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[407] White Guard – Mikhail Bulgakov

” It’s midnight. Listen. Midnight. Listen. It struck admonitorily, and men’s halberds clicked a pleasant, silvery clink. Guards were patrolling and protecting, for unbeknownst to himself man had erected his towers, his alarms and weaponry, for but one purpose—to safeguard man’s tranquility and hearth. That was why he fought, and to be honest, there never was any other reason to fight. ” (12, 203)

Bulgakov’s debut novel, written in 1923 to 1924, is thoroughly autobiographical. Almost every character in White Guard represents people who orbit his life. At the very beginning of the “great and terrible Year of Our Lord 1918” the young physician Bulgakov returned to his native Kiev. During the height of World War I, he practiced in remote village, after he was declared unfit for combat service. It’s against this chaotic and confusing time Bulgakov set his novel. White Guard begins in 1918, in a Ukraine damaged by World War I, and is engulfed in the Russian Civil War, with all its confusion, violence, and chaos. As the novel unfolds, the Germans have withdrawn and the autonomy the Germans have granted Ukraine is reverted. Bolsheviks prey on Ukraine but Ukraine is later become a republic of the U.S.S.R.

Who was firing on whom, no one knew. It happened at night. During the daytime things calmed down, and occasionally people saw a regiment of German hussars march down the main street . . . (People) hated the Bolsheviks. Not with a face-to-face hatred, when the hater wants to start a fight and kill, but a cowardly, twitching gatred, from around the corner, from the darkness. (4, 56)

In the middle of the Revolutionary chaos is the Turbin family, who has just buried their mother. Alexei, the oldest son, is a physician who later joins the mortar regiment as a medical officer against Petylura, leader of socialist and nationalist forces that fight unsuccessfully for Ukraine’s independence. Elena marries a captain who defends the hetman, a German-puppet who reigns over the city of Kiev. Nikolai, the youngest, becomes a corporal of the White Army.

They’re all blackguards. The Hetman and Petylura both. But Petylura, along with everything else, is in favor of pogroms. Although that’s not even the main thing. It’s been so long since I’ve thrown a bomb. I’m bored. (9, 139)

Seething with anger and anti-Bolshevik sentiment, Bulgakov shows how the Revolution has singed his life, showing the perils of his real-life Kiev, where people may be pursued, robbed, or even killed. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, Kiev becomes a cauldron of warfare, hosting an array of powers that confuse even the local people: Reds, Whites, anti-Communists, Bolsheviks, Russian empire patriots and Ukrainian nationalists. Caught in the historic moment of cataclysm, the Turbins, epitome of a subjectively honorable family rooted in books and culture, are resistant to change. Not only are they obdurate about the old values, they are almost too blinded by their own notions of honor and duty to defend a country that is no more. As Petylure gains ground in Kiev, chaos and difficulties befall the Turbins, assaulting their lives, catching them unawares. Revolution degenerates into a riot, a havoc.

In these same little towns . . . everyone spoke Ukrainian, everyone was in love with a magical Ukraine they imagined free of Polish lords and Moscow officers . . . (5, 68)

White Guard reads like Russian history through the eyes of the emotionally torn Turbins. One can also read Bulgakov’s profound shock at the Revolution and hatred for the Bolsheviks. While the tragedy of the White movement is that people of honor undertakes the unjust cause of defending a shamefully moribund regime that didn’t work for its people, Bulgakov finds himself impossible to lampoon the Russian Revolution because the revolution itself is a lampoon of socialism. The book leaves an open-ended conclusion, which allows readers to appraise not so much the essence of Bulgakov’s position but the reality of issues raised in the novel and the contradictions revealed in it. This book is about the perpetual theme of Russian history, about the evolution of an iron-cordon of a regime in the 20th century. It shows how helpless humans can be when they’re thrown into the whirlpool of war; but at least they can show each other with individual acts of kindness and humanity.

310 pp. Yale University Press softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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7 Responses

  1. I’ve only read Master and Margarita by Bulgakov and I’m not usually interested in reading biographies or other biographical materials about writers, I’ll rather let the novels speak for themselves. However, somehow your review made me want to learn more about Bulgakov the person.

    • The debut novel captures the pulses of Russia after World War I and before the USSR. It’s more a straight-forward novel as it ties in with history, whereas The Master and Margarita is both comic and sci-fi-esque.

  2. Yet another brilliant recommendation. Thank you.

  3. Yay, you read and review The White Guard. I wished Bulgakov had had the space and freedom to write even more books. His breadth is impressive. This book is completely different in style from Master and Margarita yet, it utterly enjoyable and profound. Thanks for the review.

    • I’m glad you like my reading choices, which, for the most part, aren’t aligning with the mainstream readings. The Master and Margarita still remains my #1 novel. Every re-read affords new meanings and previously hidden connotations.

  4. It looks very interesting. I’ll definitely look for a copy. Thanks for this.

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