Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1210
The Germans still carry off flour, butter, and cattle. Every day their trucks roll from the Don through the Ukraine. Various sections of Russia, however, are fighting one another. To the north of the Don Basin, the White Army is driving back the Bolsheviks. Most of the Cossacks are in the White forces, although some are with the Reds.
Gregor and Piotra Melekhov are leaders in the White Army. Piotra, the elder brother, is decidedly anti-Red and wages battle viciously. Gregor is of two minds; perhaps the Reds will bring stable government. Gregor is opposed to pillaging civilians and killing prisoners. As best he can, he keeps his men in hand. When his father and his sister-in-law Daria visit him at the front, he is furious when they take home a wagon load of loot.
In Tatarsk, the Whites are trying to win over the Cossacks to full support of the insurgent cause. In the spring of 1918 there was a great defection of northern Cossacks to the Reds, and the southern Cossacks are only halfhearted in throwing back the Red tide. Koshevoi, a Red sympathizer, is caught when he returns to his home in Tatarsk. His companions are killed, but he is released to join the drovers in the steppes.
Eugene Listnitsky, a rich Cossack from the district, spends a furlough with a brother officer. Eugene is attracted to Olga, the man’s wife. After the officer is killed, Listnitsky marries the widow. When he gets home, Aksinia, a woman with a missing arm—and his former mistress—is still there, waiting for him. Eugene wants nothing more to do with her after his marriage. He makes love to her briefly under a currant bush and offers her money to go away. Aksinia is pained but stays. Her husband, Stepan, miraculously alive after years in prison, tries in vain to get her to come home.
Gradually the Cossacks return home; as farmers, they have to till the land. The advancing Red Army passes through the village of Tatarsk. After them comes the political men, and the Red government takes charge. Gregor is glad to be home but has little longing now for Aksinia, who was his mistress before she became Eugene’s. After years of fighting Germans and Reds, he is content to be a little reconciled to Natalia, his wife.
Koshevoi is put in charge of the government of Tatarsk, and soon Stockman, a professional Red, comes to help him. In order to consolidate their power, they begin, gradually, seizing a man here and there and spiriting him off to death or imprisonment. They want to arrest Piotra and Gregor. A little afraid to take Piotra, who is friendly with Fomin, a Red commander, they decide to take Gregor. Learning of their intentions in time, Gregor leaves Tatarsk and escapes.
As the political imprisonments and executions increase, the Cossacks revolt. The wrongs they suffered at the hands of the Reds are so great and so many that in a comparatively short time the rebellion is succeeding. Piotra is made a commander immediately. He is a ferocious fighter and ruthless with the Reds. In a skirmish, however, he is captured by the enemy. Koshevoi, now a Communist, steps out from a patrol and kills Piotra without compunction.
After serving under Piotra, Gregor rises to command a division. He is cold with fury toward the Communists and has the reputation of never keeping prisoners alive for long. When the Cossacks begin to imprison Red sympathizers from among civilians, however, he dissents strongly. On one occasion, he even forces open a prison and releases old men and women who are suspected of helping the Reds.
Stockman and the others who were the political rulers of Tatarsk are captured when a Red regiment deserts. Stockman is killed outright, and the others are returned to run a terrible gauntlet at Tatarsk. Daria kills the man she thinks responsible for the death of Piotra, her husband. Koshevoi is not suspected at the time.
Daria recovers from Piotra’s death rather speedily and soon is carrying on various affairs. When Gregor comes home on furlough, she even makes tentative love to him. Gregor, however, is tired from fighting and carousing, and he still has bitter memories of Aksinia. Natalia, who heard of Gregor’s conduct on his sprees, is cold to him. The day before he is to return to the army, Gregor meets Aksinia at the Don. He thinks of their former love and of her affair with Listnitsky; but the old love is not dead, and he takes Aksinia again.
The Soviet government realizes by May of 1919 that it has a formidable task on its hands and thus increases its forces, slowly pushing back the insurgent Cossacks. The rebels retreat toward the Don, taking with them crowds of refugees. At last the Cossacks cross the river and hold their positions.
The Reds come through Tatarsk as Natalia is recovering from typhus. Koshevoi is with them; he is indignant that Dunia, Gregor’s young sister, is across the Don, for he was long in love with her. Koshevoi’s own family is missing, and his father’s house was destroyed. He takes pride in setting afire the houses of all the rich landowners in and near Tatarsk.
Gregor, busy as a division commander, takes time to send for Aksinia, and she comes to live near him. Stepan returns, to her embarrassment, and although she does not take him back as her husband, they preserve appearances among the refugee families.
With the arrival of the White Army, the Reds are driven back. Now that the insurgents are incorporated into a regular army, Gregor is demoted to the rank of squadron commander, for he is an uneducated man. The Whites send punitive patrols to punish those who aided the Reds. To the horror of the Melekhovs, all of Koshevoi’s relatives are executed. Daria catches syphilis and drowns herself. When Natalia learns of Gregor’s return to Aksinia, she refuses to bear him another child. An unskillful abortion is performed, and she bleeds to death.
With increasing Red pressure and desertion from the Cossack ranks, the White Army is going down in defeat. Gregor and Aksinia flee south to try to board a ship. On the way, Aksinia falls ill with typhus and has to be left behind. She later makes her way back to Tatarsk. Gregor cannot leave the country. With nothing better to do, he joins the Reds and fights valiantly against the Poles.
In spite of family protests, Dunia marries Koshevoi, now commissar of the village. When Gregor returns home, Koshevoi at once sets in motion plans to arrest him. Gregor, however, escapes again, joining up with Fomin, a deserter from the Red Army. Fomin tries to rally the Cossacks to revolt against the Communists for levying heavy taxes and collecting grain. The revolt, however, is short-lived. The rebels are killed, and only Gregor goes back to Tatarsk. This time, when Gregor flees, he takes Aksinia with him, but she is killed by a pursuing Red patrol. Gregor throws his weapons into the Don and goes back to his house. Only his son is left to him now, and he will fight no more.