Mikhail Bulgakov The White Guard

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The White Guard
Mikhail Bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov
1891- 1940
http://www.flickr.com/photos/martyn/46528920/sizes/m/in/photostream/
In White Guard, one can read Bulgakov’s profound shock at the
Revolution, once he had seen its real face. He wrote, without his
characteristic irony, “Owing to the extraordinary grandiosity of the
Revolution, it would be impossible to write a lampoon on it.” One might
counter that Bulgakov in fact spent his whole life as a writer writing such
lampoons... Indeed, his contemporary critics accused him of this. But the
critics were wrong. And, paradoxically, so was Bulgakov himself: it was
actually impossible to write a lampoon of the Russian Revolution because
the Russian Revolution itself was a lampoon of socialism, and bolshevism
was a lampoon of Marxism.
Virtually all of Russian history is the history of such revolutions and the
lampoons (“operettas”) they engendered. Some of them were bloody;
some were comparatively bloodless, like the most recent one, which
produced a lampoon of democracy. But every time Russia tried to throw
off the odious state, it sank into chaos, and therefore returned to “order”
and once again plunged into the stifling world of an oppressive police state
that holds its own people in contempt.
Eugeny Dobrenko, Introduction, The White Guard, 2008 edition
Born in Kiev in 1881, the eldest of what was to become a
family of seven children, Bulgakov belonged not only by
blood... but also by inclination to the ancient regime. Yet this
was not straightforward reaction; rather, the writer's
complex political standpoint... had its roots in the same
black Ukrainian soil from which the myriad regimes of the
civil war sprang.
As Michael Glenny, the eminent translator of both play and
novel has observed, perhaps the best way of understanding
the position of Russian families in Ukraine such as the
Bulgakovs is by analogy with the Protestant ascendancy in
Ireland.
→→→
Although Ukraine had been part of the Russian empire
since 1654, many Ukrainians had never been reconciled,
while the Russians who formed a significant part of the
landed gentry, and who came to occupy senior positions
in the professions, the officer corps and the civil service,
continued to speak Russian and to look to Moscow as
the centre of their culture.
Like many of the Irish Protestants, these people were
more loyal than actual Russians to the symbolism – if
not the actuality – of tsarist rule.
Will Self, the Guardian, Saturday 20 March 2010
‘Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord
1918, of the Revolution the second.
Its summer abundant with warmth and sun,
its winter with snow, highest in its heaven
stood two stars: the shepherds’ star,
eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering red’
Opening lines, p 9
‘Crimson patches began to appear on his cheeks and Lieutenant
Myshlaevsky, grimacing in clean underwear and bathrobe,
loosened up and came to life. A stream of foul abuse rattled
around the room like hail on a window-sill. Squinting with rage,
he poured a stream of obscenities... and ended by heaping the
most vulgar abuse on the Hetman of all the Ukraine himself...
“Where were the Horse Guards eh? Back in the palace! And we
were sent out in what we stood up in... Days on end in the
snow and frost... Christ! I thought we were all done for...
Nothing but a row of officers strung out at intervals of two
hundred yards – is that what you call a defensive line? It was
only by the grace of God that we weren’t slaughtered like
chickens!”’
pp 22-23
‘On the long distance departure track of the City’s No.1 Passenger
Station, the train was already standing, though still without a
locomotive, like a caterpillar without a head... It was made up of
nine cars... carrying General von Bussow and his headquarters staff
to Germany. They were taking Talberg with them...
“Look my dear (whisper) the Germans are leaving the Hetman in
the lurch and it’s extremely likely that Petlyura will march in... and
you know what that means...”
Elena knew what that meant. Elena knew very well. In March 1917
Talberg had been the first – the first you realise – to report to the
military academy wearing a broad red armband. That was in the
very first days of the revolution, when all the officers in the City
turned to stone at the news from Petersburg and crept away down
dark passages to avoid hearing about it...
→→→
But one day in March the Germans arrived in the City in their grey
ranks, with red-brown tin bowls on their heads to protect them from
shrapnel balls; and their hussars wore such fine busbies and rode on
such magnificent horses that Talberg at once realised where the roots
of power grew now...At Easter in April 1918 the electric arc-lights
hummed cheerfully in the circus auditorium and it was black with
people right up to the domed roof. A tall, crisp, military figure, Talberg
stood in the arena counting the votes at a show of hands... there was
to be a Ukrainian state but a ‘hetmanite’ Ukraine – they were electing
the ‘Hetman of all the Ukraine’...
Life would have been fine for Talberg if everything had proceeded
along one definite straight line; but events in the City at that time did
not move in a straight line, they followed fantastic zig-zags and Sergei
Talberg tried in vain to guess what was coming next. He failed’
pp 30-32
‘”As for your Hetman,” Alexei Turbin was shouting, “I’d string
him up the first of all! He’s done nothing but insult us for the
past six months. Who was it forbade us to form a loyalist
Russian army in the Ukraine? The Hetman. And now that things
have gone from bad to worse, they’ve started to form a Russian
army after all...
Ah the fool – if only he had allowed us to form units manned by
Russian officers back in April, we could have taken Moscow by
now... Not only would we have chased Petlyura out of the
Ukraine, but we would have reached Moscow by now and
swatted Trotsky like a fly. Now would have been the time to
attack Moscow – it seems they’re reduced to eating cats. And
Hetman Skoropodsky, the son of a bitch, could have saved
Russia”.
pp 44-45
‘In that winter of 1918 the City lived a strange unnatural life which
is unlikely ever to be repeated in the twentieth century. Behind the
stone walls every apartment was overfilled. Their normal
inhabitants constantly squeezed themselves into less and less
space, willy-nilly making way for new refugees crowding into the
City...
They sent off letters through the only escape hole across turbulent,
insecure Poland (not one of them, incidentally, had the slightest
idea of what was going on there or even what sort of place this
new country – Poland – was) to Germany, that great nation of
honest Teutons – begging for visas, transferring money, sensing
that before long they would have to flee Russian territory
altogether to where they would be finally and utterly safe from the
terrible civil war and the thunder of Bolshevik regiments. They
dreamed of France, of Paris...
→→→
And there were other thoughts, vague and more frightening,
which would suddenly come to mind in sleepless nights on
divans in other people’s apartments... They hated the
Bolsheviks, but not with the kind of aggressive hatred which
spurs on the hater to fight and kill, but with a cowardly hatred
which whispers around dark corners.
They hated by night, choking with anxiety, by day in
restaurants reading newspapers full of descriptions of
Bolsheviks shooting officers and bankers in the back of the
neck with Mausers, and how the Moscow shopkeepers were
selling horsemeat infected with glanders. All of them –
merchants, bankers, industrialists, lawyers, actors, landlords,
prostitutes, ex-members of the State Council, engineers,
doctors and writers, felt one thing in common – hatred’.
pp56-59
‘For the fact was that although life in the City went on with apparent
normality – it had a police force, a civil service, even an army and
newspapers with various names – not a single person in it knew
what was going on around and about the City, in the real Ukraine, a
country of tens of millions of people, bigger than France. They not
only knew nothing about the distant parts of the country, but they
were even, ridiculous though it seems, in utter ignorance of what
was happening away from the City itself. They neither knew nor
cared about the real Ukraine and they hated it with all their heart
and souls.
And whenever there came vague rumours of events from that
mysterious place called ‘the country’, rumours that the Germans
were robbing the peasants, punishing them mercilessly and mowing
them down by machine-gun fire, not only was not a single indignant
voice raised in defence of the Ukrainian peasants but ... they would
bare their teeth in a wolfish grin and mutter:
→→→
“Serve them right! ... I’d give it ‘em even harder. That’ll teach
them to have a revolution – didn’t want their own masters, so
now they can have a taste of another!”
“You’re so mistaken...”
“What on earth d’you mean, Alexei? They’re nothing more
than a bunch of animals. The Germans’ll show ‘em...”
The Germans were everywhere. At least they were all over the
Ukraine; but away to the north and east beyond the furthest
line of the blue-brown forest were the Bolsheviks. Only these
two forces counted’
p62
‘And alas, it was only in November 1918, when the roar of
gunfire was first heard around the City, that the more
intelligent people... finally realised that the peasants hated
that same Lord Hetman as though he were a mad dog; and
that in the peasants’ minds the Hetman’s so-called ‘reform’
was a swindle on behalf of the landlords and that what was
needed once and for all was the true reform for which the
peasants themselves had longed for centuries:
All land to the peasants
Three hundred acres per man
No more landlords’.
p69
‘And in those same little towns there were countless
teachers, medical orderlies, smallholders, Ukrainian
seminarists, whom fate had commissioned as ensigns in
the Russian army, healthy sons of the soil with Ukrainian
surnames who had become staff-captains – all of them
talking Ukrainian, all longing for the Ukraine of their
dreams free of Russian landlords and free of Muscovite
officers and thousands of Ukrainian ex-prisoners of war
returned from Austrian Galicia.
All these plus tens of thousand of peasants could only
mean trouble...’
p70
‘Far away in western Europe the Gallic rooster in his
baggy red pantaloons had at last seized the steelgrey Germans in a deathly grip.
It was a terrible sight: these fighting cocks in
Phrygian caps, crowing with triumph, swarmed upon
the armour-plated Teutons and clawed away their
armour and lumps of flesh beneath it.
The Germans fought desperately, thrust their broadbladed bayonets into the feathered breasts of their
adversaries and clenched their teeth; but they could
not hold out, and the Germans – the Germans! –
begged for mercy.’
p 71
‘It was then that the reality of the situation began to
penetrate the brains of the more intelligent of the men
who with their solid rawhide suitcases and their rich
women-folk, had leaped over the barbed wire
surrounding the Bolshevik camp and taken refuge in the
City.
They realised that fate had linked them with the losing
side and their hearts were filled with terror.
“The Germans are beaten”, said the swine.
“We are beaten”, said the intelligent swine.
And the people of the City realised this too.
→→→
Only someone who has been defeated knows the
real meaning of that word.
It is like a party in a house where the electric light
has failed; it is like a room in which green mould,
alive and malignant, is crawling over the wallpaper;
it is like the wasted bodies of rachitic children, it is
like rancid cooking oil, like the sound of women’s
voices shouting obscene abuse in the dark.
It is, in short, like death’.
pp 71-2
‘It was a time and a place of suffocating uncertainty. So – to
hell with it! It was all a myth. Petlyura was a myth. He didn’t
exist. It was a myth as remarkable as an older myth of the
non-existent Napoleon Bonaparte, but a great deal less
colourful. But something had to be done. That outburst of
peasant wrath had somehow to be channelled into a certain
direction, because no magic wand could channel it away...
Wilhelm. Three Germans murdered yesterday. Oh God, the
Germans are leaving – have you heard? The workers have
arrested Trotsky in Moscow!! Some sons of bitches held up
a train near Borodyanja and stripped it clean.
→→→
Petlyura has sent an embassy to Paris. Wilhelm again...
Petlyura has sent a mission to the Bolsheviks. That’s an
even better joke. Petlyura. Petlyura. Petlyura. Peturra...
There was not a single person who really knew what
this man Peturra wanted to do in the Ukraine though
everyone knew for certain that he was mysterious and
faceless (even though the newspapers had frequently
printed any number of picture of Catholic prelates,
every one different, captioned ‘Simon Petlyura’) and
that he wanted to seize the Ukraine.
To do that he would advance and capture the city’.
pp77-9
‘Two little boys in grey knitted sweaters and woollen caps had
just ridden down the hill on a sled.
One of them, short and round as a rubber ball, covered with
snow, was sitting on the sled and laughing. The other, who
was older, thinner and serious looking, was unravelling a knot
in the rope. A youth was standing in the doorway and picking
his nose. The noise of rifle fire grew more audible, breaking
out from several directions at once.
“Vaska, did you see how I fell off and hit my bottom on the
kerb!” shouted the youngest.
“Look at them playing so peacefully”, Nikolka thought with
amazement.
→→→
He turned to the youth and asked him in an amiable voice:
“Tell me please what’s all the shooting going on up there?”
The young man removed his finger from his nose, thought for a
moment and said in a nasal whine:
“It’s our people, beating the hell out of the White officers”.
Nikolka scowled at him and instinctively fingered the revolver in
his pocket. The older of the two boys chimed in angrily:
“They’re getting even with the White officers. Serve ‘em right.
There’s only eight hundred of them the fools. Petlyura’s got a
million men”
He turned and started to pull the sled away.’
p 173
‘The fact is that the most important thing of all has disappeared –
I mean respect for property. And once that happens, it’s the end.
We’re finished. I’m a convinced democrat by nature and I come
from a poor background. My father was just a foreman on the
railroad. Everything you can see here and everything those
rogues stole from me today – all that was earned by my own
efforts.
And believe me I never defended the old regime, on the
contrary, I can admit to you in secret I belonged to the
Constitutional Democrat party, but now that I’ve seen with my
own eyes what this revolution’s turning into, then I swear to you
that I am horribly convinced that there’s only one thing that can
save us... Autocracy. Yes, sir... the most ruthless dictatorship
imaginable... it’s our only hope... Autocracy’.
p 245
‘Everything passes away-suffering, pain, blood,
hunger, pestilence. The sword will pass away too,
but the stars will remain when the shadows of our
presence and our deeds have vanished from the
Earth.
There is no man who does not know that. Why,
then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars?
Why?’
p302

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