Friday, April 16, 2021

The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov

Second half of the great realist epic of the Russian Civil War
One of the greatest literary works of the Soviet Union is the epic Tikhiy Don (The Quiet Don), which was serialized in the pages of Russian magazines from 1928 to 1940. It was written by Mikhail Sholokhov, who would go on to win the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, largely on the strength of this work. When published in book form, the historical novel occupied four volumes of Russian text. When translated into English, however, it was released as two novels entitled And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) and The Don Flows Home to the Sea (1940).

And Quiet Flows the Don depicted the lives of the Don Cossacks in the village of Tatarsk during World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War, focusing in particular on one family, the Melekhovs. The Don Flows Home to the Sea continues the family saga through the ongoing Russian Civil War. Gregor Melekhov, who previously sympathized with the Bolsheviks, now finds himself leading a squadron of White resistance forces against the Red Army of the new Communist government. Not only are the Cossacks waging a war of rebellion; their families are living in the midst of it, as the war rages through their homeland. Characters who were friends and neighbors in the first novel now find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

Just like And Quiet Flows the Don, The Don Flows Home to the Sea is a masterpiece of realist writing, with nary a cliché nor hint of pretentiousness to be found. No character enjoys a tragic Shakespearean trajectory, lives up to his heroic potential, or realizes his or her dreams. Instead, just as in real life, they perish unexpectedly and almost randomly in a war that yields little heroism. The reader feels himself thrust into the bleak violence of Cossack life during wartime, replete with alcohol, typhus, and lice. Amid scenes of human destruction, however, the beauty of nature persists in Sholokhov’s brilliant naturalistic descriptions of the change of seasons, cyclical blossoming of the land, and resilient wildlife of the steppe. Despite being praised by Joseph Stalin, the novel is neither pro-Communist nor anti-Communist, but rather anti-war and pro-humanity.

The only aspect of the book that could be considered the least bit romantic is the love affair between Gregor and his mistress Aksinia. Even this relationship, however, is far from the idealized love of Yuri and Lara in Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. Neither Gregor nor Aksinia are particularly virtuous or likable characters. Their attraction is depicted almost more as the lustful obsession of two animal natures rather than a poetic mating of souls. Like Zhivago and Lara, both parties are married to other people, but here Sholokhov makes the cruel repercussions of adultery more clear than Pasternak. These lovers are not absolved of their guilt by the inevitability of their passion. Also, just as in the military and social aspects of the work, Sholokhov refuses to give the reader the expected dramatic scenes one expects from fictional romance and opts instead for a more haphazard and fatalistic series of events that rings truer to real life.

The ideal way to experience Sholokhov’s epic work would be to read both novels back-to-back as one extended narrative. To not do so, as I found out the hard way, will cause disorientation at the start of the sequel as one tries to recall the details of the preceding volume. Nevertheless, the reader soon finds himself once again drawn into the compelling lives of the Don Cossacks through Sholokhov’s powerful and moving writing. Despite the roughly 1200 page combined length of the two installments, the Don epic is so good I didn’t want it to end.
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