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Stalin's Scribe: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov

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Post 06 May 2020, 18:31 ... n-s-scribe

I recently finished reading Stalin's Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov
by Brian J. Boech, I didn't know much about him under than his short wikipedia, and some clips of the Quiet Don film. I was curious about why the most famous Soviet novel glorifies the White cossacks. This is the 1st popular english book about him. It was relatively sympathetic, at least in western terms to the extent that Sholokhov opposed the party line. Although in the post-Stalin years, that was mostly in terms of defending Stalin's WW2 record against the official line. It was interesting to see Suslov as a major character, as I wanted to learn more about the official ideologue from Stalin to Brezhnev. Hes mostly a conservative force in the book. I even double checked at MIA, when there was a whole section about Sholokhov panicking after a negative reference to Quiet Don was published in Stalin's Collected Works in 1952, referencing a letter from 1938.

The elephant in the room is the plagiarism controversies. And the author is completely dismissive of Solzhenitsyn's claims that Sholokhov lifted it whole cloth from a White Guard manuscript. Incidentally, its interesting the degree to which Solzhenitsyn was an "official author" in the 1960s, having Khrushchev's favor, even being a contender for the Lenin Prize and basically a state writer in rivalry with Sholokhov.

But its also clear that the author considers significant sections of Quiet Don to meet his definition of plagiarism. Although hes a bit vague on it. A lot of it just looks like what we would call research, if Sholokhov were writing an oral history. He went through archives, newspapers, magazines, journals etc. One example given is that he directly used passages from 1st hand newspapers. Its not clear if thats "plagiarism" or innovative historical fiction. And it does give the historic context of experimental writing in 1920s Russia, using film montage and collage type techniques in literature. At most I can tell, he did a lot of historic research and incorporated multiple primary sources directly into the novel.
Post 17 Jun 2020, 15:07
So you would recommend Boech's book?

Quiet Don is interesting to me because it shows the civil war without rose-tinted glasses as a brutal, senseless brother against brother conflict. The moments where both sides execute one another's prisoners is particularly intense. That's a positive kind of thing to have, I think, similar to the Elem Klimov film 'Come and See'.

At the same time though, Quiet Don does leave a bitter aftertaste, because it really does seem to take the Whites' side without really explaining what the Reds were fighting for or what their grievances were. What has really stuck with me years after seeing the 1958 adaptation is the 'Stockman' character, who describes himself as a 'Russian' but has a Jewish last name. In the debates I've read on online message boards/YouTube comments sections, I've often come across the attitude of "if it wasn't for these 'Russian' Stockmans, there wouldn't be a revolution and civil war". This kind of feeds into the 'small number of Jews destroyed the Russian empire and killed millions of real Russians' conspiracy theory that's become really widespread in the last 30 years, and is just factually wrong, not to mention anti-Semitic.

In that sense, it's fascinating that the novel was completed in the Soviet Union in the 30s, when one would otherwise imagine that censorship would try to stop things like this. I think the plagiarism allegations from Solzhenitsyn are just the result of his bitterness and jealousy that a state-approved writer did a much better 'anti-system' work than he ever could. I don't take anything that demonstrated liar has to say at face value. According to Wikipedia (bad source I know) the Institute of World Literature of Russian Academy of Sciences found Sholokhov's original manuscripts in 1999. Given the state of Russia at the time (i.e. a mania of 'debunking' everything Soviet) I think the plagiarism issue is probably closed.
Post 17 Jun 2020, 17:09
I'm not sure if I'd recommend it compared to other books on the topic, especially Russian language. For me this was a very useful book as an english audiobook on a topic not well known in the west, and it had the usual western biases on anything Soviet related, but still contained a lot of info. I would double check the official version of Stalin's Selected Works, when there was a whole chapter on the consternation it caused Sholokhov when a 1930 Stalin letter was published in 1948 in his SW, criticizing his work.

It does mention the Swedish statistical analysis that proved Don wasn't plagiarized from a White Russian officer as Solzhenitsyn claimed. It seems like Sholokhov wasn't that interested in the methods, although he was intrigued to learn about idiosyncrasies in his writing, like he uses less pronouns or something.

I would say the author was dismissive of the claims of outright plagiarism as put forward on wikipedia or by Solzhenitsyn. (I think Fomenko of the "no Medieval ages" claim also claimed to prove it was plagiarized). But from what I could gather of the early chapters it seems like there was a lot of "copy and pasting" directly from a variety of sources into the novel.
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