Tales From the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1926)

Rereading Tales From the Don (1925) by Mikhail Sholokhov, translated by HC Stevens (1961), in a lovely Abacus edition from 1983 and now being read in 2012.

Four distinct layers and contexts overlaying each other.

Two months of reading Soviet literature has inured me to the extraordinary level of violence and cruelty you encounter. This time round I am more struck by Sholokhov’s political tendentiousness. The Reds are generally heroes, including some super-heroic communist youths. Sholokhov went on to become the leading representative of Russia’s ‘Socialist Realism’ and a very high ranking official in the USSR Communist Party. He was, accordingly, reviled by dissidents and liberals. Maybe rightly so. But among the brutality and the propaganda I am enjoying the wonderful Nature poetry of his writing, lyrically translated by Stevens. In terms of style and sensuous detail this is the most rewarding of all the Soviet books I’ve read.

Although the tough, tragic young communist heroes remind me of the sentimental macho heroism of Hemingway, and, apparently, later Sholokhov goes ripely sentimental as Hemingway did.

The stories are all cast in very short numbered scenes, reminiscent of Dr Zhivago.

1. The Birthmark Nikolka, 18, leader of the Red squadron, tipped off by the brutalised mill owner, charges a party of bandits, is shot dead by his own father who recognises him from his birthmark.

2. The Herdsman Young Gregory Frolov is elected herdsman of the village despite his communist sympathies and the reluctance of the village elders. He spends the summer out on the steppe with his sister. The calves die of steppe murrain. The elders blame his atheism. He is encouraged to dream of a better life by a commissar. He writes a letter on tobacco leaves to the commissar in the town. Weeks later the head of the village rides up accuses him, and shoots him dead.

3. Shibalok’s family Shibalok in a gang of Reds. They encounter a raped woman, Daria, by the roadside. Shibalok takes her in and looks after her despite the comrades’ opposition. She learns to drive the cart. They quarter in a town. The rebels hold the other end. The reds have no ammunition but keep it secret. But are attacked in the night and flee. Shibalok comes across Daria in a clearing having the baby like an animal. She admits she was always a rebel, a spy, and tipped them off. Shibalok lets her have the baby then kicks her about and shoots her. The whole story is being told by Shibalok in a monologue as he hands the baby over to the head of an orphanage.

4. The Food Commissar Young Bodyagin, the food commissar, returns to the village of his upbringing. There his father is holding out. He’s rounded up and Bodyagin is powerless, indifferent, as he’s shot and hacked down. Later Whites return and Bodyagin and a comrade flee on horse. They come across an orphan in the snow, Bodyagin insists on picking him up, saving him. As the pursuers close in, Bodyagin sends the orphan on his way and he and the comrade make a last stand. Cut to days later when the crows are pecking at their corpses.

5. The Chairman of the Republic Revolutionary Military Soviet Told as a monologue by another communist hero, this one was appointed chairman of a republic the size of the village. He is going a journey with the commissar when they are pursued by 6 or 7 Whites who hack down the cowardly commissar, then try to persuade the Chairman to give up, but he scatters his tobacco to the wind and they hack him and then shoot him twice. But then other Reds ride up to the rescue. When he comes round he’s lost his left leg and other wounds. A food requisition ride into town. Our man tells his story:

He had nothing to answer to that; and, squeezing my hand very hard, he rode off the way he had come.

6. The Watchman in the Vegetable Plots Mitka is 14. His violent father who won medals in the war is appointed to the district court martial. He criticises his son, Fiodor, who hobnobs with the peasants and throw a jug which hits him in the head. Fiodor persuades Mitka to get the keys to the stable from the sleeping father. Fiodor saddles the best horse and escapes to the Reds in the forest. His father knocks Mitka to the floor and savagely systematically kicks him unconscious. Days later Red prisoners are brought and paraded into the village. Mitka’s father hits defenceless prisoners with his saber. Mitka persuades his mother to take cakes to the red prisoners kept in the cattle shed, crawling through the wire to give them to the guards. One day Mitka comes home to find his mother beaten to death by his father; he flees to the steppe to become a watchman of the vegetable plots. Each night he hears the Cossacks executing prisoners up at the ravine. One day Cossacks ride up to ask if he’s seen escapees. When they’re gone he finds a man crawling behind the hut. It’s his brother Fiodor. He tends him then, when a rider comes, hides him under a pile of scrub in the shanty. It is Mitka’s father. He is just about to discover Fiodor hiding when Mitka takes the axe and staves his head in. They flee. They swim across the Don to freedom.

7. The Family Man First person narrator takes a ferry with an old old ferryman. The ferry drifts and crashes into a tree midstream. He has 9 children. The eldest two boys run off to join the Reds. And they conscript the ferryman. One day they bring in Red soldiers and among them is his son. They bring him up to him and expect him to stab him. He apologises to his son, and beats him with the blunt end of a bayonet, but then runs away while the Cossacks cut him up. He is promoted to sergeant. The following Spring they reach the town of Balashov, and there the Cossacks learn his son Ivan has come over to their side, they track him and bring him before his father and charge him with taking him to the local court martial, expecting him to let him get away. Instead the ferryman lets him get down and run, but then shoots him. Then cradles him in his arms till he dies. And why? Because he has the other 7 to look after. He is, after all, a family man.

8. The Shame-Child Long story about 8 year old whose grandfather beats him till his father comes home from the war with gingerbread and stories. A commissar visits with many papers including a photo of Lenin. Mishka asks for it and cherishes it as a relic. The other village children beat him for having a communist as a father. After a space the father volunteers to go and join a red squadron outside the village fighting some Whites. Days later the Whites tell the villagers to collect the corpses and the grandfather brings home the boy’s dad butchered and slashed with sabres. Then the granddad settles Mishka on a horse and tells him to go and fetch the reds to do vengeance. In the dark the reds fire on the approaching horse which falls on its side crushing the boy’s leg. He passes out imagining Lenin holding his arms out to him.

9. The Diehard The old peasant Pakhomich is run off the road in his heavily laden sledge by the troika of the landowner Colonel Boris Alexandrovich Chornoyarov. His son, Mikhail returns from the town with clean hands and in the uniform of a Cadet. Pak, his sons Ignat and Grisha decide to leave for the Reds. The Colonel holds a village meeting, holding up Misha as a model for betraying his father and brother. A quick scene as the red are surrounded fighting, a metal train pulls out, they try to flee across the river. Ignat’s little boy takes grandmother to see the horse corpse washed up on the riverbank; it is of course her son and she falls to her knees. In a separate scene Mishka is asked by the captain what to do with his father and brother. They are marched off to a ravine and shot, as a she wolf gives birth and howls in the nearby woods.

10. The Way and the Road
Part one –
Piotr (17) and his father (51) are felters, backbreaking work. A White requisitioning officer comes demanding their year’s worth of felt boots, they refuse, Piotr is knocked unconscious, his father lashed and beaten and dragged off to prison. Piotr comes round and visits him. Pathos. At home staring out the window hears his father is being beaten. Runs to the square but it’s too late. Dialogue between the horrible priest’s wife and the fat village chairman. Who helped put the boot in and kick Piotr’s father to death.

Piotr puts his trust in Sidor but he is hauled off to be shot by the Whites. Then he’s approached by Alexander Fourth and his son who plan to blow up the White ammunition store, and Piotr successfully does it but the guards see him and shoot him as he runs away. They hide out in a holde in the dung brick pile, then sneak away through the snow to the house of the forester. But the villagers are waiting for them and capture them and are marching them to the village when they escape and make a break. The Cossacks shoot Alexander IV dead but Piotr and ? hide in the rabbit warren of mines in the hill for 2 days. When they emerge they see the Red column marching into village and run up and hug them and treat them like heroes.

11. The Foal Trofim is a Red fighter. His mare has a foal. He’s ordered to shoot it but can’t bring himself to. It follows his mother into battle and spooks the other horses. Eventually the squadron is fleeing across the Don and comes under machine gun fire. Most of the squadron get to safety but Trofim hears the foal whinnying, caught in a whirlpool, and swims to its rescue and carries it to shore, exhausted where he is shot dead by a White bullet from the opposite bank.

12. The Azure Steppe Old Zakhar tells the narrator the story, remembers working for the mad old Tomalin landowner who used to goad the horses, then cut their traces to torment them. He has a stroke. Zakhar looks after him till his death. Years later the Tomalin son returns from the war a very fine officer. He tracks down Zakhars grandsons who had gone & volunteered for the Reds. They are brought into the village where Zakhar begs for their lives. The cruelty of the rich man’s son who toys with him then kicks him in the mouth; when Semyon’s wife goes to beg, he ties the husband and wife together. Both boys are shot on the ground and then tossed into the road in front of the passing carts, some of which run over their legs. But miraculously Anikei survives, but with his legs amputated. He measures his height against the dead Semyon’s growing son.

13. Alien Blood Gavrila’s son goes off to fight in the War but never returns. His father and mother mourn and make him clothes for his return. One day a village neighbour who was in the same squadron returns and reluctantly tells them he saw their son hacked down by Cossack sabres. Unexpectedly Gavrila is cornered by Red grain requisition squad and is in the middle of being harassed by them when a group of Whites storm the village and shoot all four, then themselves are chased off by pursuing Reds. Gavrila goes to see the corpses in the communal threshing barn where he discovers one is still alive.? Carries him to his peasant home where he and his old wife nurse him back to health and uneasily come to love him. Red officers pass through commending the old man on his care. The survivor is called Nikolai but they rename him Piotr after their missing son. They tend him back to health and he works the farm with them. But then a letter comes from his comrades at the foundry which has been idle since 1917. He feels duty bound to return to them. Gavrila sees him off blinded by tears.

14. A Mortal Enemy The enmity between Yefim, a poor peasant and Ignat, a richer peasant or kulak, in the village of Podgornoe. Yefim reports Igant for hoarding grain to escape tax. Ignat kicks out Yefim’s niece from working for him. Yefim reports him. Ignat throws dead wolf cubs into Yefim’s farm so the mother wolf comes and kills his livestock. Yefim visits Igant who is admiring his pedigree dog, and Yefim brains him with an axe. One night a face appears in the window at night and tries to shoot Yefim. Days later he is walking back from the district centre when he is overtaken by three men, can’t escape on the ice, stumbles over a metal jack skidded at his feet, and then is beaten and pitchforked to death.

15. The Farm Labourers In the little village of Danilovka are two streets one of the kulaks one of shanties, rebuilt after a fire. Old man Naum Boitsov is invited to geld Father Alexander’s stallion. The horse kicks him in the chest and kills him, his 16 year old son Fedor is an orphan. He goes to work for the miserly peasant, Zakhar Denisovich who works him like a dog and only pays a rouble a month. Some wandering workers arrive with a mechanical threshing machine, living a free and easy life and getting drunk on vodka. They are scandalised at how badly Zakhar treats Feodor, there is a big argument over dinner. Eventually Zakhar and Feodor fight and the boy leaves. He goes to the District centre where he meets young communists. He feels, as he says, as if he’s come home to meet his kith and kin.

He returns to the village and gets a proper job with a contract with an old peasant but who treats him with respect. Slowly Feodor gets to know the other young contract workers and propagandises them, eventually getting them to go on strike on the eve of the summer mow. He persuades the doubting young men. And a scene where the richer peasants reluctantly agree that it’s just.

Hearty communist propaganda!


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The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (1926)

Finish The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel (1925). A Vintage paperback but a bit of a swizz, just a recovered edition of Michael Glenny’s 1967 translation without any introduction or the detailed notes which it’s crying out for.

The novel covers just a few days at the end of 1918 in the lives of the Turbin family and friends in Kiev as the occupying Germans abruptly leave the city (one of the terms of the November Armistice) along with the civilian nationalist government, leaving the citizens exposed to the advance of the Bolsheviks under Simon Petliura.

The generally conservative citizens who had acquiesced in the German occupation and the right-wing nationalist government suddenly find themselves being rounded up in the streets, shot on sight, hunted through back alleys. Betrayal, fear, panic, weeping women, murder, robbery, shootings and beheadings follow, but also Bulgakov’s trademark grotesque and fantasy. I find Bulgakov’s sense of the absurd and comic far more attractive than Pasternak’s high-minded and rather dim spirituality. Not many jokes in Dr Zhivago. God doesn’t do funny. But Bulgakov’s Devil is full of wicked, black humour.

The eldest son is in the White cadets, and the description of his puny squad of underarmed soldiers being routed by the overwhelming numbers of Red cavalry, and then his panic-stricken flight through the back streets and alleys of Kiev is one of the most thrilling things I’ve read. This is really a brilliant novel which everyone should read.

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Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel (1926)

Red Cavalry is a collection of 35 short stories written by Russian-Jewish author Isaac Babel. It’s based on his experiences with General Budenny’s First Cavalry Army during its ill-fated attempt to invade Poland and spread the Bolshevik Revolution West into Europe in the summer of 1920.

The stories are very short and sometimes very brutal and characterised by unexpected phrases and imagery. But this summary doesn’t quite capture the complexity of his affects. In my opinion these are created because the texts operate like collages or cubism, by harshly juxtaposing widely contrasting styles, perspectives, voices and attitudes.

These include:

  • descriptions of the ancient Jewish communities he comes across in Poland, their poverty and superstitions
  • his inner voice, entranced by childhood memories of Talmuds and Jewish scholarly lore
  • the disdainful scepticism of an urban, rational, revolutionary, post-religious Jew
  • his need, as a speccy four-eyes intellectual, to be accepted as one of them by the brute, animal Cossacks
  • his unillusioned descriptions of extreme violence, murder, rape, evisceration
  • the rapturous imagery of his dreams, and his lyrical descriptions of night, twilight, the stars and moon
  • his apparent devotion to the Revolution, evinced by his enthusiasm for Lenin and Trotsky’s speeches
  • contrasted with the actual stories which show, as the old Jew Gidali points out, no difference at all between the terrorism of the Revolution and the terrorism of the counter-Revolution

In very short spaces, different styles, voices and attitudes clash and interweave, often shockingly. It feels great, truly great.

Morality has no jurisdiction over revolution. On the contrary, revolution has jurisdiction over ethics. (V. Veshnev)

Babel as a pagan; all flesh is real; the world is real; the world is all that is the case. There is no Christian hankering after another world which is better than this one.

Making Babel a Lawrentian. Certainly in line with the ‘around-1914’ revolt against Victorian didacticism, moralising, Christianity, or the limp-wristed decadence of the 1890s. Babel is part of the move towards a full-blooded, violent paganism.

The brutality of Babel’s stories includes a Nietzschean thread which despises petit bourgeois morality. This appealed to Bolshevik critics. Babel’s amorality, his unflinching depiction of brutalities, reflected the Nietzschean rising-above servile Christian morality – the new Overman of the Revolution.

Babel exults in his protagonists being Beyond Good and Evil. They just are, forces of Nature, humanity in all its inhumanity.

Babel’s amorality amounts to a taking-life-as-it-is. Authors can give opinions about their stories by explicit comment, tone of voice, or plot (e.g. baddies get their comeuppance).

Babel uses a very modernist technique of inconsequentialisation i.e. making what would have been a major event in a bourgeois 19th century story, deliberately peripheral or inconsequential. For example, the Jew having his throat cut might have been the centre of a 19th century short story, but for Babel is an inconsequential detail in a story dedicated to his wandering up to the old castle.

Although to you or me, living in a peaceful age, this might just look as if the Russians are brutal and cruel by nature.


Edition

The old Penguin edition contains stories translated by Walter Morison with an introduction by Lionel Trilling.

The new Penguin edition is translated by David McDuff.

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  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

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  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, leading to street fighting in Barcelona and then mass arrests which Orwell only just managed to escape arrest, before fleeing back to England.

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