Ukraine has been much in the news recently; so, I thought I would be as trendy as I know how in this first Not Today’s Bestseller List and pick a novel that’s set there: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov. In order to explain what this violent and at times disturbing book is doing on my shelf, I have to give a little background.
About 25 years ago I decided I would write a novel that took place in Ukraine. I ended up writing two and they were both very bad, as first novels usually are. For one thing, I really knew nothing about the physical landscape of the areas I was writing about (Ukraine and St. Petersburg Russia) and so had to do my best from reading other accounts. Another reason was that I had no knowledge of Ukrainian and my Russian was extremely basic, so that limited my research to only books that had been translated and were available through inter-library loan (this was in the days before the internet.) A third reason was that I was going to have to include quite a lot of evil in the stories and I am no good with evil. I hate reading about it, especially when it is glorified, as it was during the time I proposed to set my story, and I certainly couldn’t do justice to it in my writing. So, in the end, I produced two very bad novels.
How this urge came about to write about these places and things is that an old family friend, Klara, moved in across the street. She was Ukrainian (and Russian, it turned out) and could tell the most fascinating stories about her life. She wasn’t always in the mood to talk about the past, but when she was, it was better than a novel. And I wanted to capture some of it.
In a nutshell her story was this: Her mother, who was from the Russian nobility, eloped with her father, who was from an old, landed Ukrainian family, when her mother was 15 and her father was in his 20s. This would have been about 1919. Both families were horrified: the Russian side more or less threw her out (‘we don’t associate with those people’); the Ukrainian side grudgingly came to love and respect her. That was the first novel.
Klara’s parents settled down as best as anyone could in that very uncertain period between the wars. They made their home in far eastern Poland, in an area that was actually Ukrainian, but under Polish control. Her mother, who because of her family and education, spoke most European languages, earned a doctorate on the subject of teaching languages. Her father who was also extremely well-educated took up a post as a classics professor. (In an aside, Klara would tell me that when her parents wanted to speak privately in front of the children it was hard to find a common language between them that the children didn’t also know – they were all being taught Ukrainian, Russian, French, German, English and Latin. In the end, her parents would resort to ancient Greek!)
When the Germans invaded Poland, her father thought he would be safer if he went further east into the Russian sphere. He wasn’t. He was imprisoned and shot. Eventually Klara, her younger sister and her mother were packed into cattle cars and deported to Germany. Their original destination was Buchenwald, but by a miracle they ended up in a small slave labor camp near Hitler’s birthplace in Austria, instead. Klara’s mother was pressed into service as an interpreter, and Klara and her sister, because they spoke such “beautiful German,” were allowed to play with the Kommandant’s little girls.
Eventually the camp was liberated by the Americans. The liberators included Stanley, an American boy of Polish descent. He and Klara fell in love, and he brought Klara to the U.S. as a war bride. Eventually they brought her mother and sister to join them.
That’s the very basic outline. You can imagine the stories – any one of which would have made a novel. And that brings me by a somewhat round about way to The White Guard and why it is on my bookshelf and why I would recommend it.
The White Guard is set in Kiev during December 1918 and the beginning of 1919. I could say it was an especially turbulent time for Ukraine, but if you read Ukrainian history you would see that most times were turbulent. Like Poland, it was (and is) a land much fought over with little thought for the people living there, or any consideration that they would like to govern themselves.
Beginning in 1914 with World War I and continuing through about 1922, Ukraine was in constant flux – Russians, Germans, Bolsheviks, German backed Ukrainians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Polish backed Ukrainians all took turns being nominally “in charge.” Unfortunately, each change was brutal and bloody, and all of the above-named powers took multiple turns in the driver’s seat. I think I read somewhere that there were 21 government changes during that time. It was, to say the least, a time of chaos.
Bulgakov was born in Kiev although he wasn’t Ukrainian. He came from a Russian upper middle-class family. The White Guard is the story of the Turbin family, siblings Alexei, Elena, and Nicolka, and their friends, and what their life was like in an ever-changing Kiev. Bulgakov includes many autobiographical elements. Much of Alexei’s experiences were his own. It is his family house that he describes as the Turbin’s house. During most of the book the brothers Alexei and Nikolka serve as White Russian army officers, engaged in fighting Simon Petliura and the surging Ukrainian Nationalists, who in December 1918 were besieging Kiev.
In the book Petliura is a flat cartoon character, a boogey man, a devil, evil incarnate. I found this fascinating when I first read the book and find it equally so after re-reading it 25 years later. Then, I was looking for color, for landmarks, for anything that could transport me to Ukraine so that I could write about it. Now, after reading a lot more history and not having an agenda, I found the blinkered one-sidedness and even nastiness of the White Russian point of view jarring.
It is not unlike reading about politics today – whether you read from the right or the left, there are a lot of cartoon characters and no middle ground, no understanding that there might be more than one side and that there is always a great deal of middle. Of course, in the time of The White Guard, you didn’t really have the luxury of a middle ground: if you were not obviously on one side, you were taken to be against it, and most likely you paid for the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with your life. If you were Jewish, you most likely paid with your life anyway as all of the factions to their great discredit conducted pogroms.
I was especially interested in the portrayal of Simon Petliura in The White Guard because Klara’s father was one of his aides-de-camp. Klara’s stories about her father were as far from the anti-Semitic label often attached to Petliura and his army as you can get. Klara said at one point that her father spoke of Petliura as being cultured and gentle, an idealist – “almost too good for this world” were her words. Which would probably explain why he could not control his armies, and why his orders that anyone inciting or participating in a pogrom would be executed, were routinely ignored.
Bulgakov brilliantly brings you into the uncertainty of 1918 in Kiev by jumping all around in the narrative, by starting a scene as if you had been there before and leaving it before it is all tied up, by going back to a scene but leaving a gap in the narrative, by not supplying quite all the details on the different characters who pop up here and there. For a non-Russian speaker, the names of his supporting characters also contribute to the dizzying chaos. Their names are often long and similar, and it is easy to confuse them if you are reading too quickly to see what happens next – because it is a good story.
He portrays the casual, unthinking, routine violence that those who hold power – even just a little bit of power – inflicted on those beneath them. From an outside and longer perspective, the White Russians do not come off well at all. I am not sure how much Bulgakov, a White Russian, realized this.
I regret that my Russian is too poor to read the story in the original as I imagine the language is even better than the acclaimed 1971 translation by Michael Glenny that I have. For example:
By November, alas, everyone knew with fair certainty what was afoot. The word ‘Petlyura’ echoes from every wall, from the gray paper of telegraph forms. In the mornings it dripped from the pages of newspapers into the coffee, immediately turning that nectar of the tropics into disgusting brown swill.
Beautiful in the frost and mist-covered hills above the Dnieper, the life of the City hummed and steamed like a many-layered honeycomb. All day long smoke spiraled in ribbons up to the sky from innumerable chimney-pots. A haze floated over the streets, the packed snow creaked underfoot … All night long the City shone, glittered and danced with light until morning, when the lights went out and the City cloaked itself once more in smoke and mist.
As the fall turned to winter death soon came to the Ukraine with the first dry, driven snow. The rattle of machine-gun fire began to be heard in the woods Death itself remained unseen, but its unmistakable herald was a wave of crude, elemental peasant fury which ran amok though the cold and the snow, a fury in torn bast shoes, straws in its matted hair; a fury which howled. It held in its hands a huge club, without which no great change in Russia, it seems, can ever take place.
‘…There’s no guarantee that a gang like that one which got in here today won’t come and take away not only your property but who knows, your life as well!’
‘We’ll prevent it with our signaling system’, Karas replied…
‘But Fyodor Nikolaevich! There’s more to the problem than just a signaling system! No signaling system is going to stop the ruin and decay which have eaten into people’s souls…
The White Guard is surprisingly modern in that it full of political corruption, bad faith, rumors, gossip, fake news, ego and shifting truth – many things also in the news these days. It should serve as a warning as to what happens when ideology becomes more important than the people it is supposed to serve.
Because in the end, it was the ruthless socialists – the Bolsheviks – who won the battle in Ukraine and in Russia, and we all know how that turned out, don’t we?
By the way, the second bad novel I wrote back then was about what happened to families, and especially children, as the Bolsheviks – the socialists – consolidated power. I never truly finished it because I couldn’t stand the evil.