Nobel prize winning writer Mikhail Sholokhov is one of those rare breed of Soviet writers who managed to captivate the West while remaining a true blue communist till his death in 1984. Unlike his contemporary Solzhenitsyn (who unfairly accused Sholokhov of plagiarism and became a dissident and later a defector) Sholokhov unashamedly flew the red flag of the revolution till his dying day. Author of novels such as Quiet Flows the Don, Virgin Soil Upturned, They Fought for their Country etc. Sholokhov is where Tolstoy meets Jeffery Archer. I still remember reading Sholokhov when I was in my early teens and India was firmly in the Soviet bloc. I was not particularly keen on socialism in those days (which is putting it mildly) and very often wished that India were an American rather than a Russian ally. Yet when I read Sholokhov, I became a communist, until I put the book away, that is. Here is a writer, who managed to write about the October Revolution, the ensuing Civil War, the break-up of the old way of life and the Second World War and managed to make the Red side look decent, civilised and comparitively better than the White Russians, without losing the ring of honesty and truthfulness.
Recently I happened to re-read a small collection of short stories (The Fate of a Man and Early Stories) by Sholokhov, all of which are about Don Cossacks and the impact of the October Revolution, the Civil War, the mass collectivisations and the Second World War on their way of life. Sholokhov's language is flowery, poetic and beautiful and his story telling has just the right amount of melodrama so that you can't physically stop reading a story till you reach the end and then you are forced to start the next one immediately. I must have read this slim collection atleast half a dozen times earlier and some of Sholokhov's text is ingrained in my memory. Yet, when I started reading them again, it was as exciting as if I was reading them for the first time.
'The Birthmark' is the story of a 18 year old communist soldier, Nikolai Koshevoi's, meeting with his long lost father who is with the White Russians in the course of the Civil War. Father and son are on the opposite sides of the fence and don't recognise each other. The father only knows that the son has a mole, as big as a pigeon's egg, just above the left ankle. This is how Sholokhov introduces Nikolai Koshevoi:
“He's only a kid, a mere boy, a greenhorn,” they say jokingly in the squadron. “But just try to find someone else who could wipe out two bandit gangs without hardly losing a man, and lead his squadron through six months of battles and skirmishing as well as any veteran.”
Nikolai is broad in his shoulders and looks older than he really is. It's those creases at the corners of his eyes, and his old mannish stoop, that age him.
When a messenger tells Nikolai of another incident of banditry (by the White Russians), Nikolai thinks to himself: Another band. Just as I was hoping to go and study somewhere.... The Commissar's always on at me about it. You are a squadron commander he says, and can't even spell properly. But was it my fault that I never got throught the Parish school? Can't he see that? ... And now here's another band. ... More blood .... I'm sick of living like this. I've had enough.
Almost all young communist soldiers in these short stories dream of going to school and getting an education. Sholokhov's wrting has a large dose of drama, cliches and stereotypes, but it's still bloody good writing.
This is how Sholokhov describes Koshevoi's father and their imminent meeting:
........ an ataman leads his band – fifty Cossacks of the Don and the Kuban who have a grudge against Soviet rule. For three days, like wolves that have plundered a flock of sheep, they have been making their getaway by road and roadless steppe, and all this time, Nikholai Koshevoi's detachment has been on their trail, watching out for them.
A hard bitten lot they are, old army men, well-seasoned, but all the same, their ataman has to keep his wits about him. He stands up in his stirrups, scans the steppe wih eyes that are like feeling hands, and counts the miles to the blue fringe of forest stretching away on the far side of the Don.
What happens when young Nikholai meets his father, the ataman of the bandits? Do they get along? Please read this story to find out.
'The Herdsman' is the story of Grigory, a young communist, who has been hired by a village to tend their sheep. The village still has a few who don't like Soviet rule and these don't really like Grigory, but the Party Chairman hasn't given them a choice. Grigory's sister Dunyatka stays with him. Grigory and Dunya were practically starving, but now they have hope.
“By autumn, Dunya, we'll have earned enough grain to go to town. I'll get into the Worker's Faculty there and fix you up – something educational too, maybe. We'll have all the books we want in town, Dunya, and the folk there eat proper bread, not stuff with grass in it like ours.”
Do things work out for Grigory and Dunya? Do read this story to find out.
'The Getling' is the story of Misha and his father Foma Korshunov who has just come home from the wars. The village is in turmoil. Land is being redistributed. Foma is made Chairman of the local Party unit. Surplus grain is being requisitioned. Since Misha's father is a communist, his family is happy to hand over their surplus. The local priest's family isn't.
“Well Grandad, tell us the truth. How much grain have you buried?”
But Grandad only stroked his beard. “My son is a communist,” he answered proudly.
They went to the barn. The soldier with the pipe glanced at the bins and smiled....
“Cart one binful to the granary,” he said, “and keep the rest for your yourself, for food and seed.”
Later Misha is playing with the priest's son at the priest's home. The requisitionners come calling.
The priest's wife came hurrying into the kitchen, her hair all in a mess.
“Would you believe it gentlemen,' she said, with a foxy smile, we haven't got any grain at all........”
“Do you have a cellar anywhere?”
“No, no cellar. We've always kept our grain in the barn.”
Misha remembered very well how he and Vitya had played in a spacious cellar that they got into from the kitchen.
“What about the one under the kitchen where me and Vitya played?” he said turning to face the priest's wife. You must have forgotten”
The priest's wife laughed but her face had turned pale.
Many weeks go by. Misha doesn't have any friends in the village. One day some bandits gather near the village and the local Soviet militia gathers to fight them. Foma goes with them.
Throughout the still night, he clearly heard the shooting, somewhere beyond the village. Scattered shots at first, then regular volleys.
Like somebody hammering nails.
Misha was frightened. He moved up close to Grandad.
“Is that my Daddy shooting?” he asked.
Grandad did not answer and mother was crying again.
The shooting went on all night. At daybreak, all fell silent. ................. smoke rose in a black pillar over the village Soviet.........horsemen charged up and down the street. One of them shouted to Grandad.
“Got a horse old man?'
“Hitch up then and go fetch your communists. They are piled up in the brushwood. Tell their folks to bury them.”
Is Foma one of the dead communists? Do read this story to find out.
'Golden Steppe' is a story recounted by Grandfather Zakhar whose grandsons Ssemyon and Anikei get caught up in the revolution. The local Landlord Tomilin is chased away and his land is redistributed. However Landlord Tomilin attacks the village with a Cossack force. The Soviets beat back the attack twice. The third time they fail and the communists are rounded up for execution. Grandfather Zakhar has served the Tomilins all his life and so he pleads for his grandsons lives.
So I went up the steps and knelt before him. “I have come to save my grandsons. Have mercy master! I served your father, God rest his soul, all his life. Remember my zeal master and have pity on my old age!”
And this was his answer: “Listen to me Granddad Zakhar. I greatly appreciate your service to my father, but I can't pardon your grandsons. They are out and out rebels. Humble your soul, old man.”
I crawled up the steps and kissed his feet. “Have mercy master. Remember dear boy, how Grandad Zakhar tried to please you. Don't ruin me. My Semyon has a baby son at his mother's breat!”
......Tomilin relents and says: “Go tell the scoundrels to come to my quarters. If they beg forgiveness, well and good. I'll have 'em thrashed and enlist them in my detachment. Perhaps they will atone for their shameful conduct through zealous service.”
So off I ran to the yard to tell my grandsons. Pulled at their sleeves I did. “go and beg forgiveness you madmen, don't get up from the ground till he pardons you!”
But Semyon didnt as much as lift his head, just sat there on his haunches and scratched the ground wih a stalk. And my Anikei, he took a long look at me, then snapped, “Go and tell your master that Grandad Zakhar crawled on his knees all his life, and so did his son, but his grandsons don't want to any more. Tell him that!”
What happens after that? Does Zakhar still manage to save his grandsons? Do read this story to find out.
'The Foal' is the story of cavalry man Trofim whose mare delivers a foal during a campaign.
Head foremost, legs outstretched, the foal emerged from its mother's body into a world of bright daylight, beside a dungheap swarming with bottle-green flies. Its first experience in this world was terror. A sharpnel shell burst overhead, in a soft swiftly melting grey-blue cloudlet, and the fierce whine of the explosion sent the damp, new born thing cowering to its mother's feet.
Should Trofim keep the foal or kill it? Trofim's commander orders him to shoot the foal, but Trofim delays the inevitable. How long and to what end? There's only one way to find out.
'A Different Breed' is the story of Old Gavrila, a Cossack who would rather die than submit to Soviet rule. Old Gavrila's son Petro goes off to fight the commies and gets killed. A bunch of grain requisitioners come to Gavrila's house to collect the surplus grain and while they are at it, a group of White Russians (bandits in Sholokhov speak) attack them. All the requisitionners are killed. All except one who is wounded. Gavrila and his wife look after the communist requistioner and nurse him back to health. He soon takes the place of their dead son Petro and they even call him Petro.
The next question was hard to ask, but it was what he had been leading up to.
So, you are a Party man then?
'I'm a Communist,' Petro replied smiling openly.
And that frank open smile swept away Gavrila's fear of that foreign sounding word.
Gavrila obviously wants Petro to stay with him forever, but will Petro do that. Or will he answer his Party's call and go away?
'The Fate of a Man' is the last story in this collection. The story of Andrei Sokolov who leaves behind a wife, two daughters and a son, to fight for the Soviet Union is the longest and the best of the lot in this collection. I really liked the way Sholokhov glossed over the Soviet Union's disastrous opening in the war against Hitler's armies as a result of Stalin's incompetence.
I got a lot of letters from home, but didn't write much myself. Just now and then I'd write that everything was all right and we were doing a bit of fighting. We may be retreating at present, I'd say, but it won't be long before we gather our srength and give the Fritzies something to think about.
Andrei becomes a prisoner of war and is put to work in various factories of the Third Reich. In one stint at a quarry, he says something to a fellow prisoner who snitches on him and as a result, Andrei is summoned to the camp commandant (who speaks fluent Russian) for an imminent execution.
He gets up and says, “I shall do you great honour. I shall shoot in person for those words. It will make a mess here, so we'll go into the yard. You can sign off out there.”
“As you like,” I told him. He stood thinking for a minute, then tossed his pistol on the table and poured a full glass of schnapps, took a piece of bread, put a slice of fat on it, held the lot out to me and said, “before you die Russian Ivan, drink to the triump of German arms.”
“I had taken the glass and the bread out of his hand, but when I heard those words, something seemed to scald me inside. “Me, a Russian soldier,” I thought, “drink to the victory of German amrs? What'll you want next Herr Kommandant? It's all up with me anyway. You can go to hell with your schnapps!”
I put the glass down on the table and the bread with it, and I said, “Thank you for your hospitality, but I don't drink.” He smiles.“So you don't want to drink to our victory? In the case, drink to your own death.” What had I got to lose? “To my death and relief from torment then,” I said. And with that I took the glass and poured it down my throat in two gulps. But I didn't touch the bread. I just wiped my lips politely with my hands and said, “Thank you for your hospitality. I am ready Herr Kommandant, you can sign me off now.”
But he was looking at me sharply. “Have a bite to eat before you die,” he said. But I said to him, “I never eat after the first glass.” Then he poured a second and handed it to me. I drank the second and again I didn't touch the food. I was staking everything on courage, you see. “Anyway” I thought, I'll get drunk before I go out into that yard to die.” And the commandant's fair eyebrows shot up in the air. “Why don't you eat Russian Ivan? Don't be shy!” But I struck to my guns. “Excuse me Herr Kommandant, but I don't eat after the second glass either.” He puffed out his cheeks and snorted, and then he gave a roar of laughter, and while he laughed, he said something quickly in German, must have been translating my words to his friends. The others laughed too, pushed their chairs back, turned their big mugs round to look at me, and I noticed something different in their looks, something a bit softer-like.
The commandant poured me out a third glass and his hands were shaking with laughter. I drank that glass slowly, bit off a little of bread and put the rest down on the table. I wanted to show the bastards that even though I was dead with hunger I wasn't going to gobble the scraps they flung at me, that I had my own Russian dignity and pride, and that they hadn't turned me into an animal as they had wanted to.
Andrei obviously makes it through the war (since the story is in the first person), but what happens to his family? Please read this 'must read classic' story to find out.