The Melekhov family lives in the small village of Tatarsk, in the Don River basin of czarist Russia. Gregor, the oldest son, has a love affair with Aksinia, wife of his neighbor, Stepan Astakhov. Stepan is away serving a term in the army. In an effort to make his son settle down, Gregor’s father arranges a marriage with Natalia Korshunov. Gregor never loves Natalia, and their relationship is a cold one. Soon Gregor goes openly to Aksinia, and the affair becomes the village scandal.
When he hears the gossip, Gregor’s father whips him. Humiliated and angry, Gregor leaves home. With Aksinia, he becomes the servant of the Listnitsky family, well-to-do landowners who live outside the village of Tatarsk. When Aksinia bears him a daughter, Gregor’s father relents enough to pay a visit before Gregor leaves for the army.
In the meantime, Gregor’s wife, Natalia, tries to commit suicide because Gregor does not return her love. She goes back to her own home, but the Melekhovs ask her to come to them. She is glad to do so. When Gregor returns to Aksinia on his first leave from the army, he discovers that she was unfaithful to him with Eugene Listnitsky, the young officer-son of his employer. Aksinia’s daughter dies, and Gregor feels nothing but anger at his mistress. He fights with Eugene and whips Aksinia. Then he returns to his own home, and there he and Natalia are reconciled. During the time he served in the army, Natalia bore twins, a boy and a girl.
In the war against the Central Powers, Gregor distinguishes himself. Wounded, he is awarded the Cross of St. George, and so he becomes the first Chevalier in the village. While in the army, he meets his brother, Piotra, and his enemy, Stepan Astakhov, who swore to kill him. Nevertheless, on one occasion, Gregor saves Stepan’s life during an attack.
Discontent is growing among the soldiers. Bolshevik agitators begin to talk against the government and against a continuation of the war. In Eugene’s company, an officer named Bunchuk is the chief agitator. He deserts before Listnitsky can hand him over to the authorities.
Then the provisional government of Kerensky is overthrown, and a Soviet Socialist Republic is established. Civil war breaks out. The Cossacks, proud of their free heritage, are strongly nationalistic and want an autonomous government for the Don region. Many of them join the counterrevolutionists, under such men as Kornilov. Many return to their homes in the Don basin. Gregor, joining the revolutionary forces, is made an officer of the Red Army.
Meanwhile, the revolutionary troops in Rostov are under attack. Bunchuk, the machine gunner, is prominent in the battle and in the administration of the local revolutionary government. He falls in love with a woman machine gunner, Anna Poodko, who is killed during an attack. The counterrevolutionary troops are successful, and the Red Army troops retreat.
Gregor returns to the village and resumes the ordinary life he led before the war. News soon comes that revolutionary troops are advancing on the village. When his neighbors prepare to flee, Gregor refuses to do so. Stories of burning, looting, and rape spread throughout the countryside. A counterrevolutionary officer attempts to organize the villagers against the approaching enemy troops. He names Gregor as commander, but the nomination is turned down in anger because the people in the village know that Gregor sympathizes with the Reds and fought with them. Instead, Gregor’s brother Piotra is named commander.
The village forces march out, and Gregor goes with them. When they arrive at their destination, they find that the...
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revolutionary troops are already defeated and that the leaders were captured. When Gregor asks what will happen to them, he is told they will be shot. Then Gregor comes face-to-face with Podtielkov, his old revolutionary leader. When his former leader accuses him of being a traitor and opportunist, all of Gregor’s suppressed feelings of disgust and nationalism burst forth. He reminds Podtielkov that he and other Red leaders ordered plenty of executions, and he charges that Podtielkov sold out the Don Cossacks. The revolutionists die prophesying that the revolution will live. Gregor goes back to his Cossack village.