Stalin’s Russia was full of self-promoting con-men with invented personas, ambitious intellectuals with questionable credentials, and audacious imposters who for a time succeeded in both faking it and making it. Even some of the highest officials of the Communist Party were revolutionary improvisers lacking either the experience or training to do what history demanded of them. Mikhail Sholokhov (1905?- 1984) can be viewed as the most talented and successful of them all. Rising from obscure, rural origins, he impersonated a great writer long enough to truly become one. He earned the admiration of Joseph Stalin. Sholokhov gamed the most important mark in the Soviet Union. Or was it perhaps the other way around?
Sholokhov had written several promising, but by no means brilliant, short stories by his early twenties. His writing career was on the verge of stalling when he somehow managed to acquire an archive that was left behind when anti-Soviet forces were routed by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. At a minimum, this archive appears to have included an unfinished novel that ended around 1919 and a trove of scrapbooks consisting of stories, sketches, newspaper clippings, and articles spanning over a decade of Cossack history. In 1926-27 his work with “the big thing,” as he sometimes called it, became more than a novel. It became a mission. From the moment he started to connect narrative threads and patch seams, he transformed from passive consumer to passionate co-creator. He moved, merged, and juxtaposed texts, combining them with new sections drawn from his own background. He added communist threads and amplified communist characters to create the Soviet Union’s epic equivalent to Gone with the Wind. The result was the first volume of Quiet Don, a deeply tragic epic centered on two star-crossed lovers and the twilight of a culture swept up into a whirlwind of war and revolution.
In 1927-28, the first volume of the planned trilogy became an overnight success. Sholokhov was immediately vaulted into the spotlight of Soviet celebrity and acclaimed as a rising star of Russian literature. The novel was hailed as a War and Peace of the revolutionary era. With fame came envy and suspicion. In Moscow, one of Sholokov’s first editors, Feoktist Berezovskii, became highly skeptical of his rapid metamorphosis from an apprentice into a virtuoso. It just seemed too good to be true. He doubted that astonishing prose could emanate from the pen of the same young author whose short story he had laboriously edited just three years earlier.
The ensuing plagiarism scandal brought Sholokhov to Stalin’s attention. In early 1929, rumors began to circulate in Moscow that an old woman had written to Soviet authorities claiming that her son, who disappeared during the Civil War, had written a novel. She insisted that the recently published chapters of Quiet Don were identical to her son’s book. As the story spread, it became more and more elaborate. In some versions the poor old woman was going from publisher to publisher hoping to arrange a tearful reunion with her missing son. In others, she was angrily demanding justice from the authorities. When the rumors reached Stalin, the controversy became a matter of life and death for Sholokhov.
In March 1929, the editorial board of Pravda (the Soviet Union’s most important daily newspaper) convened an ad hoc tribunal to examine the allegations that Sholokhov had plagiarized Quiet Don. Several days later, Pravda publicly exonerated Sholokhov and pronounced the plagiarism gossip to be “malicious slander being spread by enemies of the proletarian dictatorship.” Although Sholokhov weathered the plagiarism scandal, bureaucrats soon banned the newest installments of his novel as anti-Soviet.
Critics complained that his sympathies were not unequivocally on the side of the proletariat. They accused him of humanism, pacifism, and worst of all, objectivism. He dared to portray class enemies without expressing excessive, exaggerated hatred of them. In a desperate effort to save Quiet Don, in the spring of 1931 Sholokhov appealed to Maxim Gorky, Russia’s most famous living writer. The ploy worked. A few weeks later Gorky invited him to a meeting to discuss the novel at his mansion in the heart of Moscow. When Sholokhov arrived Gorky was not alone. A remarkably familiar mustachioed face filled the large room with his presence. The mustache belonged to a face made famous by newspaper engravings and grainy photos of May day parades.
That evening Joseph Stalin decided to discuss characters and scenes in Quiet Don rather than unravel conspiracies or analyze grain reports. Following introductions, Gorky receded into the background. Stalin beckoned Sholokhov to approach. In seconds it became clear that this was no social call. Stalin immediately accused Sholokhov of sympathizing with some of the revolution’s most vicious adversaries. Resorting to one of his favorite tactics, Stalin advanced a series of damning allegations. These were calculated to knock his adversary off balance and unmask his true character. Would his target retreat? Would he submit and become subservient? Or would he push back?
Sholokhov saw the dictator’s eyes burning like those of a tiger ready to pounce. The snap decision he made in that instant had the potential to either influence his life for decades or to end it. He stood his ground. With his career on the line, he confidently argued with Stalin and vigorously defended his audacious decision to write sympathetically about the Cossacks, the former tsarist military caste which rose in rebellion against the Soviet government.
Stalin was impressed by Sholokhov’s tenacity. Concluding his barrage of questions, he started to reminisce about his first, albeit temporary, taste of dictatorship in 1918. The dictator and the writer bonded over conversations about battles which had faded from public memory but would soon become central to the emerging Stalin cult. Elated, Sholokhov departed from the mansion with the most coveted prize in the USSR—Stalin’s telephone number.
Though fate had smiled upon him that evening, Sholokhov soon discovered that a dictator’s favor comes with daily dangers and crushing burdens. As Stalin’s prized protégé he would have to become a new man. That fateful meeting in a mansion forever changed the calculus of young Sholokhov’s literary gambit. The instant Stalin revealed that he too was a fan of the novel, Sholokhov understood that he was in way too deep. The novel transformed him into a Soviet Scheherazade. His very fate now hinged on satisfying a dictator’s literary cravings. He would have to become a cunning courtier to stay alive during the Great Terror. An opportunistic, literary caper became a life-long con…with no possibility of escape.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.