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“And Quiet Flows the Don” (1928) by Mikhail Sholokhov. Book One

This is a wonderful novel with a rollicking narrative, and great characters who are placed firmly in the historical context of the revolutionary era in what became the Soviet Union. 


Because of Sholokhov’s close ties and unapologetic support of the Soviet regime he has been shunned and seen as a patsy. He enjoyed the patronage of Stalin and according to his Wiki entry was one of an extremely select band of confidantes who could openly challenge the Soviet leader without fear. Unlike the celebrated composer Dimitri Shostakovich, himself an active CPSU member, the writer never fell foul of Stalin’s psychopathic whims; but this does not discount his supreme achievements in describing how life was for the Don Cossacks during the first part of the 20th Century.

Sholokhov was an exponent of the genre “Socialist Realism” which aims to turn the historical novel on it’s head by writing from the viewpoint of the working class and peasantry rather using Tolstoy’s tack (which was the way things were done in the 19th Century) of using the elite as our guide through events. That is not to diminish Tolstoy as in “War and Peace” (1869) Prince Pierre Bezukhov is one of the all time great novel narratorial characters.  We start to see a change, and a move into the modern style with Raskolnikov,  a poor student who is the star of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment” (1866).

This was my second reading of … Don after a twenty year gap and one thing that I missed first time around is the fact that the Don river itself is a major character, not just a convenient backdrop or setting. It is real and visceral suffering the devastating losses of World War One which were then tragically exacerbated by the intervention of the West following the Bolshevik October Revolution in 1917. The so called White Russian army begat some truly appalling suffering on the Cossacks as, backed by the likes of Churchill the Western Powers once again threw their weight behind unaccountable local thugs in their efforts to kill the Soviet Union at birth. The modern analogy is US support for Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban, plus the proxy wars being fought in the Syria/ Kurdistan regions.

… Don begins with an evocation, but by no means eulogisation of the life of peasant workers in the Cossack region of pre revolutionary Russia. The characters are rich and varied plus Sholokhov does not shy away from dealing with tough topics such as domestic violence, alcohol abuse, extra martial sex and the petty feuds and jealousies that are present in most tight knit communities.

Sholokhov shares with English writer Robert Tressel (“The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” 1914) the genius ability to portray the everyday inconveniences and slights faced by working class people, wherever they are, but not in a preachy way that can make a book seem like an overt political tract. For example one of our main characters suffers the loss of an eye in battle at the start of WW1 and his experiences of being carted about and then encountering (to him) the unfathomable hierarchy of class in Moscow lead to reflections on existential issues with a fellow patient as he de-constructs the world around him.  This leads him to becoming a Socialist. This works better and engages the reader more effectively in my opinion than say Jean Paul Sartre. Often his characters are frankly dull and ideologically driven . Their opinions are cast in stone and not at all organic. You get the impression that the Frenchman simply wants to drive a nail into your head and as a reader you have no opinion. The story drives  …Don and although Sholokhov is clearly on one side this never grates or gets in the way.

Being in hospital (once the dangerous bit was over with) and being in an electronic no go zone gave me plenty of reading time using the new fangled Kindle thingy. I was, however surprised by the monumental number to typos. It made the first draft of “Through Red Lenses” (2015) which Danny and I inflicted on various people look like a top rate job. The text version of  …Don I possess has minuscule print so I will have to wait until late this year for book 2. Frustrating.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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