There is something majestic, timeless and grand about Russian literature. Whether its Tolstoy (Leo, sure but I prefer Alexei), Goncharov, Turgenev – the stories resonate with purpose and the full nature of the human experience. This is perhaps especially true about literature from the Black Sea Basin. The Caucasus, Crimea. The Kuban and of course the Don Rivers. “Quiet Flows the Don” by Mikhail Sholokhov is the story of the Don Cossacks. About a family of farmers, divided by war and violence and their lives in the preservation of the customs and traditions that they so loved, against a Bolshevism which sought to brush it all into the sea.
Its funny, because though a Soviet novel, there is something deeply conservative about this 1600 page epic (my copy is a four volume rare book set, printed in the USSR). The nature of being conservative is that mistrust of activist government and that prime desire to be left to ones own devices. For the Don Cossacks, this played out in their love of their music and their traditions and their faith – and, somehow, even their defense of the tzar. Which led so many to join the “whites” and led ultimately to the tremendous violence.
This is the Cossack story, and we all know about the Cossacks. The cowboys of the great Russian steppes. A martial race if there ever was one, confident in their villages along that great Don River. It is the story of war, but so much of the history of Russia, imperial, revolutionary, and even now is defined by war and conflict – going back as far as the Vikings, and before. Geopolitics is defined by the past more than the future. The Black Sea basin has hosted so much conflict, so much carnage, so much insecurity and injustice that it has produced extraordinary art – painting and literature mostly. Great art stems from great suffering. And the story of the Don Cossacks bleeds with meaning. For those wish to understand modern politics of the Black Sea, they might well begin with picking up a copy of “And Quiet Flows the Don”.