisings, but it doesn’t work this time due to widespread dissension with the war. Defected Cossacks refuse to halt the October Revolution and start going home to the Don River territory. There, Grigori and the others go back and forth between joining the Bolsheviks and rejoining the White forces. The Bolsheviks in this book are like a positive spin on their depiction in Bulgakov’s “White Guard”: the only ones with a real plan, methodical, energetic, ruthless. Sholokhov doesn’t stint from showing Bolshevik atrocities, but the group and its ideology still runs like a red line of clarity through the confusion of the postwar situation (and that of the anachronistic Cossack mindset).
Revolution doesn’t displace love entirely in the book (there’s a romance between the primary Bolshevik character and a lady-Bolshevik that ends predictably), but it does shift the emphasis of it. I wonder if that’s part of the point- the coming of the revolution representing a new beginning. But there’s a lot of continuity language and imagery too, above all the ever-present and unchanging Don River. All in all, a pretty good read. ****