Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Aksinia Astakhova

Mikhail Sholokhov’s books, translated as And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea, written 1926-1940, turn on one of the most grounded and passionate relationships in literature. Aksinia Astakhova and Gregor Melekhov are neighbors, their farmsteads on the banks of the Don at the end of the village of Tatarsk.

Kuban Cossack
Still only 20, Aksinia’s husband Stepan doesn’t love her. When Stepan is mobilized, Gregor and Aksinia fight off the feelings they have for each other without success. Soon the whole village knows of their liaison. “After the mowing Aksinia was a changed woman: as though someone had set a mark, burned a brand on her face. … She carried her happy, shameful head proudly and high.” They talk of running away, but Gregor feels there is nowhere to run to. “I’ll never stir anywhere away from the land. Here there is the steppe and something to breathe.” When Stepan gets home, he beats Aksinia savagely. Aksinia lives with him anyway, drowning her thoughts in household duties.

For the sake of honor, Gregor and Aksinia stay away from each other. Gregor’s parents marry him off to Natalia, who loves him. Natalia shrinks from bodily pleasures, however, and Gregor cannot help but think about Aksinia. Gregor leaves his family and goes to work at a nearby landowners’ estate, taking Aksinia with him. When Gregor is called up for military service in 1914, he leaves Aksinia on the estate, with their child. War with Austria begins.

Gregor’s family first receive a message that he died in battle, then a message saying he is alive. Gregor spends a long time in the hospital. He has received the Cross of St. George, but is beginning to see that he is fighting for an upper class which disrespects him. Aksinia’s little daughter dies. Left alone on the estate and in great pain, she allows the landlord to come to her. When Gregor comes back, he punishes both of them and leaves, going back to live with his parents and his wife.

Battles become more confusing. The Russian army fragments as some become Bolsheviks. In a battle, Gregor saves Stepan, Aksinia’s husband. “Strongly Gregor defended his Cossack honor, seizing every opportunity of displaying immortal prowess … but he knew that he no longer laughed as in former days, that his eyes were sunken and his cheekbones stood out sharply. He knew what price he had paid for his crosses and medals.” War turns to revolution and then to civil war. The Cossacks fight on the side of the White Russian army and Gregor is made an officer. Aksinia returns to Tatarsk on the Don when her husband returns from prison in Germany.

The Don area is enclosed on two sides by Red forces in the civil war. Gregor is home on leave now and then. Natalia has given him two children. She reproaches him for drinking and going with women, but he says “I’ve got no pity left for anyone. The war’s dried it all out of me. … Look into my soul and you’ll find a blackness like an empty well.” In fact, he sends for Aksinia, asking her to come to the nearby town where the regiment is stationed. “Occasionally Gregor awoke after a brief, stupefying sleep and saw Aksinia’s attentive eyes fixed on him in the twilight as though she were learning his features by heart … ‘I want to look my fill of you. They’ll kill you; my heart tells me so.’”

Natalia lays hands on herself. Gregor’s family believes his wife went to her death because of Aksinia and do not want anything to do with her. The area around the Don is being fiercely fought over. When the Whites retreat from Tatarsk, Gregor takes Aksinia with him. But she catches typhus and he must leave her. When she is well again, she makes her way home after many days. Gregor’s mother comes to ask after him and from that day on Aksinia and his family are united in their concern for him. That spring, the women of the village sow a little wheat on the parched earth.

Gregor switches sides and fights for the Reds. When the civil war is finally settled and the Reds take over, Gregor returns home, where his mother has now died, his sister has married a Bolshevik and Aksinia is glad to see him. The Reds are suspicious of Gregor, however, and arresting former officers of the Whites. Rather than be punished, Gregor disappears and fights with a rebel band. There is no discipline, however, and he finally can’t stand it. He returns to his village for Aksinia, who joins him, riding off and camping in a lovely dell. “I’ve learned to live like a hare,” he tells her. They are surprised and shot at by a patrol. Aksinia is hit. She never speaks or wakes. Gregor buries her, losing all interest in life until he finally goes back to look for his children.

At different points in my young life, I needed to know about passion: whether it was allowed, whether it could be survived. The Cossacks described by Sholokhov own up to passion. They live with it in close proximity to each other. This is a long tale, in which there is much fighting and discussion of politics. But it is clear that the real passions of the Cossacks involve their land and their families. Aksinia has no allies in this story, nothing but her love of Gregor and the great, fecund steppe. In the end she sits beside Gregor in the grass as he sleeps. “’My dear, Grisha darling, the grey hairs you’ve got!’ she whispered. ‘So you’re growing old? And yet it’s not so long ago that you were a boy.’”

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