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Thursday, September 11, 2014

And Quiet Flows the Don

no copyright infringement intended

Books live their own lives, with ups and downs, with moments of high praise and long periods of neglect, with all kind of twists and surprises. Take for instance Тихий Дон (And Quite Flows the Don). Sholokhov started to work on it sometime by 1925. By 1928 it began to be published in serial form. In 1932 three volumes were done, and Sholokhov put it aside, starting another novel, that he considered more needed in that particular political moment: Поднятая целина (Virgin Soil Upturned) - that would take another 34 years to be finished. In 1940 Sholokhov came back to Тихий Дон and wrote the fourth volume. The book was enthusiastically welcomed by many, as a great epic of the turbulent years before and during the Russian Civil War: an epoch viewed through the perspective of the Don Cossacks, through their lives and struggles, their passionate and contradictory choices. The book had also its harsh critics, as not everybody could swallow in the Soviet Union of the twenties the depiction of such powerful and complex characters, thrown by the events in both camps of the Civil War. Finally the Soviet leadership had its say, accepting the obvious: it was a great literary work. Sometimes even dictators and censorship accept the obvious, provided it comes from one of their flock. In the following years the novel gained also international reputation. In 1965 Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize.

Aksinya and Grigory
illustration by Sergey Korolkov, 1935
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All I've said so far is the nice side of the story. There is also a very strong denial of his authorship. From the very beginning Sholokhov was accused of plagiarism: it was claimed that he had used manuscripts remained from a Cossack writer (Fyodor Kryukov) who had fought in the White Army against the Bolsheviks and had died in 1920 of Typhoid fever. The first accusations were formulated as early as 1928, and Sholokhov defended his reputation showing his own manuscripts, to be compared with manuscripts of an earlier work by him. The allegations resurfaced in the 1960's, when among the accusers were such personalities as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Roy Medvedev, and Svetlana Stalina. His manuscripts were again studied for complex psychological-statistical analyzes (there is a long story also with the fate of his manuscripts, lost during WWII and retrieved after many years). The controversy continues to this day, each camp claiming that its demonstration is irrefutable. It will not end in some foreseeable future: Sholokhov was the man of the Soviet regime par excellence, an unconditional of the party apparatus, a very important asset in Soviet propaganda and the controversy has a strong political background. Now, if you ask me, even an unconditional of any apparatus can be a great author, even a celebrated author can be a crock. It's only about talent or lack of it, about honesty or lack of. I'll leave it here. Anyway, written by the Bolshevik Sholokhov or by the White-Army officer Kryukov, this book is great stuff.

You can read the first volume of the novel in English translation here:

Тихий Дон was adapted for the screen thrice. The first adaptation was made in 19330, by Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov, starring Emma Tsesarskaya as Aksinya. It was a silent covering only the first two volumes of the novel: they were the only ones written at that time. The movie directors faced initially some issues with the Soviet censorship, some being scandalized by the petty bourgeois taste for a Cossack adultery story. Sholokhov got nuts, it seems, and was vituperating against инсинуации московских сукиных сынов и дочерей (the insinuations of Moscow sons and daughter of bitches). As I said, eventually the leadership took another view, and the Moscow sons and daughters of bitches stopped their insinuations, what else to do. Sholokhov was very pleased with the performance of Emma Tsesarskaya and they remained good friends. Вы, черти, ходите у меня перед глазами! (You devils, pass in front of my eyes) said the writer once to Tsesarskaya after watching the movie in the presence of the actress.

A second adaptation came in 1957, directed by Sergey Gerasimov, and starring Elina Bystritskaya as Aksinya. I was twelve years old, and I remember a cartoon I saw that year in a magazine: a theatre where this movie was played, in front of it a huge line for film tickets, a line as endless and enigmatically quiet as the great Don river was.

And it was also a third adaptation, started by Sergey Bondarchuk, finished in 2006 as TV series by his son Fyodor, starring Delphine Forest as Aksinya (and Rupert Everett in the role of Grigory).

(Mikhail Sholokhov)

(Olga Preobrazhenskaya)

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