June 1, 2015
Movie of the Week: “And Quiet Flows the Don”
This is a weekly Fort Russ feature. To view other editions, click on the Movie of the Week tab above the title.There’s more than one version of the movie. Here’s the 1958 Soviet one, with subtitles:
There’s also a more recent, Sergey Bondarchuk-authored miniseries which
can be found on youtube. Even though it stars many Western actors
(British actor Rupert Everett does an amazing job embodying the main role
of Don Cossack Grigoriy Panteleyevich Melekhov)I’ve been able to locate only a piece of it in English. .
The movie is naturally based on Mikhail Sholokhov’s Nobel Prize-winning epic novel of the Revolution and the Civil War. How epic, might you ask? 1600 page-epic, that’s how. It makes War and Peace read like Cliff’s Notes. And it beats Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago all to hell, both in terms of character development, symbolism, encyclopedic knowledge of history, and sheer quality of writing. For that reason even a five-hour miniseries can barely touch on the main plot twists. Even so, it is a detailed, honest and accurate depiction of one of the most tragic episodes of Russian history in which the dividing lines ran not just through the political elite but also through regions, villages, and even individual families. The action is taking place not too far from the current war on the Donbass, with many of its cities and towns appearing in Sholokhov’s work.
The main hero of the story, Melekhov, is torn between two political camps, unable to find home among either Reds and Whites. Not coincidentally, he is also torn between two women, losing both of them (and pretty much his entire family) in the course of the Civil War. Since women tend to represent (here and elsewhere) the people as a whole, Melekhov’s loss of the women in his life reflects the tragedy of the Cossacks in the Civil War.
Neither the movie(s) nor the novel can be dismissed as Soviet propaganda–this is not “socialist realism” by any stretch of the imagination. Lots of people who fight for the Whites are doing it for understandable, human reasons. Many of the Bolsheviks commit atrocities on the Cossacks, or simply make mistakes that drive them into the opposing camp. You’d think that a novel like that would get Sholokhov in some trouble with the political system (especially considering when it originally came out–1920s and ’30s…).
And yet it didn’t because it, too, was an exercise in political reconciliation, no different than the project Medinskiy is pursuing. Contrary to widespread understanding, the “totalitarian” Soviet system tolerated considerable “deviations” from the norm. It’s enough to just compare Medinskiy’s five theses to who is depicted in a negative light in Sholokhov’s masterpiece, and why. The message from both media is simple: as long as you don’t call for extreme measures or seek foreign assistance to resolve internal Russian political disputes (with Bolsheviks being guilty of mainly the former and the Whites of mainly the latter), you, too, can participate in the political process. It’s a grave mistake to treat as enemies factions with which you disagree because, well, treating them as enemies just might transform them into enemies. As the Bolsheviks’ treatment of Don Cossacks certainly did.
Moreover, let’s not forget that the Civil War and the foreign intervention are the closest historical analogies to what is currently happening in Ukraine. The task, both then and now, is to avoid alienating those who may still be won over. Because, ultimately, it’s not the foreign intervention that’s a decisive factor. It was not in 1919, it is not in 2015. The decisive factor is whether the peoples’ on Russia’s periphery feel that there’s a comfortable place for them within Russia. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then it doesn’t matter how many NATO instructors to go Ukraine. If Russian policies toward Ukraine may seem like they are overly tentative or hesitant, almost to the point of Kremlin allowing itself to be taken advantage of, it’s because it doesn’t want to repeat the mistake made by the Bolsheviks in And Quiet Flows the Don.