The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

July 7, 2009

A Kiev museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov lies just off of St. Andrew’s Descent, a cobblestone street passing from St. Sophia’s cathedral down to the Dneiper, in House Number 13. Bulgakov and his family lived in House Number 13 during the Ukrainian civil war and Boleshevik Revolution. The novel is set in that time and revolves around the lives of the Turbin family in the midst of this upheaval. While THE WHITE GUARD is not as widely known as THE MASTER AND MARGARITA (which Salman Rushdie drew upon heavily for MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN), it is an excellent entry point into Bulgakov’s work.

TheWhiteGuard Rushdie’s reference to Bulgakov should be acknowledgement enough of Bulgakov’s relevance and importance. If you have not already heard of Bulgakov, or if you have but have not yet read his work, I would point out that he is considered by many to be the greatest Soviet writer of the 20th century. I say Soviet, because he is not truly Russian, though he did spend many years in Moscow. He was first a Ukrainian, a fact in which Ukrainians take great pride. The fight over who may properly claim him as their own is further verification of his stature.

Bulgakov’s standing is well-deserved:

For many years before her death, in the house at No. 13 St. Alexei’s 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. How often they had followed the story of Peter the Great in Holland, ‘The Shipwright of Saardam’, portrayed on its glowing hot dutch tiles; how often the clock had played its gavotte; and always towards the end of December there had been a smell of pine-needles and candles burning on evergreen branches..…But clocks are fortunately quite immortal, as immortal as the Shipwright of Saardam, and however bad the times might be, the tiled Dutch stove, like a rock of wisdom, was always there to radiate life and warmth.

The tiled stove is nearly a character in its own right. The life it gives is not only comfort, but humor too:

Then printed [on the stove] in capitals, in Nikolka’s hand:
I herby forbid the scribbling of nonsense on this stove. Any comrade found guilty of doing so will be shot and deprived of civil rights. Signed: Abraham Goldblatt,
Ladies, Gentlemen’s and Women’s Tailor.
Commissar, Podol District Committee.
30th January 1918.

Bulgakov is a master of these slices of life. The intimacy Bulgakov achieves powers this work. There are many vivid scenes of life in House No. 13. The family is so deftly drawn by Bulgakov that they feel like one’s own neighbors by the end of the book. But the book is not limited to the home life of its characters, it has action too.

Major world events are taking place in the streets outside. Characters are shot, they are robbed; characters love, betray, and die. The politics of the time provide a roiling backdrop, though politics are not the point. The intersection of politics and daily life, particularly when political turmoil has brought war, is a fascinating topic and one that Bulgakov explores, but never in a heavy-handed manner. The political is always secondary to the personal.

In one scene, a character is injured, possibly mortally, during a skirmish in the city. Elena is distraught with worry. Bulgakov captures the essence of these moments of powerlessness beautifully:

The professor took her by the arm and whispered:
“‘Go now, Elena Vasilievna, we’ll do all there is to do.’
“Elena obeyed and went out. But the professor did not do anything more.”

In one short scene (of which I have excerpted only a portion to avoid spoilers), Bulgakov captures the desperate love Elena has for the wounded character, the difficulty of the situation, and the professor’s warm practicality.

Bulgakov brilliantly sketches even minor characters. Outside of house No. 13, a war is raging. Several family members are involved and, in this way, the reader is provided a view of the wider world and the characters that inhabit it. Perhaps my favorite is a troubling scene in which a janitor, drafted into service as coroner, is helping one of the Turbins find the body of a fallen comrade-in-arms among piles of dead. The floor is slippery with blood. The janitor, Fyodor, has to move the body of “a flat-chested, broad-hipped woman” off the corpse of the comrade.

“There was a cheap little comb in the hair at the back of her neck, glittering dully, like a fragment of glass. Without stopping what he was doing Fyodor deftly pulled it out, dropped it into the pocket of his apron and gripped [the comrade] under the armpits. As it was pulled out of the pile his head lolled back, his sharp, unshaven chin pointed upwards and one arm slipped from the janitor’s grasp.”

The novel is filled with efficient scenes like this that perfectly capture a moment in time, yet keep the narrative moving. This is that rare book that I would recommend to almost anyone.

THE WHITE GUARD is realist, unlike the much more fanciful THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. Bulgakov does, however, add a touch of the supernatural. And while the book was suppressed by Stalin, explicitly political questions are never really raised by the author, though the characters necessarily discuss the political situation. The questions Bulgakov poses pertain to the individual and, more so, to a family trying to survive a civil war. The primary loyalties are personal. In fact, the book reflects an ambivalence toward political loyalties that is borne of having lived through a revolution. The author, as surely as the characters, must have had little enthusiasm for revolutionary politics.

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. Perhaps, this, more than any overt politics, is why the novel was banned in the Stalinist Soviet Union.