Authored by Olivia Kroth:
A hundred years have gone by since the end of World War I, from November 1918 to November 2018. With the celebration of Armistice Day, on the 11th of November 2018, the right moment has come to look back on those troubled times from a Russian Cossack writer’s perspective.
On the 1st of August 1914, the German Empire declared war on the Russian Empire, an action of far-reaching consequences. On the 11th of November 1918, this atrocious war officially ended. When the armistice with Germany was signed in Compiègne, France, at 11 a.m. local time —”the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”— a ceasefire came into effect that ended World War I, in which most of the major political powers of that era had been involved.
Although the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, liked to see himself as a man of peace, he favoured an expanded Russian Empire and considered Germany to be the main threat to its territory, even though Germany was ruled by the Tsar’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nicholas II was urged by his council not to enter a war with Germany because it would be mutually dangerous to both countries, no matter who won. However, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevitch said that Russia, if it did not mobilize, would “face the greatest dangers and a peace bought with cowardice would unleash revolution at home.”
The eastern front during World War I was much longer than that in the west. It ran from the Baltic Sea in the northwest of the Russian Empire to the Black Sea in the South, a distance of more than 1,600 kilometres. Because of its length, the line was easy to break. Once broken, the communication networks did not function any more, making it difficult for Russian troops to mount rapid counteroffensives and seal off any breakthrough of the German forces.
Millions of Russian peasants were conscripted into the Tsar’s armies but supplies of rifles and ammunition remained inadequate. It is estimated that one third of Russia’s able-bodied men were serving in the army. The conscripted peasants were unable to work on the farms producing the usual amount of food. By November 1916, food prices were four times as high as before the war. As a result strikes for higher wages became common in Russia’s cities.
Cossacks supplied a disproportionately high number of soldiers for the war. Women left behind struggled to feed their families. During the overthrow of the monarchy, many war-weary and impoverished Cossacks sided with workers and ordinary soldiers against the tsarist regime. Traditionally, the Cossacks of the Russian Empire had always been warriors who provided the tsars with mounted troops in return for land. During the First World War, the Cossack communitiees were weakened and some even destroyed. Yet the war also helped to forge and solidify Cossack identity which has survived until today.
As supreme commander of the Russian Army, Tsar Nicholas II was held responsible for the country’s miltary failures during the First World War. During 1917, there was a strong decline of his support in Russia. On the 1st of March 1917, he was forced to abdicate. On the 25th of October 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power and Vladimir Lenin, the new leader of the Russian government, announced an armistice. He sent Leon Trotsky, the people’s commissar for foreign affairs, as head of the Russian delegation to Brest-Litovsk to negotiate a peace deal with Germany and Austria.
The novel “Quiet Don” deals with the Don Cossacks’ fate during World War I and the October Revolution 1917. Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov (1905 – 1984) created a broad, multi-faceted panorama of Cossack life at the beginning of the 20th century in southern Russia. For his outstanding work the author was awarded the Stalin Prize, Lenin Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature.
In this novel, the beginning of World War I and the invasion of German troops in Russia is told from a Cossack point of view:”The Cossacks rode at a smart trot. Now they saw the German Dragoons’ blue uniforms. ‘Start firing’, Astrakhan shouted, jumping from his saddle. Upright, both reins wound around his hands, he fired the first volley. Ivankhov’s horse reared up, throwing its rider to the ground. While falling, Ivankhov saw how one of the Germans died.” This was one of the first German casualties in Russia. Many more would follow.
In his masterpiece Mikhail Sholokhov not only depicted the bad times for Don Cossacks during World War I but also the end of the tsarist regime as a consequence of the war. Many of the tsarist Cossack regiments changed sides. After 1918, they followed the Bolsheviks, giving them military support. Later, during World War II, called the Great Patriotic War in Russia, some Cossack regiments joined the Red Army and fought for the Soviet Union against Nazi invaders.
In the novel the figure of Bunchuk is a Bolshevik Cossack. He shoots a tsarist officer into his open mouth as this one is holding a speech to win the Bolshevik Cossacks back for the tsar’s cause. Then he explains the motives for this deed to a comrade: “It is either them or us. There is no middle way. People like him must be killed like vipers”. Many “vipers” are killed at the end of the novel, when Bolshevik Cossacks saber captured counter-revolutionaries.
Two Bolshevik Don Cossacks are talking about Vladimir Lenin in the course of the novel. Chikhamasov says, “He is a Cossack from the stanitsa Veliky Koknyeskaya. He served in the artillery. By the way, you can tell from his physiognomy that he is a Cossack from the lower Don river: the high cheekbones, the slanted eyes. He is a true Cossack but he will not say so now. He is going to overthrow many more, not only the tsar. No, Mitrich, do not argue! Lenin is a Cossack.”
Mikhail Sholokhov, of Cossack origin himself, was born in the stanitsa Veshenskaya, on the 24th of May 1905. He joined the Bolsheviks, in 1918. In 1923, he moved to Moscow where he worked as author and journalist. After publishing his cycle of “Stories about the Don” (1926) he began writing the epic novel “Quiet Don”. The work of 2.000 pages took him 14 years to complete (1926-1940). It appeared in four volumes of 500 pages each.
For “Quiet Don” the author was awarded the Stalin Prize (1941), the Order of Lenin (1955), the Lenin Prize (1960) and the Nobel Prize for Literature (1965). The Nobel Prize Committee gave the following explanation for its choice: “The Nobel Prize for Literature 1965 goes to Mikhail Sholokhov due to the artistic force and integrity with which he created the epic novel ‘Quiet Don’, showing a historic phase in the life of the Russian people.”
Mikhail Sholokhov became famous in the Soviet Union and worldwide. He was a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet and Vice President of the Union of Soviet Writers. Mikhail Sholokhov was twice awarded the title “Hero of Socialist Labour”. The asteroid 2448 Sholokhov has also immortalized his name. In Moscow, the Sholokhov State University for Humanities was named after the author. This pegagogical institute was founded in 1951. In 2005, it ranked among the best 14 pedagogical universities of the Russian Federation.
The novel “Quiet Don” follows the tradition of Russian history and society novels. It can be compared to Lev Tolstoi’s “War and Peace”. Mikhail Sholokhov’s work deals with the life of Don Cossacks at the beginning of the 20th century, between 1912 and 1922. The Don Cossacks enjoyed greater liberties than other subjects of Imperial Russia. They did not have to pay taxes and were not serfs but free citizens. They lived as farmers, breeding horses and cattle. Don Cossacks were and still are great riding artists. They also knew well how to handle the lance, saber, rifle and pistol.
The Don Cossacks were a military society, constantly engaged in warfare, as an old Cossack song explains: “It is not the plough that is cultivating this glorious earth. / Our earth is churned by the hooves of horses. / Our earth is covered with Cossacks’ heads. / Our peaceful Don is adorned with young widows. / Our father, the Don, has many orphans. / The tears of fathers and mothers are rolling in the waves of the peace-loving Don.”
Many passages of the novel are lyrical, flowing as quietly as the river itself, whose surface changes from day to night and during the four seasons: “In the evening the sky turned cherry-red in the west. Behind the great poplar the moon was rising, shedding a cold white light over the Don. At night the murmur of the water mingled with the voices of countless ducks swarming southwards.”
Unfortunately, this marvellous novel has almost been forgotten nowadays. It is worth reading, not only because of the rich information about World War I in southern Russia, but also as a document of Cossack life on the Don river. Could this book be an adequate Christmas gift? The following Don Cossack Christmas carol sounds inviting: “Frost and cold, ice at Christmas, bad ice / You have frozen the wolf / You have also brought love into the house.”
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.
Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com