The White Guard

The White Guard

by Mikhail Bulgakov

Although famous than Mikhail Bulgakov's comic hit, The Master and Margarita, The White Guard is still an engrossing book, though completely different in tone.

It is set in Kiev during the Russian revolution and tells the story of the Turbin family and the war's effect on the middle-classes (not workers).

  • Language: English
  • Category: Fiction
  • Rating: 4.04
  • Pages: 304
  • Publish Date: 2006 by Vintage Books
  • Isbn10: 0099490668
  • Isbn13: 9780099490661

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After their mother passes away, the three children of, doctor Alexei, the oldest, Elena, twenty four, and seventeen year old Nikolka face up the fact of a new regime, as Bolsheviks, Socialists and Germans fight for total control over the city. The city itself is vivid to the eyes, as confusion grows on the streets as to who is fighting with who?, through all it's unorganized chaos, Bulgakov does a grand job of showing just that, the chaos. Both brothers Alexei and Nikolka are White Guard officers who place their lives in danger as change takes shape. There are gaps in between the conflict where Bulgakov clearly shows his love for Kiev, the ancient cathedral sits graceful, the huge statue of Saint Vladimir overlooks the city holding aloft the cross, whilst a blanket of snow wistfully settles on the homes and buildings below, creating a whiteness through dark times.

Outstanding.Told through multiple points of view, the book centers upon two days in the Russian Civil war, December 13 and 14, 1918, when the city of Kiev, up to then controlled by the Ukrainian Hetman Skoropadsky, a German puppet and ally of the Monarchist Russians, falls to the armies of Petlyura, a Ukranian peasant nationalist, a figure of mystery and rumor. Although it describes the taking of Kiev from the White side, it shows that the real loyalty in this world lives in one's family (the Turbins) and friends (the officers), a total stranger who saves your life, or a superior who holds his ground in the face of a dissolving defense. Stalin was said to have seen the play many times, and it probably saved Bulgakov's life.

La spada sparirà, ma le stelle resteranno anche quando le ombre dei nostri corpi e delle nostre opere non saranno più sulla terra. Perché dunque non vogliamo rivolgere lo sguardo alle stelle? P.S. Alla luce dei tremendi avvenimenti che tempestano oggi l'Ucraina, questo romanzo si dimostra ancora di più portentoso.

This heavy volume included two works: The White Guard and Theatrical Novel (Notes of a Deceased). A trained doctor (aka Chekhov), after he abandoned his medicine career in 1920 to devote entirely to writing, he joined the theater world and his first play put on stage The Days of the Turbins, adaptation of the novel The White Guard, has received a great success, paradoxically, becoming Stalin's favourite play. The novel starts with December 1918 and ends in February 1919, and it portrays a series of conflicting events happening during the confrontations between the three main armed forces (Whites/Tsarist Empire, Ukrainian Nationalists and Bolsheviks/Communists) that were trying to dispute and gain the power and authority of the City (aka Kiev), and consequently of the Country (aka Ukraine). As for the major protagonists, the novel unfolds the story of the Turbins, a noble but now in poverty family, broadly moderate Tsarists in their view, and therefore anti-Bolsheviks but, being ethnically Russian, have no sympathy with the Ukrainian Nationalists either, and so end up fighting for the White Guards. It is regarded as a strong satire on events in the Soviet theatre in November 1936 after Bulgakov eventually resigned from the management of MHAT (Moscow Arts Academic Theatre) and his play Moliere was vigorously attacked by the Communists and rejected from being put on stage. On a different angle, if we follow just the narrative thread, Theatrical Novel can be seen as the story of the destiny of White Guard and its play adaptation, The Days of the Turbins, in other words, its the story of a story. Bulgakov takes a swipe at censorship and the vicious and abject authorities of the theatre world, dealing savagely with the reputations of those people that lead the theatre, who are seen as some tyrannical figures who crush the individuality and flair of writers and actors in the plays they are directing. The manuscript ends inconclusively, with the dead writer still proclaiming his wonder at the nature of theatre itself, despite its intrigues and frustrations; the initial author who has found the manuscript does not reappear, and its uncertain whether the point is that the theatrical figure left his memories uncompleted, or whether in fact Bulgakov failed to finish his original project.

I wasn't sure if Bulgakov's first novel, described as a historical novel about the fortunes of the city of Kiev in the year 1918, as the repercussions of the Russian revolution and the tail-end of the first world war play out, would be as good as his satirical masterpieces, The Master And Margarita and Black Snow. A good deal of his tale is told through dreams - again something potentially confusing and tedious that he does incredibly well.

The museum is contained in House No. 13 where, at one time, Mikhail Bulgakov and his family lived. While The White Guard is not as widely known as The Master and Margarita (which Salman Rushdie drew upon heavily for Midnights Children), it provides a better sense of Ukraine and, particularly, Kiev. Bulgakovs writing is transcendent: For many years before her death, in the house at No. 13 St. Alexeis Hill, little Elena, Alexei the eldest and baby Nikolka had grown up in the warmth of the tiled stove that burned in the dining-room. Bulgakovs mastery of these slices of life make this an ideal book for reading while in Kiev. The intersection of politics and daily life, particularly when politics has brought war, is a fascinating topic and one that Bulgakov explores, but never in a heavy-handed manner. The political is merely backdrop to the personal: Something had settled in Alexeis chest like a stone and he whistled as he breathed, drawing in through bared teeth a sticky, thin stream of air that barely penetrated to his lungs. The professor took her by the arm and whispered: Go now, Elena Vasilievna, well do all there is to do. And while the book is political enough to have been suppressed by Stalin, the question of which of the three sides fighting the war is right is never really posed, much less answered. The interesting questions all pertain to the individual and, more, to a family trying to survive a civil war. In the end, perhaps the highest praise I can give is that it would be difficult to read The White Guard without becoming attached to the Turbin family.

From BBC Radio 4 Extra: 1/2: Kiev is protected by an uneasy alliance.

Blood is cheap on those red fields... This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat. I found the beginning of this book rather difficult because I had no idea who all the various factions and real-life characters were, nor what they were attempting to achieve. One of the early episodes tells the story of the soldier Victor, a friend of the Turbins, who with 39 companions is ordered to defend the city from the approaching forces of Petlyura. It gives an only too credible feeling for the chaos in the city, for people not knowing what's happening, and for each new rumour spreading like wildfire. In the gaps between scenes of extreme brutality, Bulgakov lets us glimpse his love for the city. As the chaos worsens, so we see the atrocities that are never far from war the criminals jumping on the lack of order to terrorise an already demoralised citizenry, the bodies left unidentified and unclaimed in the City's morgue, the wounded frightened to seek help for fear of capture. A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution.

He practiced medicine, specializing in venereal and other infectious diseases, from 1915 to 1919 (he later wrote about the experience in "Notes of a Young Doctor.") He joined the anti-communist White Army during the Russian Civil War. After the Civil War, he tried (unsuccesfully) to emigrate from Russia to reunite with his brother in Paris. Bulgakov's plays at the Moscow Art Theatre were directed by Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Soon after, Bulgakov was interrogated by the Soviet secret service, OGPU. He took a risk and wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin with an ultimatum: "Let me out of the Soviet Union, or restore my work at the theaters." On the 18th of April of 1930, Bulgakov received a telephone call from Joseph Stalin. The dictator told the writer to fill an employment application at the Moscow Art Theater. Gradually, Bulgakov's plays were back in the repertoire of the Moscow Art Theatre.