Brian J. Boeck | an excerpt adapted from Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov | Pegasus Books | February 2019 | 29 minutes (8,255 words)

Between April of 1926 and September of 1927 Mikhail Sholokhov performed a literary miracle. Never before — and never again — would a similar feat be accomplished. During those incredible months he managed to generate hundreds of typed pages of some of the most engaging prose ever to appear in Russia, a country blessed with Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and numerous other gifted writers. On an epic scale he narrated events that occurred in far-flung trenches of World War I, distant centers of power, and revolutionary meetings. He described multiple historical figures he had never met, and he painted vivid verbal pictures of battles that took place when he was still a boy. Brief periods of mad, feverish writing were sandwiched between moves, multiple trips to Moscow to meet with editors, and the birth of his first child.

His literary output during those months exponentially exceeded the accomplishments of his whole career up to that point and most decades of his career afterward. The improvement in quality was incredible. None of his colleagues wept with rapture when they read his early, formulaic, communist short stories. Early editors sometimes had to apply a heavy, corrective hand just to get some of them into print. Suddenly seasoned editors were in awe of his prose. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that this rapid, unexpected literary metamorphosis occurred at the age of twenty-two.

How did he manage to pull off such an improbable literary feat? Some locals insisted that he acquired manuscripts that were left behind when the Cossack side was routed by the Red Army during the civil war. At a minimum the archive he acquired appears to have included an unfinished novel that ended around 1919 and a trove of scrapbooks consisting of stories, sketches, newspaper clippings, and articles spanning over a decade of Cossack history.

His first encounter with the materials he would weave into the fabric of his famous novel can only be imaginatively reconstructed. At first glance such a mélange of materials must have resembled a ragman’s haul rather than a novel. Due to shortages during the civil war Russians resorted to repurposing every imaginable variety of paper. Stories were penned on pages ripped from old school notebooks or under imperial letterheads made obsolete by two revolutions. Memories were scribbled on the backs of long-forgotten proclamations. Missives in minuscule letters snaked across scraps of paper. A closer look at the materials betrayed the signs of a bygone era: the three letters of the Russian alphabet outlawed by Lenin in 1918.

In Moscow, one of Sholokhov’s first editors, Feoktist Berezovskii, became highly skeptical of his rapid metamorphosis. It just seemed too good to be true.

Sholokhov must have experienced both a rush of excitement and a sense of frustration in encountering this treasure trove for the first time. He had to separate out and arrange pages into related groups by handwriting and content. He had to restore sequences and complete scenes which abruptly ended or trailed off without resolution. There were isolated fragments and reminiscences of varying length and quality. From a large pile an irritatingly beautiful story started to emerge. Like the young Michelangelo confronting the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman sculpture of impeccable quality that lost its head and limbs due to mutilation in late antiquity, he had to look past the defects and see the whole in his mind’s eye. Applying imagination to restoration was just a first, tentative step towards intellectual appropriation.

For months he wavered about what to do. Several of his own stories looked juvenile in comparison. Should he just draw inspiration from these materials? Should he mine them for facts? Or could he somehow give them new life? He had read enough philosophy to savor the existential irony of works of beauty lost to the world. At the same time he was pragmatic enough to realize that in its current form nothing from this trove could be publishable in the USSR. As he searched for an answer, the Soviet government offered him solutions. The realms of policy and law unexpectedly spoke to his literary dilemma.

In summer 1925 the government unveiled a dramatic policy shift. The Cossacks would no longer be treated as a hostile, enemy population living under an occupation regime. The regional government determined that “indiscriminately negative” attitudes towards Cossack populations in southern Russia had impeded the growth of the Soviet economy. Many Cossacks believed that vengeance and spite were the driving forces behind Soviet policies. In order to boost the rural economy, local administrations were ordered to actively involve formerly hostile populations in local government. They were instructed to take into consideration Cossack “customs, habits, and traditions.” After this directive Cossack traditions were talked about openly and positively in the Soviet press for the first time. The head of the regional administration even proclaimed that it was wrong to persecute the Cossacks after the civil war.

This was an important signal that it could be lucrative for Sholokhov to truly engage the “big thing” as he sometimes called it. Plans of cashing in on large honoraria and thoughts of hundreds of rubles accumulating page by page appear to have enticed him in the beginning. After working with the “big thing” it became more than a book. It became a mission. From the moment he started to connect narrative threads and patch seams, he shifted from passive consumer to passionate cocreator. He moved, merged, and juxtaposed texts, combining them with new sections drawn from his own background. He added communist threads and amplified communist characters. He wrote new scenes to connect together fragments and to create a grand tapestry. He feared that if something happened to him Quiet Don (often translated into English as Quietly Flows the Don) would “become orphaned.”

The result was a deeply tragic epic centered on two star-crossed lovers and a community in crisis. It offered much more than a romantic story beautifully told. The opening section provides a visceral, multi-sensory immersion into a small community where life is dominated by ancient traditions, agricultural rhythms, and old men who make the everyday decisions that govern the lives of all. Subsequent sections chronicle the twilight of a culture and a way of life swept up into a whirlwind of war and revolution. A society defined by honor, brutality, obedience, and hierarchy struggles to come to terms with individuals who go their own way. The Cossack military caste, which had served the tsars for centuries, fights to survive as its reason for existence vanishes and the revolution brings equality.

The narrative begins with the family history of the book’s hero, Grigorii Melekhov. His grandmother was a Turkish captive brought from a military campaign by a Cossack. Her violent death sets the tone for the book. She was beaten to death by the residents of the settlement, who suspected her of being a witch responsible for the widespread death of cattle. Grigorii’s father, who was born prematurely to the dying woman, rules the family with an iron fist. His explosive character, however, is starting to soften with age. A tall, swarthy teen with dark eyes and a nose reminiscent of a bird of prey, Grigorii begins to covet his neighbor’s wife, Aksiniia Astakhova. She is a strong, beautiful, full-figured woman, with big dark eyes. Though she is a few years older than Grigorii, her “shamelessly-greedy, puffy lips” entice him. She had been raped by her father when she was sixteen and married off at seventeen to a man who viciously beat her on their first day of married life. Grigorii and Aksiniia’s oft-thwarted desire to find happiness together drives the plot.

The novel follows the local Cossacks to the front lines of the First World War, where Grigorii witnesses the ugly sides of battle and others succumb to revolutionary agitation in the trenches. As a Cossack he is supposed to eagerly embrace the glory of combat, but he often he fails to see the sense of it. This sets the stage for a continuing series of vacillations about whom to serve and how to live. Taking a Tolstoyan turn, the novel depicts the coming of the revolution from different vantage points and introduces several real historical figures who fomented counterrevolution.

As Sholokhov contemplated publishing the novel, he likely discovered that a new Soviet law on intellectual property worked to his advantage. The 1925 law on authorial rights made it nearly impossible for anyone to successfully lodge a claim against him and expect to receive financial compensation. The law explicitly stated, “It is not considered a violation of authorial rights . . . to use another person’s work for the creation of a new work which is substantively different.” The law did not explain either “new” or “substantively different.” Since there was no case law to provide guidance, a very substantial gray area offered cover if anything went wrong. He could easily prove that the epic collage was substantially of his own making.


The novel became an overnight success. Sholokhov was immediately vaulted into the spotlight of Soviet celebrity. His public readings of the novel attracted crowds. Letters poured in from excited readers. Publishing houses started sending him lucrative offers of advances. Even the state publishing house, which was the first to reject Quiet Don, now offered to double what other houses were paying for rights to the next volume.

The reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Sholokhov was acclaimed as a rising star of Russian literature. The novel was hailed as a War and Peace of the revolutionary era. He was invited to the first Congress of “Proletarian” Writers. He was introduced to Maxim Gorky, the most famous Russian writer at the time. Serafimovich wrote a glowing endorsement in Pravda, the Soviet Union’s most important daily newspaper. After that, print runs quickly ballooned into the hundreds of thousands. The days of Sholokhov’s financial problems were over.

With fame came envy and suspicion. In Moscow, one of Sholokhov’s first editors, Feoktist Berezovskii, became highly skeptical of his rapid metamorphosis. It just seemed too good to be true. He doubted that such prose could emanate from the pen of the same author whose promising, but problematic, short story he had laboriously edited just two years earlier. To fellow writers and editors he voiced his suspicions that something was fishy with Sholokhov’s authorship claims. “How can anyone believe that a twenty-three-year-old without any education could write such a deep, psychologically true book?” he repeatedly asked.

They complained that his sympathies were not unequivocally on the side of the proletariat. They accused him of humanism, pacifism, and, worst of all, objectivism.

As the first volume reached ever larger Soviet audiences in book form in summer 1928, Sholokhov completed most of the second volume and searched for additional sources for the third volume. He planned to complete the trilogy by patterning Grigorii’s experiences in the final book on the life of a Cossack named Harlampii Yermakov. After leading a Cossack rebellion in 1919, Yermakov was captured by Soviet authorities in 1920. Given an opportunity to redeem himself through service, he rapidly rose through the ranks of the Red Cavalry as it extinguished the last counterrevolutionary armies operating in Russia. He returned home in the mid-1920s but soon became embroiled in a series of local struggles to settle old scores. He was arrested in 1927.

Harlampii, the informant whom Sholokhov planned to rely on for the final volume of the novel, was shot as an enemy of the people before the writer could obtain a complete account of the uprising. Therefore he appealed to an organization that specialized in knowledge of all things anti-Soviet. A secret police official agreed to help him obtain additional archival reports on the rebellion.

By the time he secured those sources, he had already failed to submit the final installments of volume two to the publisher. Technically he was in violation of his contract. As he rushed to submit the final chapters of the second volume, he cut corners in sections devoted to Podtelkov and Krivoshlykov, two Cossack revolutionaries who were hanged in 1918 by a crowd of vigilantes. He borrowed heavily from a White Cossack journal published in 1918, a pamphlet published in the Soviet Union in 1920, and an unpublished memoir from the mid-1920s by a Cossack named Lagutin, which he discovered in a museum on a trip to the regional capital, Rostov.

Oddly enough, this rash act would bring him to the attention of the most important man in the Soviet Union. A prominent Moscow party official named Sergei Syrtsov had served in the Don region during the civil war and had closely interacted with both of the revolutionaries. In a conversation with Joseph Stalin about Quiet Don, the official complained about numerous inaccuracies in the recent installments. The dictator, who was now starting to take an active interest in literary affairs and was beginning to imagine himself as a patron of the arts, resolved to keep his eye on the young author from the Don region.

Sholokhov survived the plagiarism scandal that arose over the Cossack memoirs, but he became convinced that envious writers were to blame for it. Henceforth, he resolved to avoid the viper’s den of Moscow literary intrigues. He decided to put down roots in Vioshki, a market town of about three thousand residents in the northern Don region. It was more than a day’s journey from the nearest railroad station, more if a change of horses was not readily available along the way. Letters from the capital arrived with a delay of a week or more. He was the only major Soviet writer who deliberately chose not to live in or near a large city.


Though the Communist Party succeeded in seizing control of the Russian countryside after the revolution, it failed to solve the problem of rural inequality. Lands belonging to the nobility, landlords, and tsarist officials were confiscated and redistributed to poorer peasants, but soil alone was no panacea for rural poverty. The balance of power remained in favor of households that owned draft animals. The poorest segments of the rural population — nearly one in three households in some areas — owned no horses, mules, or oxen. They remained dependent upon animals and equipment that they seasonally leased from their more prosperous neighbors (branded as kulaks). Though the old classes were gone, many rural residents resented the fact that exploitation still remained.

Unbeknown to Sholokhov, the new agricultural policies that destroyed so many households were part of a coordinated Stalinist effort to impose socialism on the peasantry. The countryside would be forced to serve Stalin’s great vision of rapid industrialization, no matter the cost. When Soviet officials encountered resistance from people who did not want to sell their grain for paltry government prices, the Soviet machine unleashed a wave of terror from below that destroyed the most able, productive, and entrepreneurial members of the agricultural community. Stalin had declared war on the kulaks.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

A Cossack with a solid Soviet biography who arrived on Sholokhov’s doorstep embodied a typical victim of the senseless pillaging of this campaign. In a matter of hours a man who had volunteered and served in the Red Army during the civil war and who had spent six years risking life and limb to defend the revolution had lost nearly everything. By every indication he was not a wealthy peasant. His land allotment was modest, and he neither owned machinery nor employed hired labor. When he was branded a kulak by his neighbors, everything that wasn’t nailed down was confiscated from his home. Nearly all of his personal possessions were seized to pay a portion of his impossible tax burden. The socialist equalizers even ripped the blankets off the beds of his five children. His horse and team of two oxen were led to communal stock pens, where they perished from neglect and diseases due to overcrowding before they could be of profit to the “socialist sector.”

In case after case, petitioners reported to Sholokhov that local communist officials did everything in their power to keep victims from exercising their rights as Soviet citizens. Throughout the campaign to smash the kulaks, party officials refused to issue travel documents. Postal and telegraph employees were prohibited from accepting any complaints or correspondence addressed to higher party officials outside the Volga region. By traveling to Vioshki, which was in a different administrative jurisdiction where such harsh policies had not yet been implemented, many Cossacks were able to send telegrams to Moscow detailing the injustices. Inevitably they received terse responses indicating that the matter had been forwarded back to local officials for investigation. Heartbroken by stories of such monumental injustices and deeply dismayed by these breaches of Soviet legality, Sholokhov helped a number of his visitors craft letters of protest to party officials in Moscow.


As Stalin consolidated his power, he increasingly clamped down on intellectual experimentation and promoted conservative cultural trends. After expelling Trotsky from the party in 1927, he sent signals that he was now in charge of Soviet literature. He began courting Gorky to play a crucial role in his transformation of Soviet culture. He permitted Gorky’s works to be republished, thus ensuring that Soviet royalties would became the major source of revenue for the exiled writer. In turn Gorky was expected to celebrate Stalin’s policies. As a living link to the great prose of the 19th century and a bridge to “progressive” public opinion in the West, Gorky would also be expected to lend legitimacy to Stalin’s dictatorship.

Just weeks before Gorky embarked on his first visit to the Soviet Union since his exile, in 1928 one of his correspondents informed him about the remarkable transformation of the budding young writer named Mikhail Sholokhov. Gorky was intrigued that in only a year this youngster had transformed himself from a novice in need of constant editorial guidance into an accomplished writer. Upon his return to Italy he resolved to read Quiet Don. In December 1928 he wrote to a friend, “Judging by the first volume Sholokhov is talented. . . .” He made arrangements to meet Sholokhov on his next visit to Moscow. In 1929 he praised Sholokhov in public on multiple occasions.

The meticulously staged pageant of Gorky’s triumphant return trip to Russia in 1928 was correctly interpreted in literary circles as the harbinger of a new era in Soviet literature. Gorky, who was now portrayed as Stalin’s friend, would set the tone, his every word would be trumpeted in Pravda as marching orders for other writers. Though there was widespread disaffection, there were few outlets for expressing it. A defiant minor literary journal in Siberia rallied those who identified Gorky with “reactionary forces.” A war of words ensued and Gorky brought out the big guns. He labeled one editor of the journal an anarchist and dismissed another as a wrecker in the field of culture. In the same article he praised Sholokhov’s talent and lauded him as an example of how traditional approaches rather than experimental writing had earned the appreciation of the working class.

When Sholokhov arrived, Gorky was not alone. An astonishingly familiar mustachioed face filled the large room with its presence.

With a few words of praise in a national newspaper Gorky undermined several months of carefully orchestrated criticism of Sholokhov by a faction of proletarian writers. They claimed that he idealized and romanticized Cossacks. They complained that his sympathies were not unequivocally on the side of the proletariat. They accused him of humanism, pacifism, and, worst of all, objectivism. By portraying class enemies without expressing over-the-top hatred for them, he risked having his readers sympathize with those enemies.

In late 1929 the Siberian literary journal Nastoiashchee published a series of articles attacking Gorky. It also devoted one to his perceived protégé — Sholokhov. An inflammatory article entitled “Why Sholokhov Is Pleasing to White Guardists” compared his novel to books that had been condemned by the party. More dangerously, it revived the charge that Sholokhov was a kulak abettor. “Even having the very best subjective intentions, Sholokhov objectively carried out the mission of the kulak . . .” it proclaimed. Sholokhov found out about the article only after the Central Committee upbraided the journal in a resolution. Though he was not mentioned in the resolution, a prominent article in the Literary Gazette condemned the article about him in passing.

The resolution signaled that henceforth attacks on Gorky would be “impermissible.” Soon after the resolution was published, Gorky wrote to Stalin to intercede for his former enemies: “Joseph Vissarionovich, I truly beg of you don’t punish those cursers.” The authors of the Siberian articles avoided arrest . . . for the time being.

In January 1930 Sholokhov completed new installments of Quiet Don. He delivered them to Alexander Fadeev, the new editor of October. Fadeev gained fame for writing a partly autobiographical story called “The Rout,” which focused on a small partisan detachment fighting in the Soviet Far East during the civil war. It provided a compelling psychological portrait of a small group of fighters who were constantly surrounded by danger and hardships. Under the command of a resolute, iron-willed leader, the partisans developed a quiet confidence in their revolutionary cause. They sacrificed and fought on in spite of incredible odds against them.

Fadeev believed that a writer needed to be intimately acquainted with the subject he was writing about. Sholokhov more than met this requirement. Fadeev’s own books were based on personal experiences and displayed detailed knowledge of regional settings. There was no question that Sholokhov knew his region. Fadeev was open to the blending of fact and imagination, and he greatly valued the realism and psychological depth of Leo Tolstoy’s stories. Such tastes should have united the two writers. But Fadeev preferred a narrative arc in which revolutionary leadership turned the weak-willed and the wavering into stronger, more dedicated, and more committed supporters of the communist cause. The chapters Sholokhov handed over to him were highly deficient in this regard. Grigorii Melekhov was drifting further and further away from communism.

Acting on his revolutionary intuition and understanding of the “laws” of creative fiction, Fadeev demanded major changes to the novel. To the wider Soviet public it appeared as if Quiet Don suddenly fell out of favor overnight. The novel had been serialized each month in October until it abruptly disappeared. A month went by and publication did not resume. Half a year came and went, but there was still no word on the continuation of the novel. Publication had ceased without any explanation whatsoever.

Soviet readers wondered why the book was banned at the very moment when the main protagonists were in motion. Aksiniia returned to her husband, who came back from captivity. Grigorii abandoned the Bolshevik detachment he’d briefly joined and fought for a local Cossack unit defending the district from incursions by Red forces. After becoming pessimistic and indifferent to the larger struggle, he decided to go home to his neglected wife, who had tried to commit suicide. Literary bureaucrats had accidentally created a dramatic cliff-hanger by ceasing publication. Would the ill-fated pair rekindle their affair? Would Grigorii return to the side of the revolution?

Those in the literary world knew that Sholokhov was arguing with Fadeev. Sholokhov took offense at Fadeev’s categorical tone. Fadeev was not so much offering collegial guidance as dictating major changes. Sholokhov refused to bow to such pressure and would not contemplate any changes to his vision of how the novel should continue. He complained to a friend, “I cannot turn Grigorii into a committed Bolshevik in the end . . . I would prefer not to publish at all, rather than publish in a way that goes against my wishes, to the detriment of the novel and myself.”

Sholokhov decided to forge ahead. “To hell with them!” he exclaimed. His attempt to circumvent Fadeev’s mentoring by publishing chapters in Rostov only resulted in more criticism. Even the literary critic Ivan Makar’ev, formerly a champion of Sholokhov’s work, became less vigorous in his support. He still defended Sholokhov against charges that his prose was counterrevolutionary, but he believed that the third volume’s point of view was all wrong. It portrayed the Whites and their struggle against the Red Army rather than adopt the politically appropriate Red perspective. His appraisal of the third volume was blunt: the plot appeared to be falling apart, and certain sections were written in a “nervous” manner.


Sholokhov threw himself into the thick of collectivization. He toured dozens of collective farms, which had been rapidly created in the preceding months through rousing exhortations, intimidation, and class warfare in the countryside. As he traveled through the region he encountered the same disturbing pattern in almost all of the collective farms. The horses and draft animals, which had been appropriated from their former owners to provide labor power for the collective farms, had been grossly neglected. They were dying from exhaustion and malnutrition. The fulfillment of the grain requisition plan assumed that very little grain needed to be put aside for winter animal fodder, since a normal hay harvest was expected. When bad weather limited hay production and diminished the nutritional value of the hay that could be harvested, a crisis resulted.

Sensing that a “catastrophic” situation was developing, Sholokhov embarked on a bold step. He decided to write a letter to Stalin to inform him. He reported that the problem was widespread in both ordinary and exemplary collectives. He expressed his view that it was damaging to collective agriculture and risked demoralizing collective farmers. By starving animals and working them to exhaustion, farm directors contributed to a crisis that could have been avoided: “With such ‘management’ one can’t demonstrate to individualists [private farmers who did not join collectives] the advantages of collectives over individual farming.” In order to save ten rubles’ worth of grain, farm leaders were destroying horses worth ten times that amount. He asked Stalin to form a commission to examine the issue.

He returned to working on Quiet Don in late spring 1931 and signaled to Fadeev that he would be willing to compromise. Fadeev was delighted with his change in attitude. Their communications became more cordial and collegial. By then, however, Fadeev had received additional appraisals of the third volume from other writers. He returned the manuscript to Sholokhov full of markings and marginal notations. Now the writer faced a new problem. Ten different readers were demanding ten different kinds of changes. The majority of the third volume would have to be substantially reworked.

While millions could be expected to wait, there was one reader to whom false promises could not be made.

In an ironic twist of fate, this obstacle turned into a remarkable opportunity. Fadeev insisted that he needed blessing from “above” to publish anything related to the civil war. Sholokhov decided to go all in: he wrote a letter to Gorky seeking support for publication. Stalin had recently enticed Gorky to return to the USSR for good and had awarded him a home in Moscow in a prestigious area not far from the Kremlin. Sholokhov’s long letter begged for a meeting and countered the various objections to the new volume. His critics were accusing him of being derogatory towards the Red Army. They were claiming that he overstated the scope and significance of the Cossack rebellion in 1919. They alleged that he exaggerated abuses committed by Soviet officials against Cossack communities on the eve of rebellion. He vigorously defended his audacious decision to write sympathetically about the Cossacks and the extensive, dangerous, anti-Soviet rebellion they mobilized.

The letter worked. Gorky invited him to a meeting to discuss the novel. His house was well known in Moscow. It was the former mansion of a tsarist merchant. When Sholokhov arrived, Gorky was not alone. An astonishingly familiar mustachioed face filled the large room with its presence.


After the men exchanged greetings and pleasantries, Stalin beckoned Sholokhov to sit down next to him. Well-informed about Sholokhov’s problems with literary bureaucrats who wanted to ban the novel, he was there to decide whether to solve them or compound them.

“Why did you represent General Kornilov in such a soft way?” Stalin demanded.

Sholokhov felt a tongue-numbing rush of trepidation. As he searched for words, Stalin continued the barrage: “How is it that someone who was prepared to spill the blood of the people is not depicted more harshly?”

Taken aback by the dictator’s aggressive interrogative style, Sholokhov realized in an instant that he could not tell the truth. Stalin had immediately honed in on a significant ideological weakness of volume two. An honest answer could imperil his literary career.

The truth was simple. In a rush to weave together incidents and narratives into a publishable volume, he had relied too heavily upon anti-Soviet sources. In hindsight he should have been more cautious. He’d borrowed from the memoir of a tsarist general named Lukomskii. The general was not merely an eyewitness to Kornilov’s march on St. Petersburg in July 1917 but also a passionate devotee of his cause. By appropriating speeches and dialogues verbatim, Sholokhov had introduced unfiltered counterrevolutionary voices into several passages of the novel. In addition, he’d taken an entire scene devoted to Kornilov’s arrival in Moscow and his enthusiastic reception there from a tendentious 1917 newspaper article that lauded his popularity with various segments of the Russian population. Though Sholokhov had injected irony and absurdity into the scene, his lapse in judgement had apparently crossed a line.

He decided not to contradict Stalin outright. He had to find an alternative way to exonerate himself.

“Objectively speaking, of course Kornilov was an enemy who was prepared to spill the blood of the people,” Sholokhov replied. “But from a subjective perspective, he was a brave man who was true to the principles of his caste.”

Stalin, who by then was unaccustomed to hearing contrary opinions voiced in his presence with confidence, cast a feline gaze upon the writer and demanded, “But why did you give such humane traits to an enemy such as Kornilov?”

Why was Stalin insistently zooming in on Kornilov? Deep down Stalin knew that if Kornilov had more capably organized a coup in July 1917, the entire history of the Russian revolution could have been very different. An alternative history would have spawned a different dictator. This possibility both fascinated and repulsed him.

Stalin had obviously taken the time to acquaint himself with recent criticisms of Quiet Don. One critic in particular argued that Sholokhov’s heroes were indistinguishable from those of a recent novel that had been publicly condemned as anti-Soviet. Moreover, class consciousness was completely absent from chapters devoted to Kornilov’s “black conspiracy.” To make matters worse, no Red commander rose to the stature of Kornilov in the published installments of Quiet Don.

Sholokhov was compelled to immediately find a way to justify his non-negative portrayal. “Kornilov distinguished himself on the Austrian front with acts of bravery, he was captured by the enemy and managed to escape from captivity and return to Russia. He could even be described in some sense as honorable.”

“Honorable?” Stalin smiled. “A man who went against the people? Such a man could never be considered honorable.”

“Subjectively speaking he was honorable. From the point of view of his class he behaved honorably. He was motivated by a strong sense of duty. He possessed an officer’s sense of honor. He risked his life to return to Russia. He loved his motherland.”

These pronouncements must have intrigued Stalin. He was pondering whether ideology alone could bring cohesion to the Soviet Union. He was starting to have doubts about the mobilizational potential of proletarian internationalism for inspiring the masses to defend the country. The emotionally resonant concept of “motherland,” which had gone out of fashion with the October revolution, now intrigued him.

Sholokhov continued, “I also portrayed how Kornilov gave orders to lynch the entire Petrograd council of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. I demonstrated that in the end the people, even the Cossacks, were against him.”

Sholokhov had comported himself well under Stalin’s first barrage of questions. He had passed a literary litmus test that the dictator developed during an earlier foray into the field of literary censorship. A year earlier Stalin was asked to decide whether or not to ban a play by Mikhail Bulgakov. Censors complained that it heroicized White generals who had been vanquished by the Soviet side. Although Gorky did not find it objectionable and interpreted it through a satirical lens, several major Soviet theater figures were appalled by its contents. They appealed to Stalin to suppress it. By this action they invited him to assume the role of censor of last resort. He took on the role with relish and would never relinquish it.

In the Bulgakov affair Stalin reasoned that the Whites were portrayed as “honest in their own way,” but the playwright did not depict their rejection by the people. The playwright failed to create any scenes, even minor ones, that acknowledged the exploitation of the people. Stalin ultimately decided to ban the play because it evoked empathy for individuals who supported a counterrevolutionary cause. Sholokhov, on the other hand, had passed the first test, but there were several more to come.

Stalin then inquired how an “objective” book about the Cossacks could serve the Soviet cause. A question of this sort seemed deceptively simple. Nonetheless several writers and literary critics had recently come under fire for taking wrong positions on the issue of Stalinist objectivity. Literary authorities pilloried one group of writers for their excessive “objectivism.” The writers had supposedly provided an artistic platform for disseminating the views of enemies of the Soviet state and ideology. Another group had been castigated for excessive “subjectivism.” They had allegedly doubted the party’s ability to actively reshape reality. The first group suffered from too little Marxism, the second one from too much of the wrong kind. The Stalinist position demanded a dialectical synthesis of reality and ideology, ideas and experiences, class struggle and history. The “subjective” and “objective” had to be perfectly aligned, but only a privileged few ideologues around Stalin knew what the current recommended doses were.

Familiar with such dangerous undercurrents, Sholokhov searched for an appropriate answer. He declared, “By portraying the White Generals objectively I demonstrated the achievement of our Red Commanders. I showed readers how hard it was to defeat such committed, well-trained, and militarily capable enemies.”

This clever answer appeared to please the censor-in-chief. The tenacity of the interrogation started to soften. Stalin declared something to the effect of “I knew one White officer who became a distinguished Red Commander. He came over to us in Tsaritsyn.” Sholokhov was one of the few Soviet intellectuals whom Stalin could expect to immediately appreciate the strategic importance of Tsaritsyn during the civil war.

The instant Stalin revealed that he too was a fan of the novel, Sholokhov understood that he was in way too deep.

Sholokhov undoubtedly understood far more than he let on that evening. While working on the second volume of Quiet Don he had thoroughly combed through back issues of a White Cossack literary journal published during the civil war. One of those issues featured the report of a secret agent who had infiltrated the Soviet side. This exposé of Stalin’s first taste of dictatorship labeled him the “evil genius of Tsaritsyn.” It characterized him as cunning, smart, and capable of maneuvering his way out of any situation. It credited Stalin with bringing order to a chaotic region. He immediately became a force to be reckoned with, and he energetically took control of grain requisitioning, railroad administration, water transport, propaganda, and military affairs. When others panicked, believing that Tsaritsyn would fall to the Cossacks in August 1918, Stalin stood firm and refused to leave the city. He consolidated his power by unleashing a reign of terror against both real and imagined enemies. Uncovering conspiracy after conspiracy, he took hostages, ordered shootings, and requisitioned the labor of class enemies to dig trenches for the defense of the city. The threat of constant conspiracies in turn helped him rally the workers to vigorously defend the city.

Stalin’s devotees were just starting to mythologize those days as the turning point of the civil war. In time a new, revised official history would insist that in 1918 Soviet Russia was facing a catastrophe from counterrevolutionaries in the south who were depriving Petrograd workers of grain. The struggle for bread became a struggle to save the revolution, so Lenin sent Stalin to Tsaritsyn in mid-June with unlimited powers. A nest of saboteurs had infiltrated the rail hubs there, and all the trains had ground to a standstill. They made such a mess of things that it took Stalin days to untangle it and avoid the collapse of the front.

Sholokhov’s interest in Tsaritsyn spurred Stalin to share a highly revealing reminiscence. It was a tale of life, death, and discernment. He told of how he intervened to save a captured White officer from death during the civil war. After considerable back and forth about whether the officer had actually been serving the fatherland, he decided to let the man live. “I took a risk and he turned out to be a brave Red Commander. He occupies a high office in our military even today,” Stalin declared.

Stalin revealed his belief in his own powers of discernment. He had staged such interrogations before when much more was at stake. He was convinced in his ability to read a man’s character from the way he answered questions. He took risks that others did not dare to take.

Having had enough discussion of a key historical event, Stalin turned to the Cossack rebellion. He now demanded to know where Sholokhov got his information about deviations against Cossack middle peasants leading to the outbreak of a wide-scale rebellion. Sholokhov realized where the interrogation was going. Several literary figures accused him of exaggerating the scale of the Cossack rebellion in 1919 after reading drafts of volume three of Quiet Don. Some had even alleged that he made up events that had never happened. Furthermore he was accused of causing his readers to sympathize with the rebels rather than with the Red Army men whom they killed.

“Comrade Stalin, everything I wrote about the rebellion is historically accurate. Histories of the civil war acknowledge its significance but say little about its causes.”

Stalin at this point must have cunningly queried, “So how can you prove to your critics that the Cossacks were persecuted by our side?”

Sholokhov played his trump card — Soviet archives: “Our archives are full of materials about those events, but historians have avoided those documents in their accounts of the civil war. Even today there is almost nothing in print about the causes of the rebellion. I represented the brutal realities when I told of how arbitrary violence and senseless excesses inflamed hostility not only towards those errant extremists in our ranks but towards the whole idea of Soviet power.”

Gorky quietly followed the exchange. Lighting matches in silence, he watched them burn in the ashtray.


In the mid-1930s, a minor character vanished from all new copies of Quiet Don printed in the Soviet Union. Under normal circumstances the presence of a marginal protagonist in a novel would not imperil an acclaimed author or endanger the lives of those associated with him. When that character is Leon Trotsky, the reviled, exiled leader of opposition to Stalin and enemy number one of all the world’s toiling masses, and when the year is 1937, the height of the paranoid hunt for hidden Trotskyists across the Soviet Union, all assumptions about literary normalcy evaporate. The purging of Trotsky from the novel’s fabric foreshadowed the disappearance from Vioshki of hundreds of innocent individuals dramatically “unmasked” as Trotskyists. As the purges approached nearer and nearer to Sholokhov, and arrests first engulfed acquaintances, then consumed close associates, then seized his best friends, Sholokhov became dangerously despondent. He abandoned his work on the novel and awaited his own doom.

Until late 1936 Sholokhov was on track to finish his Cossack epic. He would bring about a final resolution to the dramatic cliff-hanger — the ultimate fate of Grigorii Melekhov and his family at the end of the civil war — that Soviet readers had been anticipating for several years. In an article published in Izvestiia in May of 1935, Sholokhov insisted that he was “laboring day anfhd night” to finish Quiet Don. He confidently proclaimed, “By next spring I will hand it over [to the publishers]. There is just one more tale to be told and that’s it.” In a letter written in October 1936 to a fellow writer he declared, “This month I’ll have to work myself into a bitter sweat. If I don’t finish Quiet Don, I’ll gain the glory of being the world’s biggest rogue teller of tall-tales.”

While millions could be expected to wait, there was one reader to whom false promises could not be made. Stalin too was eagerly anticipating the climax of the novel. Despite his best efforts to coax Sholokhov into revealing the ending, and in spite of inquiries about whether reconciliation with communism could be expected from its Cossack protagonists, Sholokhov remained evasive. During a visit to Stalin’s cottage in late May 1936, Sholokhov gave Stalin his assurances that the book would soon be finished. Delighted with the news, the dictator presented him with a precious bottle of cognac from his personal collection.

That fateful meeting in a mansion had forever changed the calculus of young Sholokhov’s literary gambit. The instant Stalin revealed that he too was a fan of the novel, Sholokhov understood that he was in way too deep. The novel transformed him into a Soviet Scheherazade. His very fate now hinged on satisfying a dictator’s literary cravings. He would have to become a great writer and a cunning courtier to stay alive during the Great Terror. An opportunistic, literary caper became a lifelong con . . . with no possibility of escape.


In early September 1937 a visitor arrived in Vioshki. He was Vladimir Stavskii, the general secretary of the Writers’ Union. Stavskii spent several days with Sholokhov. Since the two writers had last met, Stavskii had eagerly and militantly embraced the Great Terror. He claimed to have narrowly avoided death on a recent trip when a train that was traveling along the same route as his suddenly derailed, no doubt due to the actions of Trotsky’s terrorist saboteurs. After Kirov’s death there was no such thing as an accident. Indeed, every unfortunate event had to be linked to the name and surname of a specific enemy of the people. He was utterly convinced that only the vigilance of the NKVD had prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths that would have inevitably resulted throughout the Soviet Union if spies, secret agents, and terrorists had been permitted to carry out their dastardly designs.

By the tenor of his questions, it was clear that this was not simply a collegial visit or courtesy call. Stavskii was on a mission of some sort. His friendly disposition and sympathetic demeanor poorly cloaked the true purpose of his visit. Stalin had evidently sent him to find out what was going on with Sholokhov. Conversations constantly turned to political matters, and Stavskii seemed to be sounding out Sholokhov’s loyalty to the party line. “Didn’t you think about the fact that it is in the interest of your enemies that you aren’t writing anything? Since you are not writing now, that means that the enemy has achieved his objective.” Stavskii’s repeated insistence that his colleague relocate to an industrial town seemed highly suspicious.

Sholokhov stubbornly insisted, ‘I cannot turn Grigorii into a Bolshevik.’

During the days of Stavskii’s visit, Sholokhov was on his best behavior. He remained vigilant and sober, lest lips loosened by alcohol provide any pretext to condemn him. He couldn’t tell whether his colleague’s benevolence masked malignant designs. In recent months, as Sholokhov knew from various sources, Stavskii had participated in a series of ugly incidents exposing fellow writers as enemies of the people. He had embraced the view that they were Trotskyist agents who had infiltrated the literary establishment in order to commit sabotage among Stalin’s “engineers of human souls.”

Stavskii repeatedly inquired about the manuscript of the final part of Quiet Don. Why hadn’t it been handed over to the publishers? Didn’t the writer realize that he had already been publicly chided in a leading literary publication for missing his deadline? How would it end? Did Grigorii finally become a Bolshevik? Evidently Stalin had tasked him with this second mission too. Sholokhov finally relented and permitted his visitor to peruse the manuscript. But before handing it over he reminded Stavskii that foreign publishers were also inquiring about it and that some were even expressing concerns that something might have happened to him. “The general tone,” Stavskii recorded, “is destruction and a certain sort of hopelessness on all three hundred pages.” All of his attempts to stage a literary intervention were thwarted by Sholokhov, who stubbornly insisted, “I cannot turn Grigorii into a Bolshevik.”

Days after leaving, Stavskii penned a secret report and sent it directly to Stalin. It portrayed Sholokhov as a man on the brink. Not satisfied with his two-story house, his car, his two “household laborers” (officially there were no servants in the USSR), his assortment of horses, cattle, and hunting dogs, the writer occupied his days by sitting idly at home and bemoaning his fate. Sholokhov was alternately despondent, then seething with anger. Sometimes he appeared to be writhing with some kind of hidden guilt. To Stavskii the writer at times appeared to be almost paranoid, convinced that a wide-ranging conspiracy pitted local and regional party officials and the NKVD against him. He was blind to the fact that wreckers and enemies were using him as a shield to defend themselves. Stavskii ominously concluded that Sholokhov “is engaging in [literary] sabotage.”


I had a series of unusual conversations while living in Russia in 1999. When the locals found out that I was an American scholar and a fluent speaker of Russian, they eagerly wanted to discuss three topics. Was Putin balding? Would Cruz take Eden back? And would Sholokhov’s manuscripts quietly flow abroad?

The “American” question confronted me first: “How does Santa Barbara end?” Russian television had for the first time started to show episodes of an American soap opera. Many Russians were enthralled by its passions, emotions, and narratives of conspiracy and betrayal. I had to disappoint them. I knew nothing about Cruz, Eden, or any of the other characters that vitally interested them. When Russian television abruptly stopped airing Santa Barbara in spring 1999 for financial reasons, pensioners complained to anyone who would listen that they had not worried so much about the unresolved fate of two star-crossed lovers since Grigorii and Aksiniia. Who were they I wondered? I had taken various courses on Russian history and literature in the United States and never encountered them.

A second, more sensitive, question often probed patterns of history and hair loss. There was already talk that the newly appointed prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was being auditioned for the role of Boris Yeltsin’s successor. To my surprise many Russians intensely scrutinized his forehead for clues to their future. The Soviet epoch, they insisted, had followed a peculiar, but persistent, pattern. Bald reformers were inevitably followed by hairy hard-liners. Had Yeltsin flipped the pattern? Many of us thought we saw signs of balding in Putin but we couldn’t quite be sure of what it meant. A year later, when allies of the new Russian president pressured a major Russian TV network to withdraw a puppet of Putin from a popular satirical show, old timers saw the writing on the wall. Conversations became less candid. Colleagues became more cautious. The boundaries between satire and slander were becoming blurry again.

The third question often turned to Sholokhov. I learned that in parts of Russia Sholokhov was frequently the focus of passions no less intense than any melodrama. How come in the late 1960s the American government — or was it the CIA? — offered $5000 to anyone who could prove that Sholokhov didn’t write his famous epic? What did I think about Sholokhov’s letter to Stalin about the famine? Why did the NKVD try to frame him? Was he worthy of the Nobel Prize? How come the Israelis (an allegation I still do not know the origin of) desired to obtain the manuscripts of Quiet Don? As those conversations unfolded it became clear that to some Russians he was a dastardly villain who savagely attacked dissidents and lent his authority to any message the regime desired to communicate. To others he was a hero who had saved thousands during the Stalin era, celebrated Russian resilience, and retrieved an entire people, the Cossacks, from the brink of extinction. In anticipation of such conversations, which were a litmus test of my view of the Soviet legacy and the Stalin years, I started to confront the problems of Sholokhov’s biography.

While I was only starting to discover Sholokhov, a behind-the-scenes battle was unfolding about his own his legacy. A savvy Moscow journalist named Lev Kolodnyi discovered that the missing manuscripts of early parts of Quiet Don were in the hands of Vasilii Kudashev’s heirs.  He located them and started to publish tantalizing articles in a Moscow newspaper. In a time of widespread lawlessness and banditry, he wisely withheld the location of those manuscripts in order to protect their caretakers. Following such publications, Sholokhov’s heirs began to assert that the manuscripts were rightfully theirs. Skeptics chimed in and began to publish articles claiming that the manuscripts were not actually the manuscripts. An article published in Izvestiia in February 1998 raised the alarm that the precious relics were about to be sold abroad for half a million dollars. A national treasure was about to disappear forever. In late 1999 Vladimir Putin stepped in. He authorized his government to negotiate the purchase of the manuscripts for around 50,000 dollars in order to donate them to the Gorky Institute of World Literature. The Sholokhov family agreed to this arrangement and anointed Putin the savior of Quiet Don.

Putin also turned out to be quite a connoisseur of Sholokhov’s other major work, Virgin Soil. In 2000 in one of the earliest and most candid interviews about his decision to break with the KGB in favor of a new Russia, he suddenly and unexpectedly quoted Sholokhov. “Kondrat Maidannikov only with great difficulty severed the umbilical cord,” he declared. From somewhere deep in the recesses of his Soviet upbringing he recalled a significant scene in Virgin Soil. A farmer endures a restless night before joining the collective farm. Sholokhov wrote: “Even in his sleep things were complicated and difficult. It wasn’t easy to reconcile himself to the collective farm! With a tear and with blood, Kondrat severed the umbilical chord which connected him to [private] property, to his oxen, to his dear parcel of land…” The next morning Sholokhov’s character embarked on a new and necessary life. When it came time for Putin to talk about the most difficult moment of his biography he turned to Sholokhov! Unnoticed by Kremlinologists, what happened next should have attracted more attention. When the interview was subsequently reprinted as a book a few weeks later, the Sholokhov quote and other candid revelations were gone.

After returning to the States I put my thoughts of Sholokhov aside for a few years until a post-doctoral fellowship at the Harriman Institute for Russian Studies at Columbia University in 2004. There, I closely analyzed Sholokhov’s entire correspondence with Stalin for the first time. Stunned by his candor, I struggled to reconcile the sympathetic, even noble, Sholokhov who emerged in the letters with the vindictive, vitriolic man described in so many dissident accounts of late Soviet history. My struggles went on in vain until I met Ivan Bezugloff, a Cossack émigré in Cleveland, a few months later. His relative Sergei Korolkoff had illustrated Quiet Don in the 1930s. Korolkoff was convinced that Sholokhov changed as a result of his harrowing experiences during the Terror. An individual who survived, and even prospered, in Stalin’s time could not emerge from the Terror whole. He remained forever captive to his fears of those years.

* * *

Brian J. Boeck holds a Ph.D. in Russian history from Harvard University and have taught Russian and Soviet history for over a decade at DePaul University. He is also the author of Imperial Boundaries and lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky