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And Quiet Flows the Don: Russia’s Civil War Masterpiece

Bradley Jardine By Bradley Jardine Published on August 28, 2017
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Mikhail Sholokhov’s vast And Quiet Flows the Don is one of the most important, and unfairly overlooked, Russian novels of the 20th century. Spanning an ambitious timeframe, the book creates a panoramic impression of the Don Cossack as their lives are torn apart by the political forces of war and revolution.

Part of the reason behind the novel’s absence from Western reading lists can be explained by politics. Sholokhov was a loyal member of the Communist Party and later became a staunch critic of dissident writers in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s regime also canonized the novel as a classic in the tradition of Socialist Realism – a style which attracted much critical animosity at the time.

But And Quiet Flows the Don deserves a revival. Often referred to as a 20th century War and Peace, this four volume epic is an important historical reference to the events unfolding in Russia’s Deep South. While Tolstoy’s masterpiece concerns itself with the gilded ballrooms of the nobility, Sholakhov’s book is a gritty affair, dedicated to life on the margins of society. Out on the harsh steppes of Russia, life is harsh but exhilarating.

Sholakhov’s units of analysis are the Don Cossacks, a military order that played a crucial role in the expansion of the Russian Empire. In exchange for the protection of medieval Russia’s southern borders, the Don Cossacks were given the privilege of not paying taxes and the tsar’s authority over their lands was less absolute than it was in other regions.

The narrative traces the history of the Melekhov family following the Russo-Turkish War after a Cossack soldier commits a social taboo by taking a Turkish woman prisoner and marrying her. Their son Gregor, a quick-tempered Cossack is at the center of the book’s events. His, and the Cossack, way of life is never made sentimental, with quarrels, fist fights, domestic violence, death, and rape pouring out onto the pages. But the rich detail is compelling. Filled with vivid scenes of horse rides across the steppe and the March smells of “the frozen bark of cherry trees and rotting straw,” the book immerses the reader.

A regular feature of the novel is the personification of the title’s Don River, with recurring descriptions of its moods and seasons indicating its significance to the story. Indeed, the book’s primary argument is that humans come and go, but nature will always endure. It’s also ironic. The “quiet Don” is far from muted as social collapse engulfs the people who live along its banks.

But Sholokhov had a powerful patron – Joseph Stalin. The author knew the dictator personally, and wrote many letters to him throughout his career.

The first real taste of political turmoil comes with the arrival of Osip Davidovich Stockman, a German whose Marxist theories of exploitation have a hypnotic effect on the Cossacks. Soon after, the outbreak of the First World War dominates the narrative, and the men of the village ride off on horseback to fight the Austrians. Tragically, and in vivid detail, Sholakhov describes how their bodies would soon be rotting on the fields of Galicia and East Prussia, in the Carpathians and Romania, and “wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of Cossack horses were imprinted on the earth.” War is interrupted by revolution, and then civil war, a brutal confrontation putting families and neighbors against one another. Sholokhov treats the subject with an impressive even-handedness, detailing with gruesome precession the atrocities committed on both sides. It is hardly surprising the novel faced some censorship at home — it was published in Russia in 1929. The surprising thing is that it was published at all.

But Sholokhov had a powerful patron – Joseph Stalin. The author knew the dictator personally, and wrote many letters to him throughout his career. He even claimed that he completed the fourth and last volume of And Quiet Flows the Don on December 21 1939, the day when the USSR was celebrating Stalin’s 60th birthday.

Sholokhov would later denounce famed Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, likening him to a beetle in need of extermination. In response, Solzhenitsyn revived the rumors that plagued Sholokhov’s career – that his magnum opus was a work of forgery.

The accusations are unsurprising. The author wrote the novel astonishingly fast between the ages of 21 and 25, and a later volume, known in English as The Don Flows Home to the Sea, by the age of 35. But in 1991, journalist Lev Kolodny astonished Russia’s literary establishment by announcing that he had found the author’s original manuscripts. In 1995, he published an exciting account of his search to find them. They were indisputably in Sholokhov’s hand, and their dates coincided with the known facts about Sholokhov’s early life.

Despite some of the book’s flaws, And Quiet Flows the Don is at its heart a deeply human novel. A funny, honest, and violent tempered portrait of the cataclysmic social changes that were engulfing this vast country.

But nature endures. The novel ends where it begins, with the Don quietly flowing through the steppes as death and destruction bring new life into the world. On the side of a battlefield, a female bustard lays nine eggs, “warming them with her body, protecting them with her glossy wings.” 

Bradley Jardine is a journalist based in Moscow, Russia. He has written extensively on the politics of the former Soviet Union and is an avid reader of literature from the wider Communist Bloc.

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