The human face of the Revolution…
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The Melekhov family own a farm in the small Cossack village of Tatarsk, on the banks of the Don. In this strongly patriarchal society, the adult sons remain at home, bringing their wives to join the family, while the adult daughters leave to go to the family homes of their husbands. Patriarch Pantaleimon Melekhov has two adult sons: Piotra, already married as the book begins, and Gregor, just reaching manhood. This Nobel Prize-winning novel will follow the members of the family through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective.
The novel is divided into four sections. The first section is Peace, which shows the traditional life of the Cossacks before war and revolution changed it for ever. The writing is glorious and, unlike most Russian literature of my experience, the translation by Stephen Garry flows naturally, without the clunkiness and frequent obscurity that so often makes the Russians hard work. Sholokhov paints an entirely credible, unvarnished picture of the lives of his characters – a harsh, physical life, where the women are expected to work as hard as the men, and often fill their roles on the farms when the men are off at their military camps, an important part of the Cossack tradition. Farming and horses are at the heart of life here, with the beloved Don providing water and fish. The landscape is beautifully described, while Cossack life is shown in all its brutality – a society where violence and rape are commonplace, but which nevertheless has a strong social order and strictly observed customs.
….Towards evening a thunderstorm gathered. A mass of heavy cloud lay over the village. Lashed into fury by the wind, the Don sent great foaming breakers against its banks. The sky flamed with dry lightning, occasional peals of thunder shook the earth. A vulture circled with outspread wings below the clouds, and ravens croakingly pursued him. Breathing out coolness the cloud passed down the Don from the east. Beyond the water-meadows the heaven blackened menacingly, the steppe lay in an expectant silence. In the village the closed shutters rattled, the old people hurried home crossing themselves. A grey pillar of dust whirled over the square, and the heat-burdened earth was already beginning to be sown with the first grains of rain.
Young Gregor has developed a passionate desire for Aksinia, the wife of a neighbour, and this storyline carries through much of the novel. However, although the blurb suggests this is a kind of love story in the vein of Doctor Zhivago, it certainly isn’t. To a large degree, Gregor’s and Aksinia’s relationship is there to allow us to see different aspects of life – how the patriarchy works, how custom and tradition play an important role, how violence is never far from the surface, how women are treated within this society, how lust and sex are a commonplace part of life, not hidden and repressed as in most societies. I found Sholokhov’s portrayal of the women in his story fascinating, although it isn’t the main focus. There’s an animalistic quality to the characters – they are driven by earthy, physical passions, the women as much as the men. In a society where young husbands are often absent on military duty, the women are shown as having strong sexual needs, leading to adultery being commonplace. But we also see that women are property and often treated with more cruelty and less respect than the Cossacks’ beloved horses. Sholokhov doesn’t shield his readers from the brutality of beatings and rape, some of the descriptions of which are graphic in the extreme. Despite their subordinate status though, these women are strong and opinionated, and play their full part in their society, and, some of them, in the Revolution also.
….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.
Having thoroughly immersed the reader in Cossack society and the lives of the people of the village, in the remaining three sections Sholokhov shows the impact of the three phases that led the Russian peoples from the end of Tsarism to the beginnings of the USSR – World War I, the Revolution, and the Civil War. My recent fixation with the history of this period undoubtedly helped me to understand all the nuances of these sections, but Sholokhov does such a great job that I think the book acts almost as a straight history in its own right, with the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.
The Cossack view is particularly interesting because they were divided – some fell under the Bolshevik sway, others feared the Bolsheviks would destroy their way of life for ever. Sholokhov gradually shows every aspect, from the agitators sent out to the villages to try to win them over to the Bolshevik cause, to the dreadful conditions in the army leading to demoralisation and the gradual breakdown of discipline, to the eventual taking of sides and how that impacted life back in the villages. We see the divide between the elders who wanted to maintain the status quo, and the younger men who were more attracted by the new politics, and how this began to weaken the patriarchal stranglehold. But throughout all of this history and politics, Sholokhov remembers the importance of humanity and keeps the reader in touch with how his characters are affected and changed by their experiences. There is horrific brutality in the war scenes, told not for effect but because it is truth. Sholokhov doesn’t express his own views overtly but he makes it very clear that bloody war is not a great and glorious thing. Instead it robs people of their humanity, coarsening and brutalising them and then sending them, if they’re lucky, to try in some way to put their shattered lives back together again.
….Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.
As you have hopefully gathered, I think this is a wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. It is by no means an easy read in terms of subject matter, with some images that will haunt me for a long time to come, but it’s so well written I found myself fully engaged and caring deeply about these people. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly. An outstanding finale to the fictional side of my Russian Revolution challenge – highly recommended.