correction: An earlier version of this review mistakenly said Mikhail Sholokhov died in 1983. He died in 1984. The text has been corrected.
Peter Finn, the national security editor at The Washington Post, is the coauthor of “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over A Forbidden Book.” Finn’s next book, “A Guest of The Reich,” will be published in September.
Every discussion of Mikhail Sholokhov begins with the question of plagiarism — how, in 1926 and 1927, did a 22-year-old produce “Quiet Flows the Don,” the first part of a stirring four-volume epic set among the Cossacks? It was an improbable literary feat for a writer whose previous work, mostly short stories, was, at best, undistinguished.
Sholokhov’s long line of detractors, down many decades — most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn — accused him of lifting wholesale a dead man’s novel that he found among a trove of papers abandoned in the chaos of revolution and civil war. Tellingly, the critics charged, there was his pissant output after the early acclaim. For decades, Sholokhov produced nothing of note and, at times, seemed incapable of writing at all.
In a provocative and sympathetic new biography, Brian J. Boeck accepts the likelihood of literary genesis emerging from a long-since destroyed set of documents, but he argues that Sholokhov conjured this raw material — sketches, newspaper clippings, letters, notebooks, diary entries and an unfinished novel — into an original work of art and that “the epic collage was substantially of his own making.” The man from the provinces, who never made Moscow his home, sparked his genius on his own rough stone.
Sholokhov in this telling forced his way into literary greatness, but his early, genuine talent, his ability to turn fragments into “a grand tapestry,” was ultimately paralyzed by the weight of expectation, Joseph Stalin’s hovering interest in the writer and alcoholism.
The hostility toward Sholokhov, old and deep, was never just a matter of suspected plagiarism. As his writing juices ossified, his political bile in defense of Soviet orthodoxy filled his cheeks. Late Sholokhov is remembered as a Soviet hack — a “patsy of the regime,” as Salman Rushdie put it — who turned on young dissident writers, and as an ungenerous crank who pronounced himself the first Soviet writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, as if Boris Pasternak, dismissed as an “internal emigre,” had not existed.
He was a regime mouthpiece, but he had been other things too, as Boeck reminds us in his subtle, engaging portrait. In publicly advocating for the release of men wrongfully imprisoned during the Great Terror, Sholokhov exhibited extraordinary bravery when others — almost everyone, in fact — was overwhelmed by fear; ultimately, however, he would lose his conscience in the stupor of vodka and vanity.
“Literature will avenge itself as it metes our vengeance upon all who retreat from the difficult obligations that come with it,” Lydia Chukovskaya wrote in an open letter to Sholokhov after he condemned two writers who were sentenced to prison terms for their “anti-Soviet agenda.”
Chukovskaya, from a preeminent Moscow literary family, said Sholokhov would be sentenced to the “highest form of punishment there is for an artist — creative sterility.” At that point in 1966, the sentence had already been long at work.
Boeck begins his biography in 1922 with Sholokhov, about age 17, facing execution for falsifying grain-harvesting records to protect farmers, a punishment he escaped when his father bribed a local priest to change a baptismal certificate so the young man was deemed a minor under Soviet law. Boeck has next to nothing to say, except for a brief footnote, about Sholokhov’s parents and early life in the Don River valley, as “almost all accounts of his childhood are either saccharine or selective.” But he does observe that Sholokhov’s family was non-Cossack, which meant “he would have been surrounded by Cossack culture but separated from the Cossack community by juridical and caste boundaries. . . . This simultaneous proximity and distance served him well while working on ‘Quiet Don,’ ” as the novel is called in Russian.
Sholokhov met Stalin in 1931 as he was dealing with critics and editors who questioned the ideological purity of the third volume, given its setting among counterrevolutionaries. The Soviet leader, an enthusiastic reader, was clearly a fan of the novel, and Sholokhov became one the dictator’s favored scribes, a stature that allowed his work to be published and ultimately protected him from the purges of intellectuals in the Great Terror.
But Stalin’s favor also carried the suffocating burden of pleasing the master. Stalin asked him to write a great war novel, a Soviet “War and Peace.”
“Just give it a try,” he said at a dinner in 1942.
Sholokhov was never able to deliver. “The burden of producing a second masterpiece from scratch was crippling,” Boeck writes. “The stakes were too high, the task too daunting. Even if he somehow stumbled onto a cache of sources, there was no recovering the audacity of youth or retrieving the boundless ambition that once propelled him.”
Sholokhov died at home by the Don in 1984, issuing the telling last words, “Where is my CC [Central Committee]? Where is my CC?” as another might seek the intercession of his God. He died diminished, his reputation crippled by the compromises of a venal Soviet man — the writer who deserved the Stalin Prize but never the Nobel.
Boeck forces us to reconsider that biography, at least in part, and that is no small achievement.
By Brian J. Boeck
Pegasus. 388 pp. $29.95