The Silent Don

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This modern epic recounts Gregor Melekhov’s stormy growth to manhood. Simultaneously it describes the ordeal of the people living along Russia’s greatest river. These Cossacks find their unique identity swept away by war and revolution.

In AND QUIET FLOWS THE DON (the first section of the novel) Gregor lives by the old ways. He learns to fish the river, till the land, and fight from horseback. He learns too about his passionate, independent Cossack nature. He falls in love with a married woman; when his family marries him off to Natalya, Gregor deserts his bride for his lover.

When war with Germany comes, Gregor enlists. He fights bravely and is wounded. Returning home, he finds that his lover is now another’s mistress; he reconciles with Natalya, who soon bears him twins. At the front, Gregor witnesses the army’s collapse. After the October Revolution, unsure whether the Whites (who support the old order) or the Reds (who support the revolution) will prevail, Gregor fights first for one side, then the other.

In THE DON FLOWS HOME TO THE SEA (the second section) the Red Army invades Cossack lands. Gregor fights the invaders, but the Cossacks are overwhelmed. The victors brutalize the vanquished, prompting renewed fighting. Revolt is futile; Gregor saves himself by joining the Communists. Sickened by their harshness, Gregor leads an abortive uprising before returning home to his son. His parents, wife, daughter, and mistress are all dead; Gregor faces a hopeless future.

Gregor’s life and the Cossacks’ fate are tragic, but in what sense? For some, the tragedy is one man’s doomed quest for a third way between re-creating the past and embracing the future; to others, the tragedy is that an alien philosophy destroys a culture.