I’ll be honest—I had never heard of Bulgakov until a friend/former teacher gave me The Master and Margarita as a gift. What a wonderful introduction to what has become one of my favorite books of all time. However, I didn’t get to his first novel, White Guard, until just now . . . for no particular reason. Part of Bulgakov’s appeal, I feel, is his juxtaposition of deep, personally-held spirituality with the absurd (represented in The Master and Margarita by the earnest account by the Master of the historical Christ’s last days in AD 43 versus the satire of the Devil and his black cat in Moscow of the 1920s); and his beautiful, distinctive language, which is at times as close to poetry as prose can get, at other times, surprisingly cinematic. I don’t know if Bulgakov was a fan of cinema, but White Guard features cuts, splices, and dramatically visual flashbacks and flash-forwards that seem extremely ahead of his time.
The history of the novel is a bit strange. Begun as a novel, then adapted by the censors as a play which in its final cut became extremely popular (it was a marked favorite of Stalin’s), the original novel was ignored when finished and then hidden away for its political content until it was released in the Kruschev era, reinterpreted to suit the communist politics. White Guard tells the events of a few months in Kiev (always called The City) between 1918 and 1919 when the Germans, who had held the City during the War, flee along with their puppet Ukrainian governor the Hetman, in the wake of Ukrainian nationalist/socialist Petylura, whose reign lasts a few months, and is eventually to be pushed out by the feared Bolsheviks. Bulgakov’s political and ideological leanings are never entirely clear in this mystifying and atmospheric work; yet he tells the story of ordinary people, most of them part of this doomed traditionalist/czarist “White Guard” who would eventually disappear under the heel of Bolshevism(1).
The samovar is actually rather an important feature in the domestic interiors of the book, which take a place of precedence in part of the depiction of the doomed way of life of the White Russians. As all Russians novels seem to share this convention, there is a family at the heart of this story. It’s the Turbins, Dr. Alexei, Elena, and Nikolka. Elena’s husband Talberg is, as the introduction says, probably the least sympathetic character, and abandons his wife and her family to flee before Petylura arrives. Alexei and Nikolka are military men in the White Guard, joined by Myshlaevsky, Carp, and Shervinsky. In fact, most of the important characters in White Guard are, understandably, officers—Colonel Nai-Turs is another. Women in Bulgakov I have found somewhat problematic; they seem to be there to suffer stoically and support their men, and Elena is no exception.
As ever in Bulgakov, events don’t go in pure chronological order—there’s a wonderful dream sequence of Alexei’s with Sergeant-Major Zhilin in heaven. Sections are terrifically exciting, even if I’m not sure I understand all the political manoeuvring and chronology. Much is said about honor, and while some of the characters act in ways that are cowardly and sub-human, many of the characters act selflessly to save their colleagues and innocent people. The aftermath, where Nikolka goes to seek a body in a makeshift mortuary, is eerie and a terrible prologue to what’s to come.
(1) When I was researching my long poem about tea, I read an anecdote about how the White Russians drank vodka and lost; the communists drank tea and “won.” At the time I thought that showed how tea is a much better drink, but now I’m not so sure.