About Books: Mikhail Sholokhov
Russian novelists have a knack of cramming their stories with such a large number of characters that the majority of their non-Russian leaders get lost in the crowd. Adding to the confusion is the similarity of male and female Christian names and the addition of a suffix to the surname to denote the female. Again, it appears that the name by which a person is addressed depends on the relationship with the person who is addressing him. A stranger or a remote acquaintance will use the surname, a friend or close acquaintance will use the first Christian name whilst relatives and very close friends will address a person by his or her second Christian name. This use of different names to denote the same person becomes mystifying to most English readers.
Although Sholokhov’s books are constructed similarly, when we read them we do not experience the same confusion that attends the reading of other Russian authors. He so presents his characters that we are able to distinguish one from the others right from the word “Go.”
Sholokhov’s two earliest books, “And Quiet Flows the Don” and “The Don Flows Home to the Sea” are now world famous, and justly so. The first of these books was originally published in Russia in 1929 and the second in 1940. A recent reprint in English has been published by Putnam and Co., Ltd., and the two volumes are available at 12s. 6d. each.
The story, which is continuous through the two books, is enthralling. It presents us with a history of the Don Cossack peasant farmers from the early years of the present century up to the early nineteen-twenties and takes us through the latter part of the Czarist regime, the 1914-1918 war, the Bolshevik seizure of power and the counter-revolutionary war in the Cossack regions.
The Cossack farmers had little interest in the theories and aspirations of either side in the counter-revolutionary war. They desired little more than to be left alone to till their land and enjoy the fruits of their work. When they took up arms it was with the intent of driving out one bunch of oppressors or the other, which accounts for the fact that some of them not infrequently changed sides. It also accounts for one theme in Sholokhov’s story where intimate friends and even relatives fight one another from opposite ranks.
The great lesson to be learned from this story of the Don Cossacks is that revolutionary social changes cannot be brought about merely by the passing of laws or the issuing of decrees. The Bolshevik idea, that a political party with the support of a small minority of workers should seize political power and then start to ram revolutionary changes down the throats of a vast majority of peasants, is pathetically false. They found that, in order to impose the mildest of their measures for collectivisation, they had to resort to armed force and precipitate a civil war. The Cossacks, with the big landowners, enrolled under the banners of the White Russian Generals. Many of them fought in insurgent bands attached to neither side.
The peasant farmer makes his own home, builds his own farmhouses, breeds his own cattle and grows his own crops. Everything around him is individually, or family produced. The idea that the fruit of his individual effort should be socially appropriated is foreign to him. His highest political aspiration is to increase his individual farm holding, not to surrender all he has to a collective farm community of which he is an unwilling member. Even when the Bolsheviks had militarily subdued the Don Cossack region they were not able to enforce their instructions. They passed from compromise to compromise until their original proposals were lost to sight.
The fratricidal war the Cossacks fought was grim and brutal and Sholokhov’s story is in keeping with the time about which he writes. If he has a bias in favour of either party in that war he hides it well. His story is thrilling, exciting and tragic. It’s great.
Mikhail Sholokhov has written a third book entitled, “Virgin Soil Upturned” (same publishers, same price). In this he takes up the story of the collectivisation of the Cossack farms from the year 1930. The story is good but does not compare with the earlier two works. One could almost imagine it was written by a different author.
By a combination of propaganda and compulsion the Bolshevik Government was still trying to build its collective farms. The opposition from the wealthy farmers was fierce; from the poor ones it was sullen. The overall results were most discouraging to the men who were sent to the Cossack region to carry out the Communists’ instructions.
Although the story in this book is not continued on from the other two, and although it is not such a splendid tale, it is worth reading in order to follow up the history of the Cossack farmers to a more recent date.