On Mikhail Sholokhov’s “And Quiet Flows the Don”

It’s been more than a year and a half since my last post. Rather than recap all that has happened in that time, I figure it would be best to jump back in and try to post semi-regularly (until the next lull, anyway).

Over the holidays I picked up and finished Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, a masterpiece of socialist realism that was begun in the late 1920s and published serially until its completion in 1940. As is apparent from my other posts, I am quite interested in Soviet history and culture, and Russian literature is a genre that I keep coming back to whenever I get a little break from work. Having never read Sholokhov but hearing unflattering things about his complicity in the Stalinist order always kept And Quiet Flows the Don low on my reading list. A copy lent to me by an old friend had been sitting on my shelf for years, and it was only until a few months ago that he brought it up that I decided, on a whim, to tackle this near-600 page epic.

Not only was I pleasantly surprised by Sholokhov’s fluid prose (although rendered somewhat archaically by Stephen Garry) and captivating story arc, but also by the complex psychological portraits of even the tangential characters. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the novel covers the world of the Don Cossacks in south-central Russia during the years of 1912-1918 as their social fabric is torn apart by political events beyond their control: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent bloody Civil War between the Bolsheviks and the Whites. Sholokhov, who grew up on the Don River and was intimately familiar with the Cossack way of life, manages to sympathetically portray not only the motivations of the Bolshevik commissars in charge of revolutionary effort but also of the counter-revolutionary forces made up of Cossacks seeking less to restore Tsarism than to retain their independence against the new Soviet power.

After completing the novel, I turned to Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 as a means of getting further historical context on the impact of the Revolution and the Civil War on the Cossacks. Contrary to what I previously thought, Figes suggests that Cossacks were not unanimously in support of the Tsar and the old order, but were largely split. While the older generation and leadership was conservative and anti-Bolshevik, the newer generation that had fought on the front lines and wanted an end to the war was more inclined to see the establishment of Soviet power as the best way of preserving the peace. One sees this in Sholokhov’s novel, in which brothers and friends find themselves on opposite sides during in the confusion of the Civil War.

Later, I found the excellent 1958 Soviet film The Quiet Don (Тихий Дон) on YouTube, which spans both And Quiet Flows the Don and its sequel, The Don Flows Home to the Sea. All three parts of the film are embedded below, with English subtitles.