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Russian author Mikhail Sholokhov is one of a few Soviets who wrote fiction for the Communist Party. The Quiet Don (1928), a four-book epic about life in a Cossack village from 1912 to 1922, and Virgin Soil Upturned (1932), his story of collective farming, were part of the curriculum in all Soviet schools. Sholokhov s body of work is not large, but his works have been translated into more than forty languages and have sold millions of copies.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Cossack No More
Sholokhov was born Mikhail Stefanovich Kuznetsov on May 11, 1905, on a farm near the River Don in Russia. This region was dominated by the Cossacks, a privileged group of people who were required to serve in the Russian Army. Neither of Sholokhov’s parents were Cossacks, but he was registered as a Cossack at his birth, due to his mother s marriage to an elderly officer who was not Sholokhov s father. After the old man died in 1912 and Sholokhov s father and mother were officially married, Mikhail lost his Cossack status.
Effects of Revolution
Sholokhov attended a quality regional school in the town of Boguchar, Voronezh Province, but he was forced to leave because of the German invasion in 1918 near the end of World War I. Russia fought in the conflict on the side of France, Great Britain, and the United States against Germany, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary. Unlike its allies, Russia’s battles against Germany often ended in defeat and Russia lost considerable territory to Germany when a peace treaty was created between the two countries.
During World War I, Tsar Nicholas II and his autocratic rule became increasingly unpopular. Though he allowed elected Dumas (legislatures) beginning in 1906, Nicholas and his ministers had firm control of the government. This situation came to a head in 1917 and 1918 as several groups vied for control of the country, including the Tsar, until he abdicated in November 1917; the Mensheviks (socialists); the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin; and several other groups. The resulting civil war saw Lenin and the Bolsheviks gain control of the government, though the conflict lasted until the early 1920s as Lenin and his followers fought to retain control of Russia.
In the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution, Sholokhov’s family lived in territories controlled by the White Russian armies, which were fighting the Soviet Red Army. Sholokhov witnessed the brutal conflict and later described it in realistic detail in The Quiet Don.
Early Affinity for Communism
At the age of fourteen, Sholokhov was forced to make a decision that influenced the rest of his life. He joined the Communists (as the Bolsheviks came to be called) and went to work for the Revolutionary Committee. For a time, he served as a machine gunner with a Red Army supply detachment and volunteered to fight in a special forces unit. He also took part in the cultural life of the Don region, helping produce a daily newspaper and organize the local theater. Captured and interrogated in 1920, Sholokhov was spared from execution.
Once the fighting had stopped and Soviet power was established, Sholokhov went to Moscow to continue his education. He worked at various jobs from 1922 to 1924 before he turned to writing. Sholokhov published his first work in 1923 and wrote stories that later appeared in the book Tales from the Don (1926).
In Moscow, he befriended numerous writers and became a member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, an arm of the Bolshevik Party. Unable to make ends meet in Moscow, however, Sholokhov and his wife returned to the Don region, where he lived until his death. He knew by then that his literary subject would be the people and places he had known since birth.
Wrote The Quiet Don
By the end of 1926, Sholokhov had two short-story collections in print and was gaining recognition for his writing. Working on his first novel in 1927, he realized that it needed more of a historical context for the average reader to understand it. Consequently, he began a description of the Don Cossacks prior to World War I, and this work became the starting point for The Quiet Don. Depicting Cossack life up to the Bolshevik Revolution, the first two segments of the epic were published serially in the journal October in 1928.
Reviewers and readers responded positively, but publication ceased after Communist officials objected that the book was insufficiently proletarian in outlook. When Joseph Stalin (who gained power in the Soviet Union in 1928, four years after the death of Lenin and after defeating other top Communist officials for the post) and the Communist Party endorsed the work in 1930, Sholokhov applied for party membership. After Sholokhov was accepted into the party, he proudly described himself as a Communist first, a writer second.
An English translation of the first two books of Sholokhov’s epic, And Quiet Flows the Don, appeared in 1930. The author ran into censorship problems with the third book, which describes the actual events of the 1919 uprising. According to the most cited version of events, Stalin ordered that publication proceed following a meeting with Sholokhov and leading Soviet author Maxim Gorky. Part seven of The Quiet Don was serialized in 1937 and 1938. Stalin held up the final installment, insisting that the hero convert to Communism by the end. Sholokhov objected and surprisingly won the standoff. Part eight was published, its ending unchanged, in 1940.
Because Stalin believed that the Soviet Union had to be able to feed itself, he mandated the transformation of Soviet agriculture from individual farms into a system of large collective farms. With Stalin’s help, Sholokhov published the first book of his novel Virgin Soil Upturned, a powerful yet objective account of Soviet collective farming. At risk of being named an enemy of the Party, Sholokhov courageously pointed out both benefits and detriments of collective agriculture, presenting the stories of dispossessed Cossacks and peasants. Still, he remained a party loyalist and believed that collectivization would ultimately benefit Russia.
Sholokhov became a member of the Supreme Soviet in 1936 and an elected delegate to all Communist Party Congresses from 1936 to 1984. Sholokhov’s service to the Soviet state earned him many accolades. He was among the first recipients of the Stalin Prize, shortly before the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941 during World War II. He quickly enlisted in the army as a war correspondent. In 1943, Pravda, the official state newspaper, began featuring chapters from Sholokhov’s patriotic novel, They Fought for Their Country. Although new chapters appeared over the course of Sholokhov’s postwar career, the novel was never completed, most likely because his role in political affairs greatly reduced his literary productivity.
A Communist Nobel Prize
While some renowned Soviet literary figures became targets of vilification, Sholokhov’s position in the party grew stronger. He served publicly as a government spokesperson, even while his own writing was embroiled in censorship battles. He was forced to revise The Quiet Don drastically; amended versions appeared in 1952 and 1953. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the original text was mostly restored.
Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, despite being a controversial figure. He was a loyal Communist who fervently accused other writers of treason, while maintaining that literary freedom in the Soviet Union was unrestricted. Western intellectuals condemned him as an agent of the totalitarian state. In the 1970s, the expelled Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn charged that Sholokhov had plagiarized The Quiet Don, reviving allegations dating back to the 1920s. Despite official commissions and even scientific investigations confirming Sholokhov’s authorship, the issue was not fully resolved at the time of his death in 1984 and is still debated today.
Works in Literary Context
Sholokhov formed his ideological and artistic identities at an early age. During his school years in Boguchar, he lived in the home of a priest, who introduced him to such important writers as Aleksandr Ertel, a nineteenth-century master of the colloquial Russian language; Maxim Gorky, who later became known as the father of Soviet socialist realism; and the Ukrainian-Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko. Sholokhov’s writing reflects these influences, as well as that of Aleksandr Serafimovich, a Don Cossack who became his mentor and sponsor. The subject matter and epic sweep of The Quiet Don resembles that of Serafimovich’s novel The Iron Flood (1924). Some critics have also likened Sholokov’s novels to those of Leo Tolstoy.
Sholokhov’s feeling for the history, geography, and culture of his particular region around Rostov-on-Don is evident from his earliest stories. Lyrical landscape passages and abundant Cossack folklore give his work a sense of locality that is rare in Russian literature. In the New Republic, Malcolm Cowley observed that in addition to his passion for the land, Sholokhov ”also has a sense of people that is somewhat commoner in Russian fiction, though rare enough in the literature of any country. He writes about them as if he had always known and loved them and wanted the outside world to understand just why they acted as they did.”
Sholokhov’s artistic success within Soviet society has much to do with his application of the conventions of socialist realism, the required genre of all literature under Stalin. The Quiet Don demonstrates the principle of historical inevitability, in which people must either adapt to or be destroyed by historical forces. Sholokhov championed socialist realism, claiming in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that ”it expresses a philosophy of life that accepts neither a turning away from the world nor a flight from reality.” At the same time, Sholokhov resisted efforts to alter the political ideas in his work and did not shy away from objectively describing the problems and even tragedies that accompanied the Soviet revolution. In his best work, political doctrine is artfully fused with the requirements of his narrative. At other times, rigid adherence to the party line is seen as compromising his work’s literary merit.
Works in Critical Context
The Best and the Worst
In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party’s efforts at social control meant that literature and all the arts took place in a highly politicized cultural context. The early reception of Sholokhov’s epic demonstrates this. Since Sholokhov was not yet a party member, he was open to political attack. The more orthodox Communist critics branded Sholokhov a peasant writer who did not sufficiently highlight the plight of proletarians. They questioned why he took the perspective of the defeated White Army and not the victorious Bolsheviks.
In 1928, Sholokhov’s authorship officially came under question. Sholokhov had to submit his notes and drafts to the offices of Pravda to prove the texts were his. The official response silenced critics but did not put suspicions to rest.
Ever since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Sholokhov’s name has remained mired in controversy. Public opinion is divided between his attackers and defenders. For some, he is an emblem of everything that was vile and destructive in the old Soviet system. A more diplomatic assessment, voiced by critic David Hugh Stewart, is that Sholokhov represents both the best and the worst aspects of Soviet literature.
The Quiet Don
Sholokhov’s The Quiet Don is at the center of much of the controversy over his legacy. Solzhenitsyn as well as many Soviet literary experts like Herman Ermolaev and R. A. Medvedev, believe the book was plagiarized to greater or lesser degrees. Solzhenitsyn wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, ”From the time when it first began to appear in 1928 The Quiet Don has posed a whole series of riddles which have not been satisfactorily answered even today. … A twenty-three year-old beginner had created a work out of material which went far beyond his own experience of life and his level of education.” Away from this controversy, critics acknowledged that this novel had merit. Ernest J. Simmons of the New York Times Book Review concluded, ”He reached artistic heights only in his great novel The Quiet Don…. Gregor Melekhov, perhaps the most fully realized and sympathetically portrayed tragic figure in Soviet fiction, remains in the end a complete individualist, alien to the Bolshevik cause that ultimately destroys him.
- Ermolaev, Herman. Mikhail Sholokhov and His Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
- Klimenko, Michael. The World of Young Sholokhov: Vision of Violence. North Quincy, Mass.: Christopher, 1972.
- Muchnic, Helen. Russian Writers: Notes and Essays. New York: Random House, 1971.
- Slonim, Marc. Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917-1977. London: Oxford University
- Press, 1977.
- Stevens, H. C. Mikhail Sholokhov and the Novels of the Don Cycle. New York: Knopf, 1960.
- Stewart, David Hugh. Mikhail Sholokhov: A Critical Introduction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967.
- Struve, Gleb. Russian Literature under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.
- Salisbury, Harrison E. ”Khrushchev Bid to Sholokhov Follows a Dispute over Novel.” New York Times, September 1, 1959, 1, 6.
- Simmons, Ernest J. ”Muddy Flows the Don.” New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1967, 28-29.
- Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. ”Sholokhov and the Riddle of The Quiet Don.” Times Literary Supplement, October 4, 1974, 1056.
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