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All the stories in this collection are from the 1920s wars in Russia. The author catalogues the horrors of war on both sides, but he is decidedly himself leaning toward the Bolshevik position and believes in the coming “equality.”
With the exception of the last two stories, most of them do allow the objections to the Communist agenda to be heard and presented, if not with sympathy, at least with some understanding. Alas, the last two stories seem to degenerate into pure propaganda.
Nonetheless, the stories are well-written and about as fair as a partisan could be expected to be.
Nikolka Koshevoi is a young commander in the service of the Communist government in Russia some few years after WWI. He is only 18, but has risen quickly within the militia and is highly regarded. He sort of raised himself, his father having gone off to “the German war” and never returned. His mother died soon after. However, he always regretted he didn’t learn how to write, though he can read a bit. He also has an astonishingly prominent birthmark on his ankle by which he is known to many.
He is in charge of a group of soldiers fighting Cossack enemies of the state. They are in a remote area of Russia and come across a group of radical Cossacks out to destroy the Russian Communist state. Nikolka leads his group into battle with this rag-tag but very savvy and tough rebels.
The story has a stunning surprise ending, and is very well constructed and written.
Against the advice of the elderly of the village, the local “committee” appoint young Grigory Frolor to herd their cattle. He knows nothing about herding and is himself a Communist. He wants to leave the village, be educated in the city and become a part of this new Russia.
He sets off to the outback with 150 of the village’s cattle and his 17 year old sister. Little by little sickness and wolves decimate the herd.
While he is out in the rural area he writes an article about the corruption contrary to Communist doctrine. It is published and he is shot dead by his enemies. His sister returns to find him dead. She flees to where the Soviets rule, still believing that Lenin has all the right answers.
A Communist soldier, Shibalok, shows up in the town with a tiny baby. He recounts his tale to the woman at the clinic, begging her help. His troop of Cossacks had found a woman beaten and left by the anti-Communists. Against the wishes of his troop, he lets the woman travel with them and she became indispensable to his troop. She also got pregnant with his child. However, it turned out she was a plant, a spy, and she betrayed him. After the battle he finds her dying in child birth. She tells him her tale of betrayal, yet he has now come with this tiny child to the city to save him and hopes they will make a good Communist out of him.
Grain is being requisitioned by the Communists, but the farmers have all hidden their grain. 6 years prior a 14 year old Ignat Bodygin had called his father a swine for beating a peasant working for him and his father had run him off. Now, at age 20, he returns at the head of a Communist unit of troops. There is a clash with local farmers and eventually he has his own father killed. Another uprising occurs and he has to flee. On his way a young boy begs him to take him along and save him. He knows this is nearly impossible to get away with the boy on tow, but he remembers his own life and takes the boy, costing him his own life.
The local leader of the Communists turns his tiny village into a “Republic.” Anti-Soviets catch him, nearly killing him, even costing him one leg. However, Communist soldiers intervened and did save his life.
Once he’s well he is chastised for having turned his small village into a Republic and is told there can only be ONE Republic, the Russian state. He agrees and points out that he was using a necessary tactic to call attention to the power of the Communist ideology. This goes over well and he is not only spared, but supported.
The older of two sons of an anti-Communist father flees away to fight for the Revolution. He is eventually captured and held in the local jail. His younger brother sneaks him food. When he is sick one day his mother goes to take the food and is caught. Her husband then kills her.
Eventually the older brother does escape prison and is hidden and cared for by the younger brother. The father suspects the son and comes to his hut, finding the rebel son and is about to kill him, but the younger brother rises to the occasion.
This is a very sad story of the horrors of war and the suffering of the ordinary folks. One man asks a ferryman to take him to other side of the river, but the water is high and fast moving and they get into some difficulty, needing to spend some hours stuck in the middle of the river. While there the ferryman tells the young soldier he is ferrying his story.
He had seven children. His oldest two sons went over to the Bolsheviks while the village itself was strongly on the side of the Whites. When his oldest was captured near-by the ferryman was ordered to kill his own son or they would kill the five younger remaining children. He felt he had simply had to do it for the sake of the young ones. Later the second is captured and it happened again.
The story is being told many years later and this bitter and destroyed father tells the tale to this young soldier pointing out the horror of having to choose among your children of whom should live and whom should die.
It’s a chilling and devastating story.
A “sham-child” is an illegitimate child. The boy in the story is about 5, perhaps 6. His father has been away a few years in the war, fighting on the side of the Bolsheviks and in the navy. The village has a majority on the Bolshevik side, but the local power is against them.
The returning father tells his son stories of the war, and especially of his own meeting and developing friendship with Lenin himself. The boy, of course, has no real idea who Lenin is, but his father gives him a card with Lenin’s picture and the boy has ideas in his head of the importance of his father.
Soon after his return his father is even elected the head of the village counsel, but, again, there are many enemies of the communists in the area. Soon there is a raid by the Whites, and the local Communists are called out to defend their area. His father hurries into the fray and is killed, but boy, not really understanding at all, runs away from home to join “the war,” and pays the ultimate price for his foolishness.
Wheee, for this father of 7, this and the other tales of the dead children, were very hard to read.
This is another tale of families split apart with some fighting with the Bolsheviks, others with the Cossacks. In this tale the oldest brother is such a vehement anti-Bolshevik that he engineers the assassination of his own brothers and does it with ease and pride.
A village leader who is a Ukrainian now living in Russia, is murdered because he supported the Bolsheviks. His young son grows up mourning his father and supporting his cause. Eventually, still as a young man, Piotr, the son, blows up Cossack weapons stores and is wounded, but escapes to the Reds.
Soon, however, the Cossacks get the upper hand on the Reds and Piotr is captured and given the option to fight with the Cossacks or be killed. He does fight with them and, while still a teen, is moved into a leadership role.
His chance for escape and revenge finally comes, and in a tense battle situation he convinces his entire troop to go over to the Reds.
While here again author Sholokhov shows his sympathy to the Bolsheviks to the Cossacks, he never ceases to show the horrors of this Civil War on all sides. The fighting is fierce, brutal without any mercy or rules of war. I like the “fairness” of this approach. He certainly is on the side of the Communists, but he recognizes that all sides are fighting an ugly and dirty war.
A theme that runs through the stories is the position of Ukrainian people who had come to, even been forced to, work in Russia. They, like Russians as well, were divided as to who supported the Bolsheviks and who supported the Cassocks.
One of these Ukrainian farmers is a supporter of the Bolsheviks and trying to avoid the war and do his farming, but at a bad time for him the Cassocks are attacking his area which is under Bolshevik control. Just as the attack begins his own horse, a mare, delivers a tiny foal. The Bolshevik commander tells him to shoot the foal since it will slow down his mare and it just can’t be done in war.
But, all these people, the Bolsheviks, the Cassocks, and the Ukrainians are mainly farmers, and despite the advice or order from his commander, the farmer respects the little foal.
Soon they have to try to flee across the Don and, again, the foal is a problem, but the farmer keeps the little one alive. While crossing the river the foal gets caught in a whirlpool, and the Ukrainian farmer swims to aid the foal in a barrage of gunfire that is going on. However, when the Cassocks themselves see the foal they stop firing and the soldier, aided by his horse, the mother mare, get the foal back to the bank of the river from which they’d come. However, as soon as the soldier stands up on the bank, and the tiny foal is saved, the Cassocks take aim and shoot him in the back.
The story is touching in how it emphasizes that so many warriors on BOTH sides were farmers with a respect for what it is to raise animals, yet they could kill each other as though it were nothing.
A grandfather tells the sad story of his two grandsons who fought against the Cossacks and were captured. The old man who had worked for the Cossack leader pleads for his grandsons’ lives. The young Cossack offered them their lives if they joined the Cossacks. They wouldn’t. One is killed and the other maimed for life.
It’s a terribly sad and violent tale.
This is a very touching story of an old couple whose son is killed in the war fighting for the Cossacks. Shortly after this a young communist is wounded while collecting grain on their farm. The old couple nurse him to health over a 6 month or so period and form a deep bond, seeing him as a replacement for their lost son. Eventually he is called back home to work in the factory where he had worked before the revolution took place. He is reluctant to leave, but sees his role in the revolution must come first and he goes.
This is a deeply human and terribly sad tale.
Another aspect of “change” is addressed in this tale of a young Bolshevik leader who is demanding changes from the “old” ways. Most of the people are with him, nonetheless the few anti-Bolshevik leaders murder the young leader. He dies believing that a new Bolshevik leader with spring up in his place.
Again the author underlines the tremendous disruption and horrors that this revolution brought about.
The last two stories are far and away the most propagandistic stories of the collection. Up to now there was no doubt that the author was a supporter of the Bolsheviks, but, nonetheless, he was fairly fair to the Cossacks as well. Not so in the final two stories.
A young boy loses his father and thus, to simply try to survive, he hires himself out to a local farmer as a laborer. However, the farmer is a serious cheat, promises the boy a terribly low salary and then doesn’t even pay that. Further he works him without mercy.
During the harvesting season they have to hire on a team of young travelling laborers. One of them sees the terrible exploitation of the young boy and encourages him to report the farmer to the local Communist group.
The boy does so, and is kicked off the farm. Nonetheless he learns a great deal, becomes an active Communist and then an activist. He encourages many young laborers, as he was just a few years earlier, to work only under contract and to report abuses to the authorities.
A group of local farmers, including his former boss, decide to attack him. They do and nearly kill him. But, the farm boys learn from this and they all join the local Communist party and are saved and protected by this group.
At the end of the tale we do discover that the boy is still alive, but even this year or more later, he is still recuperating from his wounds.
“Dry Rot” is even more blatantly propagandistic. A young farm boy has joined the local Communist movement. He supports the rules of the organization and, what very much rankles at home, he ceases his Christian religious observances. His father and brother badger him terribly to stop this nonsense and try to convince him the Communists are no good agitators.
The tensions at home are brutal, and when the young son and his friend “borrow” his father’s oxen to do the friend’s field one night, the oxen escape and appear lost. The father and older brother use this as an excuse to finally let out their entire furor at the younger son, and actually kill him and his companion.
When they get back home, the oxen have returnedBob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com