Biography of Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984), winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in literature and a favorite of Joseph Stalin.
In his second book, Boeck (Russian and Soviet History/DePaul Univ.; Imperial Boundaries: Cossack Communities and Empire-Building in the Age of Peter the Great, 2009) works hard—and mostly successfully—“to reconcile the bold, uncompromising, and sympathetic Sholokhov…with the vindictive, mean-spirited man described in many accounts of late Soviet history.” Sholokhov was an obscure 21-year-old short story writer when he wrote his classic novel, And Quiet Flows the Don. Appearing serially in literary magazines from 1926 to 1940, the narrative tells the story of a Cossack family whose hero fights in World War I and the Russian Revolution. The first two volumes were bestsellers, but in 1930, his editor regarded further installments as insufficiently pro-revolutionary. Sholokhov refused to make changes but agreed to visit Maxim Gorky, the nation’s literary idol, to discuss the matter. To his amazement, the meeting included Stalin. Grilled on the controversy, Sholokhov satisfied Stalin, who considered himself a patron of the arts. He not only approved publication, but gave the author his personal secretary’s phone number. Almost immediately, Sholokhov witnessed Stalin’s murderous collectivization campaign and famine followed by the Terror, which devoured many colleagues. He appealed to Stalin, who freed several friends and sent food to his home district. Like naïve patriots throughout history, Sholokhov considered his ruler blameless but betrayed by evil underlings, and he remained a protégé, producing fawning speeches and writing that he struggled to repress after Stalin’s death. By the 1960s, he enjoyed international celebrity but wrote little of consequence, and his privileged status and literary conservatism did not endear him to the younger generation.
Boeck displays his wide range of knowledge of the Soviet Union and delivers an insightful, gripping, squirm-inducing portrait of a great author who loyally served his government—perhaps too loyally.