And Quiet Flows the Don, by Mikhail Sholokhov

And Quiet Flows the Don

And Quiet Flows the Don is not as long as the longest of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s novels, but it’s the same sort of ambitious attempt at a sweeping work covering much space and time, following a large number of characters through a historically important and tumultuous time period, and providing psychological and sociological insight into said characters and their milieu in the process.

Other than a brief introduction from a generation or two earlier, the novel takes place between about 1905 and 1920. Its primary setting is along the Don River in Russia, where the Don Cossacks live, but it then follows some of its characters to other areas of Russia and Europe.

This is the historical period, of course, when the Czarist regime was growing weaker and more unstable, then Russia threw itself into World War I, then the monarchy collapsed and was temporarily replaced by Kerensky’s government, then the Bolsheviks toppled that government and took power, and then the monarchists, the rich, elements of the military, and foreign nations played “anybody but the Bolsheviks” and the country was plunged into civil war.

The novel provides a “ground level” look at these events, showing how they were experienced by mostly ordinary people who had access to only very limited information as to what was going on at higher levels, and whose perceptions were influenced by their preconceptions, customs, myths, biases, etc. There’s no CNN, no Internet, just whatever rumors haphazardly circulate by word of mouth.

The battle scenes are handled particularly well. The chaos of it all, the panic, the fear, the gruesome physical injuries, the gravity of frantically taking human life at close quarters—I’ve rarely read an account of combat so vivid and realistic. It’s the literary equivalent of Saving Private Ryan.

By the way, a cavalry war in the 20th century feels really anachronistic.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think how it might have been self-censored. It was written in the Soviet Union during the time of Stalin. So you have to assume Sholokhov wrote it in such a way as to stay within the official and unofficial guidelines for such things.

That being said, it really doesn’t strike me as pro-Bolshevik propaganda, at least not of a particularly crude and obvious sort. The Bolsheviks in the book on average are more idealistic and more concerned about the people suffering and dying due to the injustices of the existing political and economic system and its pointless wars than are the other characters, but, one, I wouldn’t say that that’s historically inaccurate, and, two, they’re also presented as just as ruthless, just as violent, just as brutal, just as willing to “break a few eggs” as any other group (which is also historically accurate).

So I’m sure it was shaped to some degree by the oppressive environment in which it was written, but not as much or as obviously as I would have expected.

Certainly a major element of the book is its depiction of Cossack life. Though it is in some ways a sympathetic portrayal, and there is a universality to some of the human experiences and emotions that encourages considerable empathy, at the same time the Cossacks come across as ignorant, semi-barbarians—warlike, superstitious, heavily dependent on customs and traditions, and certainly macho and sexist.

The male-female relations are especially intriguing. It’s a constant in the book that the male ego depends largely on the female as property. Time after time after time someone is stealing someone’s wife, or beating his wife because she might be cheating, or seeking revenge against someone for taking his wife, etc. The women aren’t exactly shrinking violets; they at times take an active role in these goings-on, but certainly not from a position of equality.

Rape is almost routine. There’s a particularly harrowing gang rape scene, but there are plenty of other instances of rape, or implied rape, or the threat or risk of rape, or semi-coercive rape-like sex, or even rape within the family. The attitudes toward and treatment of women is positively Borat-like at times.

The Cossacks see themselves as distinct from Russians or any other people. Classwise, though most of them are scrounging to survive, they identify neither with the urban workers nor with the peasants (who had just recently been released from the semi-slavery of serfdom). Some of them own small amounts of land, and in general they see themselves as self-sufficient and fiercely independent. Individually and collectively they are pulled in different directions relative to the various factions battling for power in the country as a whole, and not infrequently they switch sides. As a rule of thumb, they support whichever group they see as most likely to leave the Cossacks alone and allow them the most autonomy.

I found And Quiet Flows the Don a bit stronger in communicating these general facts about the political and social environment and such than in its portraits of individual characters. In that respect, I would say it affected me more like Tolstoy’s fiction than Dostoyevsky’s. As much as I like Tolstoy, for me Dostoyevsky’s characters as individuals are consistently more memorable, more striking, more psychologically complex and fascinating.

Some of the characters in this book came alive for me to some extent—like Gregor, Aksinia, Natalia, maybe Gregor’s father Pantaleimon—but not as much as in, say, the best of Dostoyevsky. A fair number of the other characters (e.g., the other Cossacks fighting in World War I and then choosing sides for or against the Bolsheviks) ran together in my mind, and the romance between the idealistic Bolsheviks Bunchuk and Anna mostly didn’t win me over (and came the closest of any writing in the book to feeling stilted and propagandistic).

Certainly And Quiet Flows the Don is an impressive work. For me, it is good but mixed in creating strong, believable, memorable characters and scenes, and even better at giving a sense of what it was like to live through these events that had such a huge impact on world history.

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