Tag Archives: Mikhail Sholokhov

Mikhail Sholokhov monument, Moscow

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I have been photographing this monument to Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize-winning author who claimed to have written the classic Soviet novel The Quiet Don, for several years now. I have never liked the photos I got. Often it was a problem of light – I usually happened upon it on very sunny days when I got nothing but black shadows and burned-out white spots. But there were other problems, too. One is the monument, which is sprawling and multifarious and, therefore, difficult to get an angle on. Another is the figure of Sholokhov. Controversial is no longer the word for him – it now seems certain that many will continue forever to call him a fraud -still another of those frauds, like the Stakhanovite shock workers or the child hero Pavel Morozov, none of whom actually existed, at least as the stories were told about them. Sholokhov may well have been one of those heroes that the Soviet state needed, but didn’t have, so chose to make up. And he turned out to be willing to play the part – why not? –  it made him rich, famous and powerful. Rumors, and not only rumors, have long posited that a certain Fyodor Kryukov, a soldier who was killed during the Russian Civil War, wrote most of The Quiet Don (English publishers traditionally have cut this work into two, And Quiet Flows the Don, and The Don Flows Home to the Sea). Over the decades other authors, or partial authors, have been put forward, including Alexander Serafimovich (who denied he wrote the novel). The 1999 discovery of the manuscript that Sholokhov first submitted for publication at the end of the 1920s gave support to those who believe in Sholokhov’s authorship. It was clearly determined that 605 of the 885 pages were written by Sholokhov, while the remaining pages were written by his wife and her sisters.
And yet, the doubt that hangs over Sholokhov’s head is just too serious to be dismissed. After all, who is to say that Sholokhov and his wife didn’t merely copy out Kryukov’s, or someone else’s, abandoned text? A highly detailed article about the controversy on Russian Wikipedia lists 17 serious accusations that have never been successfully refuted. It lists 10 detailed reasons to believe that Sholokhov wrote the novel.
I am no expert in this topic, which, as the Russians say, could easily make the Devil himself break a leg trying to maneuver the details. I did have the memorable, though, ultimately inconsequential, experience of once working with a TV producer who came from the Don region, knew the people there, the stories, the reality, and who passionately, even vehemently, supported the version that Sholokhov was a plagiarist.
Sholokhov was recently in the news again when the archives of the Nobel Prize Committee for 1965 – the year he won – were made public. You can read some details in an article in The Guardian, but here are a few tidbits: Writers passed over in favor of Sholokhov included Vladimir Nabokov, Anna Akhmatova, Konstantin Paustovsky, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Somerset Maugham, Samuel Beckett and several others. Although records show that the choice of Sholokhov was unanimous, it was, according to a piece published by Colta.ru, far more controversial than it would appear at first blush. At one point a suggestion to give the Prize jointly to Sholokhov and Akhmatova appeared to gain traction. It was apparently shot down by Professor Anders Esterling, who declared, with some reason, that such an award would be pointless since nothing, other than their native tongue of Russian, unified the two writers.

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This monument, conceived by Iulian Rukavishnikov several decades ago, but eventually created by his son Alexander Rukavishnikov, and unveiled May 24, 2007, was the second monument honoring Sholokhov to be erected in Moscow. It has been – like its subject – controversial from the very start. It is located in the garden walk area of Gogol Boulvard immediately across from house No. 10, where Ivan Turgenev occasionally lived. Many felt that if any monument were to go up here, it should have been one honoring Turgenev. This is not, however, a fully arbitrary location for the present sculptural group, as Sholokhov lived for many years on Sivtsev-Vrazhek Lane, which runs perpendicular to Gogol Boulevard right in front of the monument. Sholokhov, sitting in a boat presumably navigating the Don River, looks directly down the street where he lived. Behind him is a fountain – which doesn’t always have water flowing in it, and certainly did not on the sub-freezing day I photographed it – that shows horses fording the river in the opposite direction from Sholokhov (who appears to be letting the boat float where it will as he poses for the sculptor). Across the walkway there is a two-sided bench, the backs of which bear symbolic images important to the Cossacks, the main characters in The Quiet Don (such as sabres and the Russian symbol of the two-headed eagle). Scattered around in the walkway around the benches are bronze imitations of stray sheets of manuscripts. The one I provide here (the second-to-last photo below) is of the title page from Sholokhov’s other famous novel, They Fought for their Motherland. You can’t help but wonder if this is the sculptor’s sly idea of a way to acknowledge the legend that Sholokhov came upon “his” Quiet Don as an abandoned manuscript.

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Ivan Bunin plaque, Moscow

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Povarskaya Street was a hopping cultural hub in the early 20th century. In 1905 Konstantin Stanislavsky rented a space in the Nemchinov building right at the beginning of Povarskaya where Vsevolod Meyerhold briefly, but famously, ran his Studio on Povarskaya. (That building was torn down in the Soviet era when Kalinin Prospect was widened.) Right around the corner from Povarskaya, on Borisoglebsky Lane, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva moved into her new digs in 1914 and remained there until 1922. The famous Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrushaitis lived at 24 Povarskaya from 1920 to 1939 when he was the first ambassador of Lithuania to the Soviet Union. But today we have our eye on Povarskaya 26, the next building over. This was the home of Ivan Bunin, who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature during his time in European exile. As the plaque on the building’s front facade declares, Bunin lived here from 1912 to 1918. That is particularly interesting because it means that Bunin and Tsvetaeva were neighbors for the course of about four years. There’s a park right across the street from Bunin’s building and, assuming it was there 100 years ago, one wants to imagine the occasional warm spring day when both writers might have stepped out to catch some fresh air and ended up sharing a bench together, or, at least, one of them passing by the other, who might have been sitting and reading or jotting down notes.
A couple of people missed crossing paths with Bunin here. One was Mikhail Lermontov, who lived in a different building, now lost, on this very spot in 1829 and 1830 when he wrote, among other works, his great narrative poem The Demon. Anyone who knows Boris Pilnyak’s great novel The Naked Year will recognize my little homage to Pilnyak in that little phrase of “now lost…” In his novel, to great effect, Pilnyak lists things and places that were fast disappearing at the time he wrote The Naked Year. That novel begins with the words, “On the city fortress wall gates it was written (now destroyed): Save, O, Lord/This city and your people…” It’s just the first of many such times he plays with that device.
And so now I can bear my own device: Boris Pilnyak is one of those who lived in this very building, although not at the same time as Bunin. Bunin moved out in 1918, Pilyak moved in two years later, in 1920. Pilnyak’s presence here is not recorded in any way. Perhaps that is fitting, as if to say: Boris Pilnyak, now gone, did live here once, though there is nothing here to prove that true.

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Somehow Bunin (1870-1953) and I sort of pass like ships in the night. I have read his short stories (some, not all, by any stretch of the imagination); I have seen theater performances created of his stories; I have read about him and seen movies about him. I know the basic story well – the fine, subtle writer who spanned all the way back to the late 19th-century and the Chekhov era, yet who lived well into the 1950s, i.e., the post-war and even post-Stalin age. But I have never connected with his work as I have with so many others – Pilnyak included, I might add.
My little shortcomings in taste and knowledge aside, others have had a different view. Bunin was the first Russian writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; he received it in 1933. Like other, later Russian winners of that prize, it is usually assumed that there was more than a little politics in the choice. Bunin was considered by some to be the greatest living Russian writer in exile (he left the Soviet Union in 1920 and never went back). The prize, say some, was intended to support the difficult situation surrounding Russian writers in exile, and to highlight the lack of freedom writers enjoyed in the Soviet Union. (Tsvetaeva, for example, would have a tough time in Europe and returned to the Soviet Union where she committed suicide in 1941.) Other Russian Nobel winners were Boris Pasternak (1958), the official Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1965) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970). Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were both persecuted to varying degrees, and their prizes reflected that. Sholokhov, it is believed, was given the prize to mollify the Soviet authorities after the “insults” of Bunin and Pasternak’s wins. None of this will ever be proved until the Nobel committee opens its archives, which will probably be never. As such, the conversations and speculation continue.
Bunin was very much of the grand old school of Russian realism (whether that term is legitimate or not). He is often compared in style and impact to Tolstoy and Chekhov. He is similar to the former in his belief in the great power that literature can wield, while he is closer to the latter in stylistic spirit. Bunin, like Chekhov, was a master of the short story. He was concise, clear and unwavering in his insistence on painting the nuances of life in their proper dark tones.
Bunin was born in the city of Voronezh and, as fate would have it, I travel there myself for the first time ever in a few days. If, in any way, I have slighted the great man’s memory with this post, I will seek to rectify that with a post I expect to write soon after visiting his place of birth.

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