THE RURAL IDYLLS of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Academy Award–winning attempt to reckon with Russia’s Stalinist past, Burnt by the Sun (1994), are punctuated by the appearance of an ominous glowing orb that hovers close to the central characters, marking them for death. There’s little doubt as to what it represents: this sentient ball lightning is an avatar of Stalin himself. The image is arresting, somewhat ham-fisted, and not at all new. In fact, it’s very much of the period. Mikhalkov’s film is set in 1936, at the start of the Great Terror, which would reach its height the following year. On November 15, 1937, a breezy squib in Time Magazine reported that:

Searching for the best phrase with which to hail Joseph Stalin, Soviet editors not long ago began calling him “Our Sun.” This caught on in the Soviet Union from coast to coast. Like Louis XIV of France, Le Roi Soleil (“The Sun King”), Dictator Stalin is the actual Sun around which Communist constellations revolve, might say truly if he liked “L’état c’est moi.”

In the concluding paragraph of his biography of Stalin, published in 1940, Trotsky placed his nemesis on an even loftier pedestal:

“L’État, c’est moi” [I am the State] is almost a liberal formula by comparison with the actualities of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Louis XIV identified himself only with the State. The Popes of Rome identified themselves with both the State and the Church — but only during the epoch of temporal power. The totalitarian state goes far beyond Caesaro-Papism, for it has encompassed the entire economy of the country as well. Stalin can justly say, unlike the Sun King, “La Société, c’est moi” [I am Society].

Mikhalkov’s glowing orb was simply a literal rendering of the old Soviet trope.

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The film came to mind as I read one of the more striking scenes in the new biography of controversial Nobel laureate Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–1984), Brian J. Boeck’s Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival. Throughout the 1930s, Sholokhov, the author of the epic novel of Cossack life before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, And Quiet Flows the Don (1928–1940), masterfully navigated his relationship with Stalin, and even wielded it to save thousands of lives in his native Don region during the most disastrous phases of forced agricultural collectivization. But eventually Sholokhov’s path of steady compromises led him to a precipice. “In March 1939,” Boeck writes, “he stood up in front of two thousand delegates [of the 18th Congress of the Communist Party] and the entire Soviet populace and proclaimed that the Great Terror was a worthy triumph.”

Boeck relates with Dostoyevskian verisimilitude the psychological agonies Sholokhov must have endured at the time — the torturous self-justifications, the desperate attempts to drown his guilt in alcohol. In the end, he paid a physical price. Three months after his shameful performance, the author “sought consolation in solitary engagement with nature,” went out fishing on the Don, removed his hat, and drifted for hours beneath the scorching summer sun. “By the time he started towards home,” Boeck tells us,

there was ringing in his ears. Then he was seized by a throbbing headache. As he staggered to the house, his family recoiled in horror from the sight of him. His eyes were bloodshot red. His recently shaved head was breaking out in blisters. His speech was becoming incoherent … These were signs of acute sunstroke.

It took Sholokhov weeks to recover his ability to think clearly. In the following year, he managed to motivate himself to complete the fourth and final volume of Quiet Don (as Boeck calls it, hewing closer to the Russian title), but as a writer, he was essentially a finished man. He had been burnt by the sun.

Interestingly, the symbolic sun reappears at a crucial moment in that final volume of Quiet Don, when the protagonist, the unrepentant anti-Bolshevik Cossack Grigorii Melekhov, buries his beloved, Aksiniia, after she is accidentally killed:

The sun rose above the ravine through the smoky haze of the burning wind from the east. Its rays silvered the mass of grey hair on [Girgorii’s] head and slipped over his pale and terribly immobile face. As though awaking from an oppressive sleep, he raised his head and saw above him the black sky and the blindingly glittering, black disk of the sun. (Translated by Stephen Garry, pen name of Harry C. Stephens)

The “black disk of the sun” seals Grigorii’s fate; he too is a finished man. Boeck doesn’t address this passage — among the most powerful in a novel that well exceeds the ideological and stylistic bounds of Socialist Realism — but in his afterword, he cogently summarizes what it meant to end the epic as Sholokhov did:

Had he been willing to compromise there would have been fewer delays in finishing the final installments. He could have avoided ten tortured years by simply turning Grigorii into a Red Army hero and making Aksiniia a decorated Stalinist milk maid. Instead he stayed true to his vision.

Sholokhov’s struggle to stay true to his vision in an atmosphere of blinding darkness is the theme of Boeck’s riveting political biography. To his great credit, Boeck himself is never blind to Sholokhov’s profound flaws or to the fact that his struggle was largely doomed from the start. His is a story of a Faustian bargain, a story “in which triumph and terror, disturbing fears, and improbable feats of achievement are inextricably interwoven.” It is a story of Russia in the 20th century.

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Boeck prefaces his narrative with a brief glimpse at a decisive meeting, to which he will later return. In the summer of 1931, a 26-year-old Sholokhov arrives at the mansion of Maxim Gorky, the leading light of Soviet letters, where he finds not only Gorky but a backlit figure with “an astonishing profile and a bushy mustache.” The first two volumes of Quiet Don had already been published, and had proved phenomenally successful, but Sholokhov’s editors were now holding up the third. Soviet publishing was growing more ideologically rigid, and what had seemed permissible just two years earlier — a sophisticated, if even respectful, depiction of the Bolsheviks’ enemies — was now seen as highly suspect. At this meeting, Stalin himself would test Sholokhov’s loyalty. Asked to defend his choices, Sholokhov did so without flinching. He also cleverly turned the conversation to Stalin’s favorite topic, the dictator’s own strategic prowess:

The dictator and the writer bonded over conversations about battles that 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 personal telephone number. Though fate had smiled upon him that evening, he soon discovered that a dictator’s favor comes with daily dangers and crushing burdens.

In the first half of Stalin’s Scribe, Boeck traces Sholokhov’s road to that meeting, demystifying, insofar as possible, the heavily mythologized and painstakingly obscured details of the ambitious autodidact’s youth. Born to a non-Cossack family but raised among Cossacks in the Don region, near the town of Vioshki, Sholokhov went to work early after limited schooling. In 1922, while working as a tax collector at the close of the Civil War, he was arrested for falsifying records; he had aimed to relieve the hardships of poor Cossack farmers by lowering their requisite grain contributions.

The crime was punishable by death, but he was sentenced to probation; his father had bribed a priest to forge a baptismal record and so make the young man a minor under Soviet law. Spared, but no longer able to secure the high-paying work available to communists in good standing, Sholokhov decided to try his luck in the capital. Soon after moving to Moscow, he discovered a passion for writing. Although his earliest efforts weren’t overly impressive, they showed promise, and, after extensive editing, found their way into print.

The question of how these tentative first steps developed, within a couple of years, into giant strides — the first two volumes of Quiet Don — continues to feed suspicion that Sholokhov plagiarized his novel wholesale, supposedly from an unpublished manuscript by an anti-Bolshevik Cossack named Fyodor Kryukov (1870–1920). There is little solid evidence for these claims, although Sholokhov certainly made use of, or plundered, many literary and historical sources when writing his novel. In the end, Boeck’s assessment of Sholokhov’s literary development is both fairer to the man and more revealing of the era:

[Sholokhov] was not the only person in the Soviet Union in the 1920s whose ambitions initially exceeded his abilities. He was one of millions trying to make it in a country rebuilding after an unfathomably devastating war, civil strife, famine, and revolution. Stalin’s Russia was full of self-promoting nobodies, reckless con-men with audacious invented personas, false specialists, and talented imposters who for a time succeeded in both faking it and making it. […] Sholokhov could, in some sense, be viewed as the most successful of them all. He impersonated a great writer long enough to truly become one.

It is a commonplace to say that nothing else Sholokhov wrote could stack up against Quiet Don. His only other major novel, Virgin Soil Upturned (1932–1959), which dramatizes the collectivization of agriculture and was written on Stalin’s orders, is standard-issue Socialist Realism. His planned novel of World War II, They Fought for Their Motherland, which Stalin had hoped would become a Soviet War and Peace, fizzled after a handful of chapters. And even the last two volumes of Quiet Don, it is often noted, are weaker than the first two. But as Boeck’s biography testifies, it is possible to explain that diminution in productivity and quality with reference to the extreme pressure under which Sholokhov was trying to work.

As the pressure mounted, the impersonator who had become a writer retreated into his impersonation. He became a shell of the man who had stood up to Stalin in the early 1930s. One could, on occasion, see glimmers of his former courage in subsequent years — though it was now usually fueled by cognac. When he showed up drunk to the Kremlin in 1938, Stalin was disappointed and issued a warning: “Comrade Sholokhov, I’ve received reports that you’ve been drinking too much.” In response, Sholokhov spoke for every Soviet citizen: “From such a life, Comrade Stalin, anyone would turn to drink.”

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Sholokhov’s protector and tormentor died in 1953. Although the author outlived Stalin by 31 years, he never emerged from the Stalin era. He did win Khrushchev’s confidence, and even heard the new leader’s account of their former boss’s inglorious demise. “I’d like to tell you a fairy tale,” Khrushchev said to Sholokhov. “It’s going to surprise you. It’s the one about how the mice buried the cat.” When Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, Brezhnev showed less patience for the increasingly demanding grand old has-been, who was by then a hopeless alcoholic. His receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1965 was largely the result of intense political maneuvering by and around a writer whose career was over; it was, in effect, a posthumous prize.

Not only had Sholokhov stopped writing in the post-Stalin era, but his conduct toward his fellow authors was mostly callous and often reprehensible. When Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel, who had published their satirical writings abroad, were arrested, tried, and convicted for the crime of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda in 1966, Sholokhov refused to side with moderates who considered the sentence — seven years of hard labor for Siniavsky, five for Daniel — too harsh. On the contrary, his speech at the 23rd Party Congress that year “became the ugly coda,” Boeck writes, to the men’s prosecution, with rhetoric that “purposefully harked back to the 1930s”:

Recent developments reactivated his deep Stalinist programming about the responsibilities of a Soviet writer. Moscow colleagues insisted that [Siniavsky] had defamed Gorky in works smuggled and published abroad while praising the classic in Soviet publications. Not only was this a classic example of treacherous double-dealing but it also violated the central unwritten rule about Gorky. He could be creatively quoted, regarded as a curious museum artifact, or even ignored, but he could not be defamed. In appealing for leniency in the name of humane ideals, the Soviet supporters of the two dissidents only confirmed to Sholokhov that they had forgotten the lessons of the 1930s. No one had ever annulled the customary laws that all Soviet writers were expected to abide by.

Sholokhov’s willingness to do the Party’s bidding destroyed his reputation in the eyes of most liberal Soviet writers. It certainly earned him the lasting hatred of a formidable foe, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who also hailed from the Don region and would go on to win the Nobel in 1970.

Having initially expressed his admiration for Solzhenitsyn’s watershed fictional exposé of Stalinist repression, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Sholokhov soon came to see the brash survivor as a “malicious lunatic, who has lost control of his reason.” He recommended that Solzhenitsyn be expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union. Solzhenitsyn, for his part, saw Sholokhov as a “hangman” and became obsessed with proving that he had plagiarized the better parts of his epic. When it came to ferocity and tenaciousness, the two men from the Don had much in common.

In 1984, Sholokhov died with the words “Where is my CC [Central Committee]?” on his lips. He was given a pompous funeral by a state that was itself bending toward the grave. In the battle for the hearts and minds of Western and late-Soviet intellectuals, Solzhenitsyn had won. But the legacy of Russian authors is unpredictable. Solzhenitsyn himself outlived his dissident glory in the West and returned to Russia in 1994. He remained a staunch conservative and supporter of Vladimir Putin’s policies until his death in 2008. In December of last year, Putin attended the unveiling of a statue of the author on the centenary of his birth.

Thirteen years earlier, Boeck notes, “Putin had traveled to Vioshki to lay flowers at Sholokhov’s grave in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of [that] writer’s birth.” Of course, dead authors can’t be held responsible for the uses to which they are put. But while they live, as Boeck’s insightful and compelling biography shows us, they should be wary of proximity to power: it singes talent. If any further proof is needed, hunt down a copy of Nikita Mikhalkov’s sequel, Burnt by the Sun 2 (2010), in which the auteur — one of the Russian president’s most ardent artistic admirers — resurrects his fictional victims of Stalinism to fight the Nazis at Stalin’s behest. Putin visited the set.

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Boris Dralyuk is the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.