STALIN’S SCRIBE: Literature, Ambition and Survival – The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov
BRIAN J. BOECK
Pegasus Books, 2019, 388 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Considering the terrors that Mikhail Sholokhov lived through, and nearly perished from, in Stalinist Russia, it is a wonder that the Soviet novelist retained any sense of humour, but he did. Unrecognised in the exotic shadow of Nikita Khrushchev, the first post-Stalinist leader of the Soviet Union, during a 1959 tour of the US, Sholokhov was only paid any real attention once, at a Hollywood reception, where Charlton Heston announced that he had once read excerpts from one of Sholokhov’s novels - Sholokhov expressed his gratitude and quipped that he promised to watch excerpts of Heston’s next movie.
As Brian Boeck, history teacher at America’s DePaul University, recounts, however, such wry humour was a rarity in the dangerously fraught life of Sholokhov as he navigated the treacherous shoals of Stalinist literary culture.
Sholokhov’s detractors claim that he failed to steer clear of literary shipwreck. He is routinely dismissed by conservatives, and by many liberals, as just a cultural mouthpiece for Stalinist totalitarianism - Salman Rushdie, for example, reviled Sholokhov as a ‘patsy of the regime’.
Yet, there are compelling exhibits in Sholokhov’s defence. Despite the attentions of the Censor-in-Chief, Stalin himself, Sholokhov, in his epic Quiet Don, a many-perspectived saga of a tragic anti-Soviet Cossack rebellion, stuck, for the most part, to his guns.
He could have turned his two main characters into conventional Stalinist tropes, making the politically wavering Cossack, Grigorii, a Red Army hero in the end, and his lover, Aksiniia, a decorated Stalinist milkmaid, but he chose literary integrity over political compliance.
Away from his writing desk, Sholokhov at times displayed considerable political boldness. As a teenaged Soviet tax collector in the Don region during the 1921 famine, he falsified tax records to assist starving Cossack peasants (an act which almost earned Sholokhov a date with a firing squad).
Later, Sholokhov became the nearest thing to a public ombudsman in Stalin’s Russia, receiving hundreds of letters a month seeking assistance from the victims of Stalin’s economic and political policies. Sholokhov took up the cause of the peasantry who were on the receiving end of ‘rapid collectivisation’ (a program meant to boost grain exports to finance industrial modernisation) and who were subjected to savage grain requisitions (flimsily justified by Stalin as an ‘anti-kulakisation’ drive against rich peasants) when harvests predictably failed to reach unrealistic quotas. Sholokhov’s pleas to Stalin for emergency food aid saved the fifty thousand people at risk of famine in Sholokhov’s district.
Sholokhov also courageously criticised Stalin’s party purges and the Great Terror of 1936-1938, a program to annihilate all political opposition to the dictator’s rule, starting with the Trotskyists, in which a million were murdered. Sholokhov, cleverly using as leverage a deliberate go-slow on finishing the novel that Stalin was desperate to see completed, successfully argued the cases of his close friends and party colleagues who were caught up in the paranoia, resulting in their release and rehabilitation.
Sholokhov was permitted to thus act as private critic and advocate only because Stalin cynically valued Sholokhov, touted by the regime as the Red Tolstoy, for his cultural capital. So, Stalin would defend Sholokhov to preserve his prize cultural asset, no more so than when the menace of the Terror came for Sholokhov himself, after Sholokhov had named those in the secret police (the NKVD) who were responsible for the Terror in his region.
This made Sholokhov some powerful local enemies. The NKVD tried to implicate Sholokhov in plots, with Cossacks, to assassinate Stalin and, in league with foreign intelligence agents, to foment armed uprisings. Sholokhov got word of this NKVD stitch-up and he grimly awaited his doom, spiralling into depression and alcohol abuse, and abandoning any further work on Quiet Don.
An investigator sent by Stalin reported that Sholokhov was on the verge of suicide. Sholokhov was worth much more to Stalin alive than as a martyr to the Terror, and so Stalin quashed all allegations against his treasured writer.
Stalin also came to Sholokhov’s aid by rescuing his literary reputation. A literary faction (‘Proletkult’) who thought they were being impeccably Stalinist in accusing Sholokhov of humanism, pacifism, liberalism and of not being sufficiently oriented to the urban proletariat in his novels, was also put firmly back in its box by Stalin.
Stalin also ensured that charges of plagiarism, which jealous rivals had unfairly levied against Sholokhov from the time he reworked a stash of Cossack memoirs and diaries into his creative epic, were denounced as fabrications of ‘rotten Trotskyist attempts to discredit the most significant Soviet writer’.
Only by the top bully in the schoolyard taking Sholokhov under his protection could all Sholokhov’s lesser bullies be kept at bay. The quid pro quo, however, was that Sholokhov would be expected to return political favours to Stalin.
The compromises demanded, and delivered, were ugly. Sholokhov added a chapter extolling Stalin’s ‘anti-kulakisation’ program to Quiet Don, and made it the theme of his quickie novel, Virgin Soil Upturned. Sholokhov also reluctantly accepted over a thousand edits requested by Stalin to Quiet Don to make it better conform to Stalinist political and literary fashion.
Sholokhov, the public intellectual, also signed a letter by leading Stalinist writers demanding the death penalty for eight senior Red Army officers framed in the purges whilst, from his platform as a member of the Supreme Soviet (Stalin’s sham parliament), he dutifully intoned that purging ‘a few thousand vile individuals, people who have prostituted themselves politically, all of that Trotskyite-Zinovievite-Bukharinite scum’, had been warranted.
Sholokhov’s political obedience was also reinforced through material means. There were tangible benefits to being an officially-approved writer in Stalin's Russia. Politically-licensed writers made, on average, ten times as much as ordinary workers, with elite writers such as Sholokhov making 25 times as much from their state salary and private royalties. A gilded cage had its compensations for those writers trapped in it.
Only after Stalin’s death, in 1953, could Sholokhov spread his wings. Breathing politically freer air, Sholokhov reinstated Trotsky, a minor character in the early editions of Quiet Don who had been censored out of the novel by Stalin, whilst undoing all of Stalin’s other edits to the novel.
Sholokhov could now also denounce the Great Terror as a program of political extermination based on allegations that were, as he put it, ‘monstrous make-believe and wild nonsense’.
In 1966, Sholokhov also passionately raised the issues of deforestation and industrial pollution of Russia’s rivers, speaking up for, in Boeck’s words, “nature as something more than a resource for immediate economic exploitation”.
Sholokhov’s “deep Stalinist programming”, however, was not so easily undone. Whilst he lacerated the mediocre and unreadable output from the politically-sanctioned 3,773 members of the Writers’ Union whom Sholokhov called ‘dead souls’ luxuriating in their literary sinecures, he spurned writerly solidarity with jailed dissident writers. He also spoke positively of ‘the unity of party and literature’, and he was a supportive voice of Moscow’s armed suppression of the 1956 revolt in Hungary.
Whilst Western anti-communists put the boot into Sholokhov over these compromises, some succour was provided by the judging panel for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1965. Less beholden to anti-communist Cold War pieties, the Swedish committee recognised the immense pressures facing Sholokhov, if he wanted to survive as a writer, or at all, to operate under stern political masters and noted his assertion of literary integrity in refusing to fully go along with all the political demands made of him in his art.
Sholokhov’s Nobel award honoured the high literary merit of Sholokhov, his ability to skilfully combine realism, romance, cliff-hanger plot, psychological depth and political ambiguity. In doing so, they recognised, too, the Sholokhov who was, like his fictional characters, the flawed hero in his own troubled life.