Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel “Quiet Don” as document of First World War and Cossack life
by Olivia Kroth
Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov (1905-1984)
On the 1st of August 1914, the German Empire declared war on the Russian Empire, an action of far-reaching consequences. The Germans lost World War I and II. No foreign power should ever wage war against Russia. None is strong enough for such a pernicious endeavour. The novel “Quiet Don” deals with the Don Cossacks’ fate during World War I and the October Revolution of 1918. Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov (1905-1984) created a broad, multi-faceted panorama of Cossack life at the beginning of the 20th century in Southern Russia. For his outstanding work the author was awarded the Stalin, Lenin and Nobel Prize for Literature.
In this novel, the beginning of World War I and the invasion of German troops in Russia is told from a Cossack point of view:”The Cossacks rode at a smart trot. Now they saw the German Dragoons’ blue uniforms. ‘Start firing’, Astrakhan shouted, jumping from his saddle. Upright, both reins wound around his hands, he fired the first volley. Ivankhov’s horse reared up, throwing its rider to the ground. While falling, Ivankhov saw how one of the Germans died.” This was one of the first German casualties in Russia. Many more would follow.
Monument for Mikhail Sholokhov on Gogolevsky Boulevard in Moscow:
In his masterpiece Mikhail Sholokhov not only depicts the troubled times of World War I for the Don Cossacks but also the end of the tsarist regime as a consequence of the war. Many of the tsarist Cossack regiments changed sides. After 1918, they followed the Bolsheviks, giving them military support. During World War II, called the Great Patriotic War in Russia, Cossack regiments joined the Red Army and fought for the Soviet Union against Nazi invaders.
Detail of Monument for Mikhail Sholokhov on Gogolevsky Boulevard in Moscow:
In the novel the figure of Bunchuk is a Bolshevik Cossack. He shoots a tsarist officer into his open mouth as this one is holding a speech to win the Bolshevik Cossacks back for the tsar’s cause. Later he explains the motives for this deed to a comrade: “It is either them or us. There is no middle way. People like him must be killed like vipers”. Many “vipers” are killed at the end of the novel, when Bolshevik Cossacks saber captured counter-revolutionaries.
Two Bolshevik Don Cossacks are talking about Vladimir Ilych Lenin in the course of the novel. Chikhamasov says, “He is a Cossack from the stanitsa Veliky Koknyeskaya. He served in the artillery. By the way, you can tell from his physiognomy that he is a Cossack from the lower Don river: the high cheekbones, the slanted eyes. He is a true Cossack but he will not say so now. He is going to overthrow many more, not only the tsar. No, Mitrich, do not argue! Lenin is a Cossack.”
Mikhail Sholokhov, of Cossack origin himself, was born in the stanitsa Veshenskaya, on the 24th of May 1905. He joined the Bolsheviks, in 1918. In 1923, he moved to Moscow where he worked as author and journalist. After publishing his cycle of “Stories about the Don” (1926) he began writing the epic novel “Quiet Don”. The work of 2.000 pages took him 14 years to complete (1926-1940). It appeared in four volumes of 500 pages each.
For “Quiet Don” the author was awarded the Stalin Prize (1941), the Order of Lenin (1955), the Lenin Prize (1960) and the Nobel Prize for Literature (1965). The Nobel Prize Committee gave the following explanation for its choice: “The Nobel Prize for Literature 1965 goes to Mikhail Sholokhov due to the artistic force and integrity with which he created the epic novel ‘Quiet Don’, showing a historic phase in the life of the Russian people.”
Don Cossacks Uniform:
Mikhail Sholokhov became famous in the Soviet Union and worldwide. He was a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet and Vice President of the Union of Soviet Writers. In Moscow, the Sholokhov State University for Humanities was named after the author. This pegagogical institute was founded in 1951. In 2005, it ranked among the best 14 pedagogical universities of the Russian Federation. Mikhail Sholokhov was twice awarded the title “Hero of Socialist Labour”. The asteroid 2448 Sholokhov has also immortalized his name.
The novel “Quiet Don” follows the tradition of Russian history and society novels. It can be compared to Lev Tolstoi’s “War and Peace”. Mikhail Sholokhov’s work deals with the life of Don Cossacks at the beginning of the 20th century, between 1912 and 1922. The Don Cossacks enjoyed greater liberties than other subjects of Imperial Russia. They did not have to pay taxes and were no serves but free citizens. They lived as farmers, breeding horses and cattle. Don Cossacks were and still are great riding artists. They also knew well how to handle the lance, saber, rifle and pistol.
The Don Cossacks were a military society, constantly engaged in warfare. An old Don Cossack song knows: “It is not the plough that is cultivating this glorious earth. / Our earth is churned by the hooves of horses. / Our earth is covered with Cossacks’ heads. / Our peaceful Don is adorned with young widows. / Our father, the Don, has many orphans. / The tears of fathers and mothers are rolling in the waves of the peace-loving Don.”
The Don River
Many passages of the novel are lyrical, flowing as quietly or rapidly as the river itself, whose surface changes from day to night and during the four seasons: “In the evening the sky turned cherry-red in the west. Behind the great poplar the moon was rising, shedding a cold white light over the Don. At night the murmur of the water mingled with the voices of countless ducks swarming southwards.”
Evening on the Don:
A Christmas Gift
Unfortunately, this marvellous novel has almost been forgotten nowadays. It is worth reading, not only because of the rich information about World War I in southern Russia, but also and mainly as a document of Cossack life at the Don river. Could this book be an adequate Christmas gift? The following Don Cossack Christmas carol sounds inviting: “Frost and cold, ice at Christmas, bad ice / You have frozen the wolf / You have also brought love into the house.”
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Southern France. Her blog: