Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) The White Guard (Alma Classics, 2016)
I bought a half-price bundle of Bulgakov novels from Alma as I’d never read his work before, and thought I’d show some solidarity with war-scarred Ukraine. I started with the surreal-satirical The Master and Margarita (posted about last month HERE).
The White Guard is an early, largely autobiographical novel begun in the early 1920s. It took Bulgakov years to complete, and went through many redactions. A final version in Russian proofread by Bulgakov was published in Paris in 1929 – there was a substantial émigré Russian population there. It wasn’t published in a complete version in Soviet Russia until 1966. Again it’s highly relevant to the terrible situation in Ukraine today.
It’s set in Kyiv in the harsh winter of 1918-19, a ‘great and terrible’ year, as the novel’s opening words describe it, when the city was shelled and besieged by right-wing nationalist forces exploiting the departure of the German troops who’d defended it until their defeat in November in WWI. There’s a scattered, ineffective defence by raw cadets and a few officers – most of whom had deserted. They’re under-equipped, disorganised and overwhelmed by superior opposition forces – similar in many ways to the tragic events that are taking place in Ukraine now.
Everyday life in Ukraine’s capital has become terrifyingly dangerous. Then, as now, its citizens hear the awful sounds of artillery shells bursting ever nearer the centre of the city. Their attackers show no discrimination in their assault: then as now the tactic is to annihilate the fabric of the cities attacked, and to drive out the inhabitants or kill them if they remain. Arbitrary acts of anti-Semitism and cold-blooded murder are frequent.
The plot centres upon the Turbins, a cultured bourgeois White (pro-Tsar, with allegiance to pre-revolutionary Russia) family and their close circle of friends. Alexei, a young military doctor (as Bulgakov was) is wounded in the conflict and narrowly escapes death (possibly after a mystical intervention by the Virgin Mary). His sister Yelena’s husband, an officer in the Ukrainian forces supposedly defending them, has (like most of his peers) deserted his city and his wife.
It’s a stirring, gripping account of ordinary city folk enduring terrible hardship at the hands of a cruel and murderous enemy – the nationalists are about to be succeeded in their onslaught by the Bolsheviks (Reds). This is perhaps why Bulgakov’s stage play based on this novel was said to be Stalin’s favourite, and why the author was not sent to a gulag or executed, rather than just censored: he portrays the invincible, crushing might of the Bolshevik revolution, against which the Chekhovian bourgeois-liberal ignorance and dreaminess of the likes of the Turbin family and their friends are inevitably doomed to be eliminated.
The style has a modernist, fragmented approach (songs, poems, dreams) and tone that reminded me of Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, among others (maybe Dos Passos, too, with its random snippets of newspaper stories and unattributed dialogue). Eisenstein’s montage technique in film also comes to mind – especially in a parade/religious service scene near the end when the nationalist forces are celebrating victory.
Amid all the savagery Bulgakov shows love and hope in this family and their friends. There are some apocalyptic and literary allusions (especially to War and Peace and more generally to the fiction of Dostoevsky), strange symbols and magical/surreal moments, as in The Master and Margarita – see the link above to my post. Some of these contribute to the sense that none of the factions in this terrible war is perfect; the focus on the White Turbin family presents them with all their illusions, prejudices and flaws, while the nationalists and Reds who are about to crush their lives and culture are portrayed more as ruthless ideologues rather than the romanticised saviours that Stalin would normally have preferred in such representations. It’s all, as Stephen Blackpool says with characteristic stoical bafflement in Hard Times, a muddle.
I read it while suffering from a heavy cold, which added to the sense of weirdness in the narrative. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the dreadful news from Ukraine that fills our airwaves daily, then you might prefer to give this novel a miss. On the other hand, it provides vivid historical context to these events, a salutary reminder that Soviet-sympathetic Russia has always had designs on Ukraine’s territory and people, and is convinced that it has an imperialist (if not divine) right to sovereignty over a nation whose separate, independent and autonomous existence it refuses to recognise or respect.