March 01, 2019

Stalin's Scribe

Stalin's Scribe
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By Brian J. Boeck (Pegasus Books)

I can’t imagine a cleverer or more perverse way of presenting “the first political biography” (xi) of Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1975) than as if from the conscience-addled Sholokhov’s perspective. Biographer Brian Boeck quietly flows with how Sholokhov would have seen his fatefully compromised privileged life. The wonder boy who had cranked out, by the age of 26, the first three fat volumes of Тихий Дон, or as it’s usually known in English translation, Quiet Flows the Don, seems, either from a bad conscience or simple alcoholism, to have been drunk much of the last several decades of his life.

As an aspiring 21-year-old fiction writer, Sholokhov plagiarized or, as apologists would have it, borrowed and adapted a treasure-trove of first-hand accounts of the Russian Civil War by Cossack soldiers and officers into his novel. At age 26, when he needed Stalin’s okay to publish the third volume of Quiet Flows the Don, the Supreme Leader himself interrogated him: “‘Why did you represent General Kornilov in such a soft way?’ Stalin demanded. … An honest answer could imperil [Sholokhov’s] 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. … By appropriating speeches and dialogues verbatim, Sholokhov had introduced counterrevolutionary voices into several passages of the novel” (39-40).

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