Sholokhov, Mikhail (Vol. 7)
Sholokhov, Mikhail 1905–
Sholokhov, the Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1965, is a Russian novelist and short story writer. His realistic masterwork Tikhi Don (The Silent Don) is a saga of his own Don Cossack region during the chaotic decade of the Russian Revolution.
According to Fadeyev's formulation in his momentous article, or manifesto, The Road of Soviet Literature (1928), the new realism ["psychological realism"] was striving to explain the attitude of its heroes by disclosing their motivations and by drawing detailed psychological portraits. It aspired to 'depicting live men and to a truthful rendering of Soviet reality.' Truth-in-art, as Tolstoy understood it, became the slogan of a powerful literary group. (p. 362)
The highest achievement of Psychological Realism was, undoubtedly, the work of Michael Sholokhov, who is considered one of the leaders in Soviet literature. (p. 363)
However, it was not the monumental bulk alone of Sholokhov's work that reminded one of War and Peace: there were, as well, its structure and artistic manner. This does not mean, of course, that The Quiet Don is nearly as great and magnificent as its model, but Sholokhov, following the example of the master, interwove biography with history, and scenes of battles and of the movements of masses with incidents of family life, and showed social upheavals and political changes through the eyes of individuals whose loves, happiness, or ruin were determined by hidden forces of class struggle and the Revolution…. One could easily utilize The Quiet Don as a fictionalized history of all the changes the Don Cossacks went through during the decade 1910–20, but it would be unfair to take it as a mere historical illustration—it is a true novel, which evokes a feeling of life and creates vivid images of men and women. (pp. 363-64)
Grigory [or, as often transliterated, Gregor or Gregory] is the embodiment of millions of Russians who had … wavered between the Reds and the Whites, of a generation whose lives and homes were reduced to ashes during the civil war and whose task it was in the 1920's to resume life and to rebuild everything from the very beginning. No wonder, then, that the Russian readers recognized themselves and their recent past in the enormous mirror of this narrative, which held a tremendous emotional appeal for them.
What made this recognition so easy and so general was the fact that the author did not try to exert 'ideological coercion.' Himself a Communist, he never made a mystery of his convictions and sympathies, but this did not affect his artistic integrity and his objectivity in description…. The Quiet Don told a story of nation-wide significance. What is more, it showed [the] complex process of psychological and class division, of faith and disbelief, of doubt and apprehension, through concrete examples of definite personages, through the stories of their lives, through the conveying of thoughts and emotions. Sholokhov never subordinated these stories to his political ideas, never used his plot to drive a point home. He delivered no message; he simply unrolled a panorama of events and represented the flow of life with all its meanderings. An excellent portrait-painter with a sense of humor and a keen, observant eye, he conveyed a strong feeling of reality through his numerous protagonists, each of whom was drawn with distinct physical and psychological traits. Not only the main characters—treated in detail—but all the incidental and secondary ones have their individual ways of speech and behavior; they have a solid, earthy quality and are modeled by a sure hand. The plasticity of the men and women in The Quiet Don is definitely one of its principal assets.
The narration of this roman fleuve, with its slow and majestic delivery and its strong feeling for nature and all the manifestations of being, is also in the nineteenth-century tradition…. In general, he is at his best in evoking sensory details, in conveying the illusion of a palpable world. His psychological analysis is less successful, although he does devote full attention thereto. There is something naïve and unsophisticated in his reading of the human mind and heart.
It may be objected that his characters are simple, primitive men and women, and that therefore the writer could not avoid depicting rather elemental intellectual and emotional processes. But it is doubtful whether Sholokhov is able to deal with psychological complexities in the same way he deals with instinctual drives. In any case, the fact that passions and irrational leanings determine the behavior of Sholokhov's characters gave him a good opportunity for discarding the demands of the ideologists. Faithful to the school he represented, he aims at the description of the 'organic man, the complete man, with his unconscious as well as his conscious self—as he is in real life.' Certain Communist critics consoled themselves for this lack of 'rational and ideological elements' by asserting that the very concreteness of Sholokhov's images and character studies was in perfect keeping with the Marxian philosophy of dialectical materialism, which (as opposed to metaphysics and idealism) accepts the reality of the visible world and of sensorial experience. (pp. 365-66)
It could be argued that The Quiet Don, with its qualities of a panorama that observes all the laws of perspective and figure-drawing inherited from the old masters, is curiously lacking in any new stylistic devices and literary originality. Except for some lyrical passage in descriptions of nature, a few apostrophes on the part of the author, and a certain naturalistic coarseness of dialogue, particularly in erotic episodes, Sholokhov faithfully imitated his great predecessors. Neither in psychological depth nor in symbolic interpretation of man and society does he ever attain great heights. He is an excellent though not an epoch-making or trail-blazing writer, and this minimizes his position in the history of Russian letters: though Sholokhov is indubitably the most prominent of the Soviet writers of the 1930's, this disciple of Leo Tolstoy must be compared with the dei minores of the realistic school—with, for instance, Melnikov-Pechersky.
Other works by Sholokhov displayed the same merits and the same limitations…. [The Seeds of Tomorrow] remains one of the best pictures of the first period of collectivization, and is far superior to such popular but badly written novels as Fanferov's Bruski. Davydov, the chief character, is often cited as the very prototype of a Communist. (pp. 366-67)
Marc Slonim, in Modern Russian Literature: From Chekhov to the Present (copyright © 1953 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, 1953.
Nowhere is the mark of the budding artist more in evidence than in the language of [The Don Tales, Sholokhov's first volume of] stories. Sholokhov is essentially a novelist of action, but the medium is a carefully orchestrated language. Thus speech is a major factor in the individualization of his characters; the intonation in each case is not so much an imitation of life as it is a divination. (p. 167)
These early tales are obviously the efforts of a youthful writer who was already a conscious literary artist. Sholokhov deliberately confines himself to people, situations, and locale which he knows from first-hand experience and he is never tempted to stray beyond the circumference of his own knowledge. Though in his treatment of the Don Cossacks he admittedly wishes to correct mistaken popular notions about this unusual people, he does not overtly plead a cause. If his sympathies are with the Reds, he does not portray them unrealistically—their failings as well as their virtues are revealed. There is little basis for the insistence of some recent Soviet critics that in these tales Sholokhov was already aware of all the implications of the class struggle on the Don. He seems aware solely of a tragic civil war in which the Communists, who were a minority, were trying to force their rule over a people who for generations had exercised considerable democratic freedom in managing their own local affairs. The political niceties of Marxian explanations of the reasons for the struggle had not as yet occurred to the young Sholokhov. (p. 168)
For the student of the development of Sholokhov's creative art,… The Azure Steppe has considerable importance. We see in embryo in these early tales the future powerful psychological realist as he creates characters and bold, dramatic situations. (p. 169)
Instead of attributing the tremendous success of The Silent Don to its adherence to Marxian principles and socialist realism, Soviet critics would do well to recognize, on the strength of this example, that an avoidance of such prescriptions is an important condition for the creation of any worth while literary art in the Soviet Union.
Without denying Sholokhov's awareness, from the Communist point of view, of the political significance of the struggle that took place on the Don, his major interest as a literary artist was in the human beings who were the victims of war, revolution, and civil war. (p. 210)
In the last analysis, nothing could be more irrelevant than the attempts of Party-minded critics to use The Silent Don as a text out of which to expound the political aims of art. What political implications it may have are really incidental to the dominant human interest theme of the novel—the narration of a great and moving love story, almost the only great love story in Soviet literature. (p. 212)
[It] is not easy to understand how a writer of Sholokhov's integrity could have submitted to the demands—and there have been many—of the Party critics that he make extensive ideological changes in The Silent Don in substantive matters. (p. 219)
An historical novel is not an historical chronicle. Historical events are only the frame of a canvas on which the novelist depicts a story of life. In the original version of The Silent Don historical events are described as the characters saw them happening in those days, and their understanding of and reactions to them have the vital immediacy and convincingness of participants. The historical events bearing on the Revolution and the civil war in the 1953 revised edition of the novel reek of the political propaganda of today, and the Bolshevik characters of 1917–22 now react to these events as would similar idealized Communists in Soviet fiction of 1953. A pronounced tendentious purpose very much obtrudes in this edition of The Silent Don and seriously compromises the artistic integrity of the novel. (pp. 219-20)
Though Virgin Soil Upturned has been regarded abroad, in translation, as a remarkably objective treatment of the theme of agricultural collectivization, in reality it is subtle Soviet propaganda embodied in the compelling, artistic form of fiction. (p. 221)
From the point of view of the Soviet critic,… Maidannikov [in Virgin Soil Upturned] is the perfect ideological symbol of the middle peasant with a "dual soul" who struggles manfully against his kulak tendencies and in the end finds his way to a complete acceptance of Party doctrine. (pp. 226-27)
In considering Virgin Soil Upturned as a work of art, it must be remembered that it was initially conceived in 1930 as a response to the "social command" of the First Five-Year Plan, a kind of fictional handbook on how and how not to organize a collective farm. It has nothing of the scope, the design, or the concentration on the tragic significance of universal human conflict which we find in The Silent Don. Yet it seems likely that the original limited theme of the birth of a collective farm at Gremyachy Log expanded as Sholokhov worked and an intended single volume lengthened into two volumes.
In any event the mature artistry which he developed in writing his masterpiece has transformed a documentary propaganda novel into a living slice of Cossack Russian life. There are no great characters such as Gregor Melekhov and Aksinia in Virgin Soil Upturned, but there is a group of thoroughly interesting characters, several of whom may acquire a more memorable significance if the novel is ever finished. Nor are there the varied nature descriptions of The Silent Don or the intimate, often symbolic, fusions of the aspects of nature with the emotions and actions of individuals, though there are enough of these qualities to provide Sholokhov's lesser novel with more than ordinary stature. However, the social pattern of Gremyachy Log and the lives of its striking personalities are as vividly and entertainingly revealed as are those in the village of Tatarsk, and this is perhaps the major artistic achievement of the novel.
In the 1953 edition of Virgin Soil Upturned Sholokhov has done as much violence to the original version of this novel as he did in the case of the 1953 revised edition of The Silent Don, and probably for the same reasons. If anything, the results are more concentrated and hence more deplorable in the shorter work, for a novel in which the initial propaganda elements were rather well assimilated and diffused throughout a narrative of genuine human interest is now transformed into what is essentially a propaganda instrument. Most of the claimed twelve hundred changes are in language and style, and many of them go far toward emasculating the naturalness and virility of the original language, thus weakening its artistic effectiveness. Most of the substantive alterations, as was true in the case of the revision of The Silent Don, concern the Communist characters, but since they are the major figures in Virgin Soil Upturned the artistic harm done to the novel is much greater. Again the main intent of the revision is to purify these characters in language and behavior, to make them conform to the devitalized and idealized Communist moral prigs in postwar Soviet literature. (pp. 243-44)
[As] a Marxist, Sholokhov believes that every action has its alternative and that history depends on the correct choice of action. His principal protagonists are faced with these choices and their striking individualities emerge from the give and take of this mortal struggle acted out against a background of broad social and historical change. However, like another distinguished Communist writer, the German Bertold Brecht, Sholokhov combines with his Marxism a certain belief in the individual and at the same time an awareness of the inevitability of the power over him compelling irrational moral choices. Out of such situations arises a profound human sympathy for the individual who, in opposition to the victorious, progressive path of the future, elects to follow the dead-end path of the past, adding a tragic dimension which is peculiarly Soviet and one which Sholokhov develops with conviction and psychological subtlety. (p. 251)
Ernest J. Simmons, "Mikhail Sholokhov," in his Russian Fiction and Soviet Ideology: Introduction to Fedin, Leonov, and Sholokhov (copyright © 1958 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1958, pp. 163-252.
Mikhail Sholokhov is recognized everywhere as the leading Soviet writer…. Furthermore, the honors bestowed upon him by the Government match his popularity with the masses….
Sholokhov's reputation rests mainly on his monumental "And Quiet Flows the Don," an epic of Cossack life in peace, war and revolution. It is one of the most beloved works of fiction in the Soviet Union…. Sholokhov's way of life and temperament also contribute to his fame…. He belongs to the soil, particularly to the land of the Cossacks, those half-warriors, half-peasants who continue to maintain old traditions within the structure of a Communist society.
The legend which is being built around Sholokhov's name in Russia pictures him as a man of great integrity and independence—and this despite the fact that he yielded to party pressures and revised his "And Quiet Flows the Don" according to advice from above. It is true that he is often very outspoken and does not mince words in attacking literary bureaucrats and fat-headed censors. (p. 1)
Because the events of the early Thirties have lost their topical interest, "Harvest on the Don" seems a historical novel today even to the Russian reader. The book's principal merit lies not in the evocation of a period but in the character portrayals—of Communist officials and village eccentrics, country wenches and nagging old witches. Although not all of the protagonists are convincing, the secondary characters do come alive and are cast in a pleasant, humorous light.
Follower of Tolstoy's method of psychological realism, Sholokhov is not endowed with the depth, wisdom and insight of the great master. But he learned from him that a representational narrative seeking "truthfulness to life" must provide a total portrayal of human beings, or "round" characters.
In most of today's novels on Russian life we find a sweetened reality, populated by bearers of social functions and professional aptitudes. When portraying an important Communist, the writer of "Socialist realism" avoids showing his defects; and in dealing with a villain he does not dare attribute virtue to him. People are drawn in black and white, and plots are sifted through the fine sieve of the latest policy instructions. The stereotype in the obligatory portraiture of the "positive hero" led to a dull iconography, and the analogous cliché of decadent knaves produced a throng of little demons.
"Harvest on the Don" is not a great novel or an … important work of art. It is simply a good narrative in the Russian nineteenth-century manner—but it is a relief after the specimens of the prevailing school. Sholokhov draws his characters as individuals with elemental drives and shaped by their link with the soil. They are organic human beings. (pp. 1, 41)
One can say that Sholokhov always sketches naïve people, that he avoids psychological complications, and that his reading of human heart and mind is limited. This may be true but one should not forget that he depicts primitive men and women, and is at his best in rendering their instinctual urges. There is vigor and vitality in his descriptions, including excellent pictures of Russian nature and here again his main asset is that he conveys an organic feeling of his native land and its people. The writing of Sholokhov has a solid, earthy quality, and whatever he chooses to picture is done with a sure hand….
[The] novel's main note is humor. Since Sholokhov is a regional novelist, his humor has a racy folklore flavor, and he uses dialogue and tales within a tale to produce his comic effects….
"Harvest on the Don" is not an ideological novel. It is a lively old-fashioned narrative which makes no attempt to coerce or educate. As such it represents a ray of light and hope in the realm of insipid uniformity. (p. 41)
Mark Slonim, "Faces in a Pageant of Upheaval," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 19, 1961, pp. 1, 41.
I know of no living novelist who has brought to his big narratives of country life such color, character, and humor as Mikhail Sholokhov. He was blessed with his material, for the Cossack villages on the river Don, in one of which he was born in 1905, have been, in fact, as in his fiction, a scene of violent struggle and slow conversion to the Soviet system…. Sholokhov's concern … is that of an artist, a naturalistic painter; his sympathy is primarily for the life of the village, and he employs the technique and morality of socialist realism more as a means of underscoring. His four novels, which have been thirty-six years in the writing, beginning with And Quiet Flows the Don and concluding with Harvest on the Don…, are centered in the tiny community of Gremyachy Log, whose people long lived by a medieval ritual. The books can be enjoyed separately; taken together they form a turbulent, earthy epic of the revolution and its aftermath. (pp. 104, 106)
It is Sholokhov's genius to incorporate in [Harvest on the Don] the ruddy, primitive vitality of the village: the wonderful folk tales of Shaly, the smith, and Arzhanov, the ancient horseman; the lusty comedy of the fat cook who needs "two and a half men to embrace her"; the lazy reprobate Shchukar, sleeping in the ravine; Trofim, the sly, contentious goat; the sparrows on the eaves, who scatter as the argument rises; the black eagle of the steppe, so marvelously etched against the sun. Such warmth and comedy are essential. (p. 106)
Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright 1961 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1961.
[It is clear that Gregory, hero of The Quiet Don,] is meant to be pitied as heroes are pitied for having fallen through errors as great as their natures. But it is Mishka Koshevoy whom we are invited to accept as the ideal required by a cruel age, Mishka who is at opposite poles from the proud and rebellious Gregory—an unpretentious fellow, from early boyhood dutifully supporting his widowed mother, reading Marx, fighting always on the side of the Reds, and ending up as commissar of the local soviet, a calm and steady character who has a good and sufficient reason for everything he does…. Stoic harshness has replaced in him a native inclination to gentleness, and loyalty to the Party has channeled his private sentiments. Gregory, by contrast, is semiliterate, has not read Marx, and has no conception of the historic meaning of the events in which he is caught up. Ideas about communism drop on him as suddenly as war itself…. Dissatisfied with life, unable to answer any argument, much less evolve a theory of his own, Gregory feels lost among these doctrines as in "a snow storm on the steppe"…. By contrast to Mishka, Gregory has grown with the years from a kind of careless and callow toughness to anguish and a mature capacity for tenderness. (pp. 306-07)
But [Mishka] is a pale creature by the side of Gregory, whom Sholokhov had not perhaps, at first, intended to make quite so attractive as he turned out to be.
And this may indicate an unacknowledged discord in Sholokhov's work, a conflict between dogma and humaneness, almost as if he himself were a Gregory trying to become Mishka. For however cold its doctrine, in feeling The Quiet Don is grandly romantic. The love story of Gregory and Aksinia is done on a heroic scale, the descriptions of the land are prose lyrics inspired by authentic passion, and there is tenderness and humor in individual episodes. All this spontaneous delight, however, is held in check by a dutiful pragmatism, for which nothing may be considered valuable except in so far as it is directed to an end. The end is the victory of bolshevism, and Sholokhov's purpose is to display its excellence. His righteousness constricts an inborn poetry and narrows his appreciation of men in such a way that, in the last analysis, all that is spontaneous seems inconclusive and extraneous to the main design, hard driven by the demands of a moral. The book is about men, but how a man feels or thinks, how he grows, what concepts or imaginings have formed his mind or generated his emotions, are matters with which Sholokhov is less concerned than with what men think, what it is right for them to think, with what they feel and what it is right for them to feel under given circumstances, rather than in how thoughts and feelings take shape. His understanding of men is thoroughly materialistic. In his view, no free play of emotions, no chaos of feeling, seeking form and direction, impinges on the world. An emotion cannot be unattached; it is created by an object, and there is nothing interesting in it except as it eventuates in action. His art is based on this materialism. Simple, concrete, it produces an effect of brute immediacy. His epic is a sequence of episodes; its theme is a moment in history; its plot is, in essence, a story of flight and pursuit. Experience in it is not a thought, but a blow. Everything is sharply defined, clearly delimited; bodies and faces, details of action are minutely drawn. Men are seen in gestures that represent not the pattern of mind and character, as they do with Tolstoy, but the demands of a given situation. (pp. 308-09)
Tolstoy's realism was the result of skilled analysis; his simplicity was the height of sophistication. He studied the world with the same uncompromising severity with which he looked into himself; he understood others through self-knowledge, and his writing was an attempt to define himself in relation to others and to his world. It was a deep but troubled introspectiveness that made his greatness, and his finest creations project the problem by which he was always tormented: how to preserve the precious insights of intuition and curb an inveterate impulse to dissect, which seemed to him destructive. His celebrated method of "otstranenie," of "making things strange"—of seeing everything, that is, as if it had never been seen before—depended on this acute self-awareness; his work, however realistic in effect, is in essence subjective, and always speculative. That is why the world of his novels appears through the eyes of men and women who approach it with the notions and interests characteristic of their personalities. Like Tolstoy himself, they have questions to ask of life…. To Tolstoy's men and women, action and sensuous perceptions are a testing ground of ideas; all that happens physically corroborates them or perturbs the mind. For Sholokhov the opposite is true. Occurences in the physical realm are primary and most important. The mind, like the body, reacts automatically to the blows that overwhelm it. The senses are not subordinate to the imagination. Meaning and value reside in the physical world, and little exists beyond the evidence of sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. (pp. 315-16)
It is, then, in the realm of consciousness, in the role of the mind's debate with itself, that one detects a basic difference between Tolstoy's realism and Sholokhov's. Sholokhov seems to have no quarrel with himself, and the disharmony one notices in his work does not appear to have engaged his consciousness. He has neither the habit nor the need to look inward; he does not have to fight his mind; his work proceeds from a kind of unobtrusive solidity, a calm self-assuredness. He is a chronicler of events and is not identified with any of his characters, as Tolstoy is, for example, with his Pierre Bezukhov and his Andrey Bolkonsky. (p. 316)
It is the group that matters; the ideal man is the social servant; and the willful individual, embodied in Gregory, is denounced as tragically mistaken. His failure is complete and without compensation, and all that made him unique is implicitly damned: passion, rebelliousness, pride, the will to put principles to the test and to change allegiance as conscience may exact. In a moral order that takes discipline and submissiveness to be the highest virtues, sympathy for a man like Gregory, who hesitates at the crossroads, cannot be allowed. And one can only marvel at the rapidity with which in a revolutionary epoch the ideal of revolt has been suppressed.
Gregory stirs our pity but does not move our reason; his passionate life, twisting in tangled and devious ways, leads nowhere beyond itself. And yet, as a representative of the old order, he might have been a Great Antagonist, a Satan, a Prometheus, or at least an Iago. But Sholokhov's scheme demands that the undistinguished be praised. (p. 318)
It is not by virtue of an ideal that Sholokhov holds us entranced, but by the passions of his men and women, by his vigorous love of the land, and by the sheer fascination of horror. The love story of Gregory and Aksinia is as powerful as any love story of romantic legend. It has no "meaning" as Tolstoy's love stories have meaning; it stands by itself, overwhelming and complete. It is the glory of the book. Nowhere else does Sholokhov's gift appear more clearly, nowhere else does one see so well how feeling may be shown pictorially—compact, unanalyzed—in the graphic utterance of actions and gestures. It is an earthy love. And the whole book is earthy; it feels and smells of the soil. The seasons here are the timepiece by which the fortunes of individuals and history itself are clocked. Men are attached to the earth physically and emotionally, and the setting of their lives is never forgotten. (p. 319)
[With] its melancholy tone, its love and pity for a land "watered with blood," [The Quiet Don] belongs to a long, patriotic tradition that goes back to The Lay of Igor's Armament and includes some of the finest pages in Russian literature: Gogol's celebrated descriptions of the Ukraine, Turgenev's of northern Russia, Blok's cycle, On The Field of Kulikovo. (p. 321)
To Sholokhov, wounds, convulsions, death throes, self-inflicted mutilations are the order of the day, and he records them minutely. Not callously, however, convinced as he is that in the outcome all misery will be redeemed. He is optimistic because his goal is sure, and because there is nothing imponderable in his, view of life. This is not the same as Tolstoy's happiness, nor Homer's enjoyment of all that exists. Tolstoy's morality was, in essence, hedonistic. Happiness was his theme, and happiness not as a future possibility, a social goal, but as an actuality, experienced in ordinary moments of evanescent pleasure, which were the purpose and standard of life. Homer's delight was in the moral strength of men and their physical vigor and joy in living. But Sholokhov is pleased and hopeful because men know how to endure. (p. 322)
As is usually true of fine works of art, The Quiet Don admits of various interpretations. "It is inconceivable," writes Professor Ernest Simmons, for example, "that Sholokhov expected his readers, even within the Soviet Union, to prefer the Bolshevik monster [i.e., Mishka Koshevoy] to the tragic Gregory Melekhov." Indeed, this does seem inconceivable when one confronts the paltriness of the "monster" with the splendor of Gregory, that "Hamlet of the Steppe." As artistic conceptions they are incommensurable. But that other aspect of Sholokhov's art, which militates against his art, his stubborn and naïve loyalty to bolshevism, makes it by no means clear that his intentions always coincide with his artistic intuition. Gregory is magnificent by virtue of his strength, justice, and independence. The character he most closely resembles in Russian fiction is Dmitry Karamazov. But his tragedy is occasioned by the nature of the society with which he is involved; it is the tragedy of an independent and solitary man in a world that has no place for solitude and independence. Mishka Koshevoy, on the other hand, is attuned to this world, and however paltry he may appear by the side of the great-souled Gregory, he is, of the two, the one who in Sholokhov's philosophy is the more nearly "right."… Mishka may exaggerate, but his direction is correct; the Party is foremost in his thoughts, he serves it as he must, and such service demands ruthlessness. Later it became possible for Sholokhov to denounce this kind of inhumanity, but that was only after Stalin had stamped it as the sin of "leftist deviationism." (pp. 326-27)
Helen Muchnic, in her From Gorky to Pasternak (copyright © 1961 by Helen Muchnic; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1961.
A Cossack himself, Sholokhov has shown that not all Cossacks were as black as they were painted. He distinguishes between rich and poor, good and evil, educated and illiterate, reactionary and progressive. "Tales of the Don" in more than one sense is a Cossack version of Turgenev's "Memoirs of a Sportsman."
It is no exaggeration to say that these tales, together with Sholokhov's major works, "The Silent Don" and "Virgin Soil Upturned," were an important factor in winning over the younger generation of Cossacks to the Soviet regime. These Red Cossacks played a significant role in the defense of the USSR in World War II. Nor was it an accident that a new edition of the Sholokhov tales was published in the Soviet Union in 1958. The vicissitudes of the herdsman, watchman, farm laborer, felter, and other destitute or maltreated Cossacks serve as a reminder of their plight some forty years ago, as compared with their position today.
Ivar Spector, "About Life, for the Party," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1962 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 24, 1962, p. 28.
In literary quality and scope [The Quiet Don] has no equal in Soviet literature. (p. 217)
Sholokhov the artist understands the organic character of the peasant resistance to collectivization. Sholokhov the Communist attempts to explain this resistance by the rigidity of the peasant psyche and the peasantry's natural reaction to the errors and "excesses" of the local authorities. These errors must be carefully corrected at the next stage. Such is the political philosophy of [Virgin Soil Upturned]. (p. 224)
Vera Alexandrova, "Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–)," in her A History of Soviet Literature, translated by Mirra Ginsburg (copyright © 1963, 1964 by Vera Alexandrova-Schwarz; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday, 1963, pp. 216-32.
The Quiet Don … represents with near perfection that fusion of traditional Russian realism with Soviet socialist realism, and was written by a Communist who, because of his artistic integrity, all but refused to sacrifice either the logic of his design or—in the Tolstoyan sense—the truth of his hero to extraneous demands of Party doctrine. If there is any point in the old cliché that all literature is propaganda, but not all propaganda is literature, then it may be said that propaganda is brilliantly sublimated in The Quiet Don. (p. 230)
Where Sholokhov's realism differs most from Tolstoy's is in the treatment of characterization. His approach is similar to that of Chekhov in his early literary period—one of complete objectivity—a most unusual practice for a Soviet writer. But Sholokhov goes beyond Chekhov whose determination to let his characters speak for themselves did not exclude the omniscient author's prerogative of commenting on them. Sholokhov, as it were, reports on his characters, never appearing to identify himself with them, and he avoids associating himself with their actions or philosophizing about their thoughts and feelings. (pp. 246-47)
The major artistic achievement of the first volume of Virgin Soil Upturned rests on Sholokhov's brilliant realism which brings so vividly to life the whole social pattern of Gremyachy Log and its striking personalities. It is little wonder that this work soon became a fixture on the reading lists of Soviet schools, for some critics pretended to value it higher than The Quiet Don because of its propaganda effectiveness, ideological correctness, and its positive hero Davydov. Quite apart from these dubious qualifications, there can be no doubt that the artistic worth of the novel places it far ahead of the abundant Five-Year Plan fiction devoted to the theme of agricultural collectivization. (p. 253)
[The] Party line is followed so rigidly in the continuation of Virgin Soil Upturned that a kind of deterministic inevitability takes the place of the excitement and tense expectancy in events that characterized the first volume. It is hardly a sequel in an epic of collectivization, for Sholokhov restricts the action to two summer months of 1930, the year in which the first volume was centered, thus avoiding any consideration of the important and bitter events in agricultural planning in the years immediately following. The sense of history is further lost in its updating to the present, for the continuation portrays the goals of the Party in 1930 as identical with those of peasants who find their interests cheerfully merged with Communists in a triumph of socialism. In short, in ideological terms at least, socialist realism seems to have taken over entirely in Sholokhov's writing.
The continuation is loosely constructed and excessively episodic, with a disproportionately large part of it devoted to inserted stories, often of an anecdotal nature. Sholokhov's gift for humor is reflected more fully than in any of his previous writings. Sometimes these tales advance the action or the characterization of the narrator, at others they are told simply as comic interludes…. (pp. 255-56)
[Sholokhov's] total artistic achievement in fiction demonstrates better than that of any other Soviet novelist both a continuation of Russian classical realism of the nineteenth century and the change to socialist realism in the twentieth. (p. 258)
Ernest J. Simmons, "Sholokhov: Literary Artist and Socialist Realist," in his Introduction to Russian Realism (copyright © 1965 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1965, pp. 225-64.
[Sholokhov] wrote in a way everyone could understand and said what everybody needed to hear—a model for all writers to follow…. Sholokhov is anything but "clever"; his work is profoundly nonintellectual, his epic of the Don, a tour de force of non-thinking, a masterpiece not in spite of, but because of, that unreason on which he prides himself. The primitive, the naïve, the elemental are his province: palpable matter, physical actions, simple feelings; the impact of a blow, the reflex of anger, the surging of lust; and also sentiment, gentleness. (pp. 386-87)
[We] know … that civilization is in danger. Each day's news reminds us of this. And … Sholokhov has drawn a picture of what happens when civilization falls and men must deal, as Sholokhov says, "not with human beings but with degenerate mongrels maddened with blood." We stare at the hideous truth, we gather statistics, but can we grasp this barbarism, the infernal sadism of which men are capable, the depths of degeneracy to which they can succumb? The mind staggers under the weight of the evil with which it is charged and which it has to bear; but out of it, it can create surrealist fantasies like Zamyatin's or unsophisticated, passionately narrow tales like Sholokhov's, full of stoicism, simple affection, and implacable hatred. (p. 392)
Helen Muchnic, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1967 NYREV, Inc.), June 15, 1967 (and reprinted in her Russian Writers: Notes and Essays, Random House, 1971).
Sholokhov is a writer of genuine attainments, and his study of the grim battle for collectivization, Virgin Soil Upturned, represents a maximum effort to write well, yet entirely within the official canon. The novel has become a permanent best-seller, and a textbook in the schools. Under the surface the essential dramatic situation reflects the same pattern that has been discovered [by this critic] in every other conformist Soviet novel. (p. 221)
[The Silent Don] quite clearly goes back to the classical Russian tradition itself. [It resists] strict classification under the heading "socialist realism" because [it was] conceived and … early sections were published in the twenties. (p. 233)
Publication of its concluding sections in 1940 … raised a number of instructive issues because, although it was not generally admitted, Sholokhov had challenged every tenet of socialist realism in the tragic fate he devised for his hero. The most important aspects of the discussion of the novel in the USSR centered on the question: does the Soviet Union have "a right" to a tragic literature? The question is very much in point. Although they exist in attenuated and incomplete form, there are the elements of an Aristotelian design in The Silent Don. The novel's hero, the gifted, humane, passionate Cossack, Gregor Melekhov, is a man of more than average human stature who is destroyed by superhuman forces he can neither comprehend nor control. His intellectual inability to understand history's movement cannot in itself be considered a tragic "flaw," though it does contribute to the blind sin of political affiliation with the Whites that is the external cause of his downfall.
But the basic terms of his collision with reality are moral…. If [the] zigzag pattern of commitment were the product only of bewilderment, Gregor's destruction between implacable hostile forces would be productive only of a remote kind of pathos. But he is an assertive moral being, and beneath the inarticulated tangle of motives which produce his impulsive actions, there is a plain code of human decency and tolerance. A respect for the human person and a distaste for gratuitous acts of cruelty always underlie the other considerations—self-preservation, Cossack self-interest, love of the land—which motivate him. Acts of rape, looting, murder, or torture—committed by either side—are the determinants of his judgments. (pp. 233-34)
Though Gregor is never permitted to know this, Sholokhov appears … to be suggesting that private moral judgment is sometimes irrelevant to the higher struggles of historical forces, and that in this fact there is genuine human tragedy.
Perhaps this is not Sholokhov's intention—and for it to be so the writer would have to betray the Communist in himself—but it is a defensible reading of the novel and it is possible to speculate about its function in Soviet society. (pp. 234-35)
Sholokhov's novel does not deserve the designation "Tolstoyan" which is often attached to it because it lacks the human density of his predecessor's work. The very inarticulateness of Sholokhov's characters, and the unmitigated violence which engulfs all assertions of moral worth, automatically deny it such depth of insight. (p. 235)
Rufus W. Mathewson, Jr., in his The Positive Hero in Russian Literature (copyright © 1958, 1975 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University; with the permission of the publishers, Stanford University Press), 2nd edition, Stanford University Press, 1975.