Love in Wartime

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Guoyao Edited by David Ball

Mikhail Sholokhov’s mag­num opus And Quiet Flows the Don earned him the No­bel Prize for Literature in 1965. The work de­scribes the strug­gles of the Don Cos­sacks in Rus­sia against the back­drop of war.

At the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, for­mer Soviet writer Mikhail Alek­san­drovich Sholokhov took the Don River as the back­ground for his mag­num opus And Quiet Flows the Don, in which he de­scribed the wartime strug­gles of the Don Cos­sacks from 1912 to 1922. For this work, Sholokhov was awarded the No­bel Prize for Literature in 1965.

Sol­dier Turned Writer

Sholokhov was born into a fam­ily of farm­ers in Vesh­en­skaya by the Don River in 1905. His mother worked as a ser­vant for a land­lord’s fam­ily un­til she mar­ried and his fa­ther worked as a shop as­sis­tant and then a miller. It was his fa­ther’s fond­ness for read­ing and sub­scrip­tions to pe­ri­od­i­cals and books on literature and art that nur­tured Sholokhov’s love for literature. In ad­di­tion, his colour­ful life in the “land of the Cos­sacks” where he grew up pro­vided him with

end­less ma­te­rial for his writ­ings.

In 1914, Sholokhov was sent to Moscow be­fore re­turn­ing to Vesh­en­skaya to at­tend school. When he was 13 years old, World War I had not come to an end and his school­ing was in­ter­rupted by the Ger­man in­va­sion of Ukraine. Dur­ing the Rus­sian civil war, the fight­ing in the Don area was ex­tremely in­tense. As a young boy, Sholokhov not only wit­nessed the fight­ing but also played a di­rect part in the es­tab­lish­ment of the red po­lit­i­cal power. From 1919 to 1922, he did var­i­ous kinds of work for the Red Army in­clud­ing col­lect­ing army pro­vi­sions in the Don area.

In 1922 at the age of 17, Sholokhov moved to Moscow to em­bark on a lit­er­ary ca­reer. There he joined the Youth Guard lit­er­ary group and in 1923 he pub­lished his first essay. From then on, he be­gan to make a liv­ing from writ­ing and in the same year, he mar­ried Maria Gro­moslavskaia, a Cos­sack teacher. In 1925, at the age of 20, Sholokhov moved back to his home­town to set­tle down.

In the fol­low­ing year, his col­lected works in­clud­ing Tales of the Don and La­zore­vaja Step were pub­lished. It was from then on that he be­gan work­ing on And Quiet Flows the Don, the first vol­ume of which pro­pelled him to fame after it was com­pleted two years later. In 1930, Sholokhov was re­ceived by Joseph Stalin and be­came a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union two years later. Un­der Stalin’s per­sonal su­per­vi­sion, Sholokhov twice as­sisted the peo­ple in the Don River valley who were suf­fer­ing from famine and po­lit­i­cal purges.

In 1939, Sholokhov earned the Or­der of Lenin and be­came an aca­demi­cian of the USSR Acad­emy of Sciences. He vis­ited the front dur­ing the Great Pa­tri­otic War, writ­ing news re­ports, fea­tures and short sto­ries in­tended to dis­close the bar­barous and in­va­sive crimes com­mit­ted by Nazi Ger­many and to eu­lo­gise the pa­tri­otic and heroic feats of the Soviet army and peo­ple. For this work, he was awarded the ti­tle of “Hero of So­cial­ist Labour.” In 1941, he won the Stalin Prize, and in 1960, he was awarded the Lenin Prize as well as var­i­ous other hon­ours. Be­tween 1956 and 1960, his col­lected works were pub­lished in eight vol­umes in the Soviet Union, and were later also pub­lished sep­a­rately. In 1984, the then 79-year- old Sholokhov died of ill­ness in his place of birth. UNESCO de­clared 2005 the Year of Sholokhov, mark­ing the cen­te­nary of his birth.

Al­ways cen­tred around the fate of the Don Cos­sacks, Sholokhov’s works re­flected the chang­ing lives of the Cos­sacks with strik­ing in­di­vid­u­al­i­ties dur­ing a his­tor­i­cal pe­riod of tran­si­tion and cre­ated a unique artis­tic style of tragic epics.

Cos­sacks rep­re­sented a spe­cial so­cial stra­tum in Rus­sian his­tory. Their name was de­rived from the Tur­kic “kozak,” mean­ing “free man,” orig­i­nally re­fer­ring to the No­madic peo­ple to the north of the Black Sea who es­caped from Tur­kic coun­tries in Cen­tral Asia. Later, it was used more gen­er­ally to re­fer to the slaves and their de­scen­dants who es­caped the op­pres­sion of Rus­sian serf­dom and set­tled down in the grass­lands around the Don River be­tween the 15th and 17th cen­turies. In the 18th cen­tury, the Cos­sacks liv­ing in a small com­mu­nity on both sides of the Don be­gan to form a spe­cial farmer-sol­dier so­cial stra­tum. The Tsar Gov­ern­ment adopted a pol­icy of con­cil­i­a­tion to­wards them and of­fi­cially recog­nised their vil­lage com­mu­nity, grant­ing them some priv­i­leges and land. It was also stip­u­lated that each Cos­sack must serve in the Tsar’s army and pledge loy­alty to the ruler of Rus­sia.

Fo­cus­ing on the or­di­nary lives of the Cos­sacks, And Quiet Flows the Don vividly de­scribes the mis­ery and strug­gles of the Don Cos­sacks from 1912–1922 cov­er­ing World War I, the Fe­bru­ary Rev­o­lu­tion, Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion and the Rus­sian Civil War. Sholokhov first con­ceived the novel in 1926, and it was pub­lished in four parts in 1928, 1929, 1933 and 1940. While writ­ing And Quiet Flows the Don, Sholokhov of­ten vis­ited li­braries and ar­chives to col­lect ma­te­ri­als about the civil war, and also jour­neyed to var­i­ous vil­lages and towns in the Don River area to gather folk songs and le­gends. This re­search en­abled him to pro­duce an epic work with a strong sense of re­al­ity.

Love and Hate

In the novel, Pan­telei Proko­fye­vich, head of the Melekhov fam­ily in Tatarsk, who are de­scen­dants of Cos­sacks, has two sons and a daugh­ter. Py­otr, the el­dest son is mar­ried to Darya; Grig­ori, the younger son, is half a head taller than his brother; and Pan­telei’s daugh­ter Yev­dokiya (Dunya) is a girl with big eyes.

Grig­ori falls in love with Aksinya, the wife of his neigh­bour Stepan. Aksinya mar­ried Stepan at the age of 17. Stepan how­ever, has beaten Aksinya ever since the first day of their mar­riage and also of­ten locked her in a ware­house or an in­ner chamber. There is no love be­tween the cou­ple, so when Grig­ori fer­vently woos her, on an emo­tional level she feels warm and pleas­ant even though she tries her best to re­sist him in­tel­lec­tu­ally.

Later, Stepan goes into the Cos­sacks’ mil­i­tary camp. On

Whit­sun­day, the vil­lagers all be­gin to cut the grass. That evening, Grig­ori and Aksinya fi­nally find the op­por­tu­nity to be close to each other, after which Aksinya to­tally changes and frankly ad­mits that she loves Grig­ori. After hear­ing about the sit­u­a­tion, Stepan vi­o­lently beats Aksinya, but Grig­ori reacts by fight­ing him. Later, Pan­telei de­cides that Grig­ori should get mar­ried and so they visit Kor­shunov, the rich­est man in the vil­lage, whose at­trac­tive el­dest daugh­ter Natalya is fond of Grig­ori. Grig­ori also de­cides to put an end to his for­mer af­fec­tion for Aksinya, although she is not will­ing to part with Grig­ori.

As hard­work­ing as Natalya is, she’s some­what cold, which makes Grig­ori think of Aksinya’s pas­sion­ate love. Grig­ori there­fore rekin­dles his af­fec­tions for Aksinya, which up­sets Natalya and makes his fa­ther so an­gry that he lays into Grig­ori. In­fu­ri­ated, Grig­ori runs away from home. He finds Aksinya and then they call at the house of Gen­eral List­nit­sky, a no­ble­man, where Grig­ori works as a coach­man and Aksinya works in the kitchen. Fi­nally, Aksinya gives birth to a baby girl.

Grig­ori is drafted into the army, how­ever, he can­not stand how some of the sol­diers be­have: the of­fi­cers treat the rank-and-file sol­diers ruth­lessly and some of the sol­diers rape women. When WWI breaks out, Grig­ori kills an Aus­trian sol­dier and later is wounded in an as­sault on a city. Be­cause he has saved an in­jured lieu­tenant colonel de­spite his own wounds, he earns the Saint Ge­orge’s Cross. His fa­ther Pan­telei is so happy that he proudly shows the let­ter to ev­ery­one and any­one.

Not long after, Aksinya’s daugh­ter dies of scar­let fever, caus­ing Aksinya to de­scend into a deep grief. At this time, Lieu­tenant List­nit­sky, who has re­turned home after be­ing wounded, shows Aksinya com­pas­sion and en­thu­si­asm, fi­nally win­ning her heart. After Grig­ori re­turns from the hospi­tal and hears what has hap­pened, he flies into a rage, whip­ping List­nit­sky and even strik­ing Aksinya once with the whip be­fore leav­ing.

In his home­town, Grig­ori is re­spected by his fam­ily and the vil­lagers for hav­ing won the Saint Ge­orge’s Cross. Grad­u­ally, he for­gets his com­pas­sion and sym­pa­thy for hu­man be­ings that he had at the out­set of the war and in­stead re­turns to the front­line as an out­stand­ing Cos­sack. There he is in­dif­fer­ent to his own life and the lives of oth­ers, go­ing on to earn four Saint Ge­orge’s Crosses as well as four other medals.

In 1917, Grig­ori joins the Bol­she­vik Army and be­comes a com­pany com­man­der after the out­break of the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion. Some­times, he be­lieves that the peo­ple’s po­lit­i­cal power should be es­tab­lished but other times he thinks that the Don Cos­sacks should gov­ern them­selves. He is wounded dur­ing an as­sault by the White Army on the Soviet troops, falls into de­spair, and be­comes un­will­ing to take part in the strug­gle be­tween any po­lit­i­cal party or group. At the be­gin­ning of 1918, the sit­u­a­tion in the Don River area grad­u­ally be­comes favourable to the Soviet regime and so vol­un­teers are mo­bilised within the vil­lage to at­tack the Soviet Red Guards. Grig­ori is now also serv­ing on the side of the vol­un­teers. In au­tumn, the Red Army be­gins to launch a coun­ter­at­tack. The Com­mit­tee of Elim­i­na­tion of Coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies hold mil­i­tary courts, try­ing those who served in the White Army and sen­tenc­ing them to ex­e­cu­tion. Grig­ori es­capes by sheer luck thanks to the trans­porta­tion mis­sion as­signed to him. As soon as he re­turns to the vil­lage and hears of the in­ci­dent, he es­capes in haste. Ko­shevoi per­son­ally kills Grig­ori’s brother Py­otr, after which, Grig­ori joins the rebel army due to his ha­tred of the Red Army.

Grig­ori bumps into Aksinya and the two be­come rec­on­ciled. The war has changed the re­la­tion­ships be­tween the Melekhov fam­ily mem­bers. Dunya de­tests her par­ents be­cause they took away her hope of mar­ry­ing Ko­shevoi; liv­ing in wid­ow­hood, Py­otr’s wife Darya be­gins to quar­rel with her moth­erin-law and fi­nally com­mits sui­cide by drown­ing her­self; and aware that her hus­band has stayed with Aksinya again, Natalya de­cides to abort her baby but un­for­tu­nately dies of ex­ces­sive bleed­ing.

With the Cos­sack troops in the

Don area hav­ing been de­feated by the Red Army, Grig­ori joins the 14th Divi­sion of the Red Army un­der the com­mand of Budy­onny. Grig­ori’s brav­ery leads to him be­ing pro­moted to the rank of reg­i­men­tal com­man­der. In 1920 how­ever, he leaves the army and stealth­ily re­turns to the vil­lage to stay with Aksinya. He had ex­pected to take ad­van­tage of his re­la­tion­ship with Ko­shevoi, his brother-in-law who is also the chair­man of the vil­lage com­mit­tee, so that he could live a peace­ful life. Un­ex­pect­edly how­ever, Ko­shevoi does not prac­tise favouritism and in­stead in­tends to ar­rest him be­cause of his pre­vi­ous anti-rev­o­lu­tion­ary acts. Grig­ori there­fore is left with no other choice but to flee on the same night. Driven into a cor­ner, he falls in with a gang of ban­dits which is quickly routed by the Red Army be­cause of a lack of mil­i­tary discipline. Grig­ori there­fore has to es­cape again; this time leav­ing on horse­back with Aksinya un­der the dark of night. Un­for­tu­nately, the cou­ple are spot­ted by Red Army sen­tries in charge of col­lect­ing grain levies who shoot and kill Aksinya, leav­ing Grig­ori forced to wan­der from place to place.

In the spring of 1922, Grig­ori puts an end to his vagabond life and re­turns to his home­town by the Don River only to find that all his rel­a­tives have passed away. He throws all his guns and am­mu­ni­tion into the river. Now, he has noth­ing left but his young son Mishatka.

An Eter­nal Mas­ter­piece

Set against the back­drop of war in 1917, And Quiet Flows the Don con­ducts a study of rev­o­lu­tion and war from a hu­man per­spec­tive. The author uses de­scrip­tions to curse war, ex­press his doubts about rev­o­lu­tion and ques­tion the Soviet regime. War has left the once-beau­ti­ful and fer­tile plains of the Don River de­serted and the pre­vi­ously rich, happy and free lives the peo­ple once en­joyed are nowhere to be found. The Cos­sacks all went to the front­line, leav­ing be­hind only or­phans, wid­ows and the el­derly. Just as the fore­word says:

Not by the plough is our glo­ri­ous earth fur­rowed…

Our earth is fur­rowed by horses’ hoofs.

And sown is our earth with the heads of Cos­sacks.

Fair is our quiet Don with young wid­ows.

Our fa­ther, the quiet Don, blossoms with or­phans,

And the waves of the quiet Don are filled with fathers’ and moth­ers’ tears.

Sholokhov had a strong pref­er­ence for tragedy, with most of his char­ac­ters end­ing up in un­happy sit­u­a­tions. It can be said that he was seek­ing the truth in the form of tragedy. And Quiet Flows the Don com­bined the harsh lives and tragedies of its char­ac­ters, to re­veal the force of “pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­al­ity” through Grig­ori’s tragic fate.

Sholokhov’s nar­ra­tive lan­guage is filled with spe­cific words from dif­fer­ent Rus­sian di­alects. In both the lan­guage of his main char­ac­ters and his own nar­ra­tive, he is able to use pop­u­lar and rep­re­sen­ta­tive words and com­mon say­ings of the Cos­sacks. In the novel, he in­tro­duced sev­eral his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, and made com­ments on the events from both mil­i­tary and his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives. Since the main char­ac­ters use vastly dif­fer­ent lan­guages, the author also adopts a vivid and rich range in his nar­ra­tive. Some­times, the author’s lan­guage and those of the main char­ac­ters are in­ter­wo­ven into a colour­ful pic­ture, with the won­der­ful lyri­cal de­scrip­tions and doc­u­men­tary lan­guage con­tribut­ing to the di­ver­sity of his nar­ra­tive.

In 1928, the first vol­ume of Sholokhov’s full-length novel And Quiet Flows the Don was pub­lished, caus­ing a big stir in lit­er­ary cir­cles of the Soviet Union. A si­lent film of the same ti­tle based on the novel was shot be­tween 1929 and 1930. In 1957, a colour film was pro­duced, and in 2006, a mini-se­ries re­make was re­leased, which be­came a hit on Rus­sian tele­vi­sion.

Shortly be­fore the first Chi­nese ver­sion of And Quiet Flows the Don was to be pub­lished in China, the writer Lu Xun ac­cu­rately pre­dicted the in­flu­ence the book would have on Chi­nese writ­ers. “If a com­plete Chi­nese ver­sion of the novel ap­pears in China in the fu­ture, it will surely en­lighten the new writ­ers here.” It is true that later Chi­nese writ­ers such as Zhou Libo, Ding Ling, Liu Qing, Chen Zhong­shi and Mo Yan were in­flu­enced by the work. In 1928, the first vol­ume of the book was pub­lished. The fol­low­ing year, Lu Xun in­vited He Fei to trans­late it into Chi­nese, even re­vis­ing the Chi­nese trans­la­tion and writ­ing a post­script for it him­self. In 1931, as a part of the Se­ries of Mod­ern Literature and Art edited by Lu Xun, the Chi­nese ver­sion of And Quiet Flows the Don was pub­lished by the Shang­hai Shen­zhou Guoguang Press.

Sholokhov loathed war and yearned for peace. By adopt­ing a creative at­ti­tude of be­moan­ing the times and pity­ing the peo­ple, he pro­duced a mas­ter­piece that shook the lit­er­ary world, dis­play­ing the mis­for­tune of the Cos­sacks liv­ing on the banks of the Don River as well as the lo­cal customs. As such, this novel is a clas­sic work of his­tor­i­cal literature that will never fade.

A poster for the film And Quiet Flows the Don

“The Re­ply of the Za­porozhian Cos­sacks to Sul­tan Mah­moud IV,” by Ilya Yafi­movich Repin

A portrait of Mikhail Sholokhov

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