Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov (SHOH-loh-kof), epic novelist of the Cossacks, was born in Kruzhilino, a small village near Veshenskaya on the river Don; he was the eighth child in the family. His father was a farmer, a cattle buyer, a clerk, and later the owner of a power mill. The family was of modest means, but the parents nevertheless managed to send the boy to school near Moscow. Sholokhov’s mother, half Turkish and half Cossack, was an illiterate woman of strong determination; she learned to read and write in order to be able to correspond with her son while he was away at school.
Sholokhov, forced to leave his school at Voronezh because of the German invasion, returned to his home when he was fifteen. His plans to teach school upset by the revolution, he was assigned by the Bolsheviks to various jobs, among them assignments in a statistical bureau, as a freight handler, as a food inspector, and as a mason. In 1922, during bandit raids in the region, he participated in some of the fighting.
When he was eighteen he began to write for various newspapers and magazines, and he wrote some short fiction before beginning his long novel and eventual masterpiece, the Don Cossack tetralogy, which was translated into English as And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea before the whole was combined as The Silent Don in 1942. This monumental work, composed over a ten-year period, appeared in Russia in four separate volumes in 1928, 1929, 1933, and 1940. With the first volume of the novel, the author became famous. His analysis of the lives of the Cossacks, showing how history was forcing them into new social roles, became popular because it was an intimate portrait of realistic regional life. The novel expresses something of the power and dignity of the human beings whose lives it portrays. Ivan Dzerzhinsky, the Soviet composer, used the Don novels as the basis of a highly popular opera, and it was a successful film as well. Largely on the basis of this work, Sholokhov received the Stalin Prize in 1941. More than a million copies of the book were sold in the Soviet Union during its first year of publication, and before the fourth appeared, the novel had gone through seventy-nine editions, had been translated into thirty-eight languages, and had sold more than four and a half million copies.
Sholokhov’s work on The Silent Don was not continuous. In 1932 he completed the first volume of a two-volume work, Seeds of Tomorrow; the second volume appeared in 1960. This novel, dealing with the building of a kholkoz, or collective farm, was also a great success in Russia and in other countries. Like the Don novel, it was filmed and made into an opera by Dzerzhinsky. It was also presented as a four-act play at the Simonov Studio Theatre. Until 1941, Sholokhov lived a quiet life in the Veshenskaya region, where he wrote, farmed, hunted, fished, and entertained his friends. When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, he became one of Russia’s “fighting correspondents,” settling in Moscow, where he lived until his death in 1984.
In 1937 he was elected a deputy to the Supreme Soviet. He was a member of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. and of the Praesidium Union of Soviet Writers. In 1955, during an official state celebration of his fiftieth birthday, he received the Order of Lenin. He was married to Maria Petrovna and had four children. Sholokhov has been criticized as a Communist apologist, but most readers of his works agree in regarding him as an artist who managed to triumph over the propagandist. He is valued as an epical writer who portrayed a significant aspect of contemporary Russian life.