Book Review: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. In the second of a series of articles for Northern Soul, Alfred Searls explores how 1917 – and the Soviet society which developed in its shadow – has been portrayed by writers since that momentous year of revolution.
Over the course of 1917, a series of revolutionary events unfolded in Russia, events which radically re-shaped the course of world history. Soon after, in the arts and academia, a process of distillation began whereby a series of complex causes and effects were transformed into the simple narrative of a Bolshevik revolution, enacted almost entirely within the cities of St Petersburg and Moscow, overthrowing an ancient monarchy.
The streamlining of history is of course not confined to the events of 1917, but it should be remembered that in the following months these events had far reaching consequences throughout the old Tsarist Empire. It should also be remembered that the Bolsheviks enthusiastically championed this narrow focus on the October Revolution, suiting as it did their own chosen narrative that they alone were the rightful leaders of the proletariat. And it is here, amid the flood of propaganda, that we find Mikhail Bulgakov, swimming as ever against the tide.
The White Guard was Bulgakov’s first novel, written and published in 1925 in serial form in the Soviet literary magazine Rossiya. It tells the story of the Turbin family in Kiev over the course of several days in mid-December 1918.
The Turbins are Russians born and bred in Kiev, the capital of what may or may not become the independent state of Ukraine. Economically speaking, they are, at least by today’s standards, a middle class family. Socially speaking they are White Russians, members of the social class that constituted the professional, officer and managerial classes of pre-Revolutionary Russia.
Alexei, who at 28 is the oldest of the three parentless siblings, is a doctor recently returned from the ‘German War’. Nikola, the youngest, is 17 and a cadet in a local military academy while Elena, the glue that holds the family together, is the married sister whose husband Talberg is an officer in the German-backed puppet regime that’s clinging to power in Kiev.
Talberg appears at the start of the novel just long enough to inform Elena that he is about to leave her and the city with the Germans who, although undefeated on the Eastern Front, now have to comply with the recently signed Armistice and withdraw to Germany. This is in fact Talberg’s third political resurrection, having previously transitioned seamlessly from White Russian to Ukrainian Nationalist to German citizen in just 18 months.
Talberg’s identity crisis is perhaps unsurprising given the political situation faced by the novel’s protagonists. Throughout Russia, nationalist uprisings of various kinds are vying for power with the Bolshevik Reds, the Conservative and Monarchist Whites, the Anarchist Blacks and the Peasant Greens. To this must be added the impending vacuum left by the retreating German army and the military intervention in the territories of the old Tsarist Empire of no less than 12 other nations. Bulgakov deals with this complexity with the lightest of touches, so much so that the reader is rarely if ever aware that they’re being taught the ins and outs of post-Revolutionary Russia.
At the beginning of the novel, the family, like the rest of Kiev, is trying to carve out some sense of normality amid shortages and rumours of all kinds. Hanging over the city is the threat posed not by the Bolsheviks, who are still only a shadowy presence in Kiev, but that of Petlyura and his vengeful Ukrainian peasant army who are in the process of encircling the city.
Bulgakov quickly sketches the Turbins and just as quickly the reader grows to like them. The warmth to be found in their modest kitchen isn’t simply supplied by their tiled Dutch stove but also by their touching familial love and kindness to others. The Turbins are a fixed point in the novel, and as it progresses and the situation in Kiev deteriorates, Bulgakov skilfully interweaves their story with that of a host of minor characters, each of which serve to illuminate different facets of both the story and of Bulgakov’s genius as a writer.
At this time, Kiev was teeming with refugees from Moscow and St Petersburg; merchants, industrialists and bankers mix with artists, actors and prostitutes in the city’s shops, restaurants and cafes. Throughout the novel the stories of these doomed incomers are adroitly told in street scenes and overheard conversations. In doing so, Bulgakov describes the collective cognitive dissonance caused by the sudden disintegration of a whole way of life. This kind of societal collapse is of course unimaginable to most of us as perhaps it was to Bulgakov, until he actually lived through it.
Who was Mikhail Bulgakov?
Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891 into a solidly middle class Russian family. After graduating from medical school he volunteered to serve as a doctor at the front when the First World War broke out, where he was twice badly wounded. During a long and painful recovery, Bulgakov became addicted to morphine, an addiction he broke for good in 1918, which he described in his 1926 book Morphine.
By February 1918 he was back in Kiev to witness the chaos of civil war in his home town. As Bulgakov put it: “The inhabitants of Kiev reckoned there were 18 changes of power. I can tell you there were precisely 14 and what’s more I personally lived through ten of them.”
Being a trained doctor meant that he was drafted by successive governments and, by February 1919, he found himself serving with the Ukrainian People’s Army in the North Caucasus where a bout of Typhus, which came close to killing him, prevented him from emigrating to Paris with the rest of his family.
Unsurprisingly, Bulgakov began to look for a new career. “One night, in 1919, in the dead of autumn, travelling on a rickety train, by the light of a candle stuck in a kerosene lamp, I wrote my first story.” Thus, like many so many other writers, he began to write about what he knew – the civil war, being a doctor and Kiev.
Back to the book…
In The White Guard, loyalty is a defining characteristic of the Turbins. Their loyalty is quiet and undogmatic. It is the kind of loyalty that neither seeks nor expects anything in return and is given freely to friend and stranger alike. It is the kind of loyalty that underpins a personal sense of duty and moral responsibility and the kind that the Tsar and the old order did not deserve but was given nonetheless by many decent people like the Turbins.
Thus an officer disbands his unit of young cadets rather than see them mowed down for a government that has already fled the city, while another holds his position to the bitter end; both act out of loyalty. Elsewhere, a young woman endangers her life to save a wounded Alexei and as a result of this act of kindness love is born amid the carnage and the chaos of civil war.
But not all of Bulgakov’s charterers are cut from the same cloth. One poet wallows in self-pity as he descends into a form o f syphilitic religious mania, while another, a decorated officer and a sociopath, betrays his comrades and throws in his lot with the Bolsheviks essentially for no better reason than his is bored. Later, a Jew is casually beaten to death for the eternal crime of being Jewish.
The great and the good and the mad and the bad – none of them escape Bulgakov’s pen, and all the while at a station outside the city a Bolshevik armoured train called The Proletarian awaits its call to action.
Throughout the novel one longs to believe there will be a happy ending for the Turbins; perhaps like Bulgakov’s own family they will escape to Paris. Sadly there was to be no such happy ending for Bulgakov.
After moving to the new Soviet capital, Bulgakov was asked by the Moscow Art Theatre, which was looking for a play with a contemporary theme, to dramatise The White Guard. This was a productive time for Bulgakov and one he went on to portray in his satirical novel Black Snow.
Given the times in which it was written, the play, like the novel, represented an astonishing personal and artistic risk for both theatre and playwright. This was the first work since the civil war to portray the Whites sympathetically and, in doing so, Bulgakov was running contrary to the party line, a course of action that could get you imprisoned or shot in the Soviet Union. However, in The White Guard the Bolsheviks are portrayed as an irresistible force, a fact which may to some extent have shielded both writer and theatre. As Alexei says of the White movement “into the coffin and screw down the lid, the people are against us”.
Nonetheless, the critics and the party hated the play. Crucially, the ever mercurial Stalin, who saw it an astonishing 15 times, did not. Although several more plays were quickly commissioned and performed, when Stalin read the script for Bulgakov’s 1927 work Flight he was not pleased. The critics and the censors took note and thereafter Bulgakov found himself out in the cold and unable to have his work published or performed.
Eventually he could take no more and so took the remarkably dangerous step of putting his case directly in front of the Soviet government, stating openly that “anyone who writes satire is questioning the Soviet system. Am I thinkable in the USSR?”
Bulgakov asked that he either be allowed to work or emigrate, a request which elicited a personal phone call from Stalin who asked him if he really wanted go abroad. The writer answered: “I have thought a great deal recently about the question of whether a Russian writer can live outside his homeland. And it seems to me he can’t.”
After this, Bulgakov was granted a strange half-life as a writer and for a time went back to the Moscow Art Theatre before later joining the Bolshoi as a librettist. As his health began to deteriorate he continued to work in secret on his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, which like so much of his work would not be put before a wider audience until his death from kidney disease in 1940.
In time, Bulgakov’s genius as a writer came to be accepted both in Russia and the wider world. For him, truth was something that truly mattered and in The White Guard Bulgakov tells us that great truth in life is that meaning and redemption can only be found in individual acts of human kindness towards those around you. Having discovered this, Bulgakov knew that is was his duty as a writer to tell the world and not to fall silent, no matter the cost, a fact he makes plain in his 1931 letter to Stalin: “In the broad field of Russian letters in the USSR I was the one and only literary wolf. I was advised to dye my fur. Absurd advice. Whether a wolf dyes his fur, or has it clipped, he will still look nothing like a poodle. For several years I’ve been pursued according to the rules of wolf baiting in a fenced-in yard. At the end of 1929 I collapsed, after all even a beast can become weary. At that point, the beast declared he was no longer a wolf, nor a writer, and that to be frank was cowardly.
“There is no such thing as a writer who falls silent. If he falls silent it means he was never a true writer.”
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