Love in Wartime
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