The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Blood is cheap on those red fields…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-white-guardIt is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings live in the house of their recently deceased mother in the city. They are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, the Hetman Skoropadsky, and the Ukranian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement, under their leader Petlyura. 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.

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.

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. But I soon realised that in this I differed less from the fictional characters than I first thought. This is a book about confusion and betrayal, shifting allegiances, chaos and fear. Bulgakov takes a panoramic approach, following one character and then panning off to another. This gives it an episodic feel and adds to the sense of events moving too quickly for the people involved ever to fully grasp. The Turbins actually aren’t in it a lot of the time, but they provide a thread for us to catch at in the maze, and a human side to the story for us to care about.

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. Ill-equipped and insufficiently clothed for the extreme cold, two of the men die of frostbite and the rest are lucky to survive. They achieve nothing. While reading this, I was simultaneously reading the beginning of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, where he talks of the mass mobilisation of workers and peasants into the Russian army to fight against Germany in WW1. His description of the ill-trained, poorly-equipped troops dying needlessly in vast numbers is chillingly similar and I found that each book lent verisimilitude to the other.

Mikhail Bulgakov at his Moscow flat, 1935. Photograph: © Collection Roger-Viollet
Mikhail Bulgakov at his Moscow flat, 1935.
Photograph: © Collection Roger-Viollet

Although the Turbins are on the side of the Tsar, the book itself doesn’t seem to take a political stance. If anything, it paints an equally despicable picture of all the various faction leaders, as cowards hiding behind the men they send carelessly to their deaths. As senior officers on all sides run into hiding, middle-ranking officers are left to decide whether to make a stand or disband their troops, many of them no more than young boys in cadet corps. 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. Amidst all this, we see odd glimpses of life continuing – boys out playing in the snow, workers making their way to their jobs, people shopping. Through the Turbin brothers, Nikolka and Alexei, we see the battle each man must individually face between fear and heroism, while Elena, their sister, must wait at home, praying for their safety.

In the gaps between scenes of extreme brutality, Bulgakov lets us glimpse his love for the city. He describes the streets his characters pass through, the alleyways they use to escape, the ancient cathedral, the huge statue of Saint Vladimir on the hill above the city. But we are never allowed to forget the approaching threat…

But the brightest light of all was the white cross held by the gigantic statue of St Vladimir atop Vladimir Hill. It could be seen from far, far away and often in summer, in thick black mist, amid the osier-beds and tortuous meanders of the age-old river, the boatmen would see it and by its light would steer their way to the City and its wharves. In winter the cross would glow through the dense black clouds, a frozen unmoving landmark towering above the gently sloping expanse of the eastern bank, whence two vast bridges were flung across the river. One, the ponderous Chain Bridge that led to the right-bank suburbs, the other high, slim and urgent as an arrow that carried the trains from where, far away, crouched another city, threatening and mysterious: Moscow.

St Vladimir watching over the city...
St Vladimir watching over 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. Not quite knowing who every faction was made it even more unsettling, though I wondered if Bulgakov’s first readers would have known, and so might have read it differently.

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. And here we are, one hundred years later, with Moscow again invading the Ukraine – this troubled and divided territory still fighting what is essentially the same war…

The snow would just melt, the green Ukranian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again… The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain. Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.

No one.

rrr-challenge-logo-finalBook 2 in the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge

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64 thoughts on “The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

  1. Wow! Sounds like quite a book! I always get a little bit upset reading about the senselessness of these awful wars and revolutions – the so-called leaders running and hiding whilst the poor people (many of whom have no idea of what is going on) are sent to pointless deaths. Blimey, I’m getting a bit morose, here. I shall end by saying that I think Mikhail Bulgakov looks very dashing in his waistcoat 🙂

    • Yes, it was one I wasn’t expecting to like much – I don’t read war books generally speaking – but I ended up being blown away by it. It felt much realer than most war books I’ve read – people weren’t great heroes, or total villains (mostly) – it was all just messy and frightening. And of course every time I looked up, there was Syria all over the TV…

      Me too! One of my favourite author pics… I may have to read another of his books just so I can use it again… 😉

  2. This sounds like a very power-packed book, FictionFan. I normally don’t go much for real brutality in my fiction. But the fact is, war is brutal. So any book about it that’s going to be honest needs to acknowledge that. This one sounds really worth looking for and reading when one is really for that sort of uncompromising book.

    • Certainly the brutality in this one wasn’t in any way gratutitous – the whole thing felt very real, with no fake heroes or dastardly villains, just ordinary people caught up in horrific events they had no control over. It wouldn’t have been one I’d normally choose, but I’m glad I read it.

  3. A great account — many thanks. Although I loved and adored Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, for some reason I’ve never read any of his other fiction. I ought to do something about that.

    • Thank you! 🙂 I’ve never read The Master and Margarita and it’s not one I’d normally have been attracted to, but it went straight on the TBR after I’d read this one. Once I got into his style, I loved his writing – so much power without being in any way overdone, if you know what I mean.

    • Thanks, L.Marie! 🙂 Yes, I love his imagery too, and he brought the setting completely to life – the city is as big a part of the book as the people really, almost a living thing itself. Not my normal kind of book, but I’m very glad to have read it.

    • This is my first but I’ll certainly be tracking down more, starting with The Master and Margarita. This one is grim, but not gratuitous, and it left me sorrowful rather than completely harrowed if that makes any sense. Of course, every time I looked up from the book, Aleppo was all over the TV, and each brought the other home more…

    • I definitely recommend it – it’s not the kind of book I normally go for, but I’m very glad to have read it. It felt more real and true than most books about war that I’ve read and the writing (and translation) is wonderful… 🙂

  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed this – I loved it, and indeed all those of his books that I have read. It’s funny, I instinctively take the side of Ukraine in any dispute with Russia, largely because of Bulgakov’s work.
    The White Guard and The Master are certainly the two I would consider his greatest works, but you might also like The Fatal Eggs, which is a science-fictiony satire and a personal favourite.

    • Hurrah! I avoid books about war usually and only read this because I’m doing the Reading the Russian Revolution thing – but I’m glad that made me pick this one up! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did… 🙂

  5. This sounds like a well-written story, but I must confess the subject matter isn’t something that would draw me in. I get so frustrated reading about these political uprisings, wars, and such, where so many innocent people are slaughtered while their “rulers” live life untouched by the nastiness. Bless you for wading through it so I wouldn’t have to!

    • It’s not a book I’d normally have been attracted to either, Debbie, but I’m glad I ended up reading it. It doesn’t glorify war at all but equally it doesn’t wallow and try to manipulate the reader’s feelings. But I do understand what you mean, and that’s generally how I feel about war books too… and war!

    • I have problems with the kind of books for the same reason, but also because Russia is so huge and so much is going on that I basically need a flow chart to keep me straight. Well, that, and if I don’t know the norms off the time, things are lost on me (like how I didn’t realize Mr. Darcy saved the Bennets from ruin when he forced that soldier to marry Lydia because teen sex is the wrong kind of sex for the period).

    • It’s one of those books you can open at nearly any page and find an amazing quote. It’s my only Bulgakov so far, but I’ll definitely be reading more. I feel guilty that I didn’t mention the translation in my review, because it was fabulous too…

  6. This sounds great! I have read two of Bulgakov’s books – The Master and Margarita and A Country Doctor’s Notebook, both of which I loved – and I’ve been wondering which I should read next. This is definitely one to add to the TBR, I think. 🙂

    • This is my first, but I’ve added The Master and Margarita to my TBR. Now you mention it though, A Country Dictor’s Notebook maybe looks more my kind of thing – perhaps I’ll swap and go for it first instead. And I definitely recommended this one – a great addition for your TBR! 🙂

    • It’s the only Bulgakov I’ve read so far and I really wasn’t expecting to like it – not my usual kind of thing at all. But everything about it blew me away in the end – so powerful without being in any way manipulative, if you know what I mean…

    • It’s definitely one I’d recommend highly, especially if you like books about war. I usually avoid them, but I’m glad this one snuck under my radar – an excellent read… 🙂

    • Hmm… satire and magical realism doesn’t sound like my kind of thing really, so I’m glad now that I accidentally started with this one. This is definitely realism, though with a kind of free-flowing feel that keeps it almost dream-like – or nightmare-like, perhaps. If you do decide to read it, I hope you like it as much as I did! 🙂

  7. Well this sounds like an accurate and in many ways entertaining account of this particular time period. Not a book I would necessarily have chosen to read but your review has persuaded me it has merit.

    • It’s not one I would normally have chosen either, but I’m glad I did – strong stuff, but it feels much more realistic than most war books I’ve read.

  8. Well… I have to confess my ignorance and admit that I’d not even heard of Bulgakov. There are massive gaps in my literary awareness, and especially when it comes to russian literature. Russian literature scares me – yet what little I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed. A great review as always, FF – and onto the list it must go.

    • Thanks, Sandra! 😀 It’s my first introduction to Bulgakov too – on the whole I’m not too keen on Russian literature, but this one made me think that maybe I’d prefer the more modern ones to the well-known classics. If you do get time to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – it took a little time to get into because of all the different factions, but it was hugely worth it in the end!

  9. It sounds intriguing…I have never been a huge Master and Margarita fan, though. But love Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago and other books of that period. Mikhail Bulgakov looks like he could play James Bond!

    • I haven’t read Master and Margarita but I get the impression this one sticks more to realism than that one does, which means it probably worked better for me. However I’ll read Master one day! I have Dr Zhivago on my Reading the Russian Revolution list too, and hope to read it in April or May, so it’s good to hear that you rate it highly. Ha! Yes he could – he’s rather smooth-looking… 😉

      • Totally…Yes, I think I am more of a realist when it comes to literature. People rave about “Master and Margarita” but I found it strange and choppy–beautiful lyrical parts yet I disliked constant changes in tone. Pre-revolution, but speaking of Russia, I’d highly recommend Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth (written when he was still quite young about his idyllic, aristocratic upbringing–of course he was ashamed of it later!)

        • I’m definitely in the realist camp, but who knows – maybe he’ll be able to convert me! Oh, that looks interesting! I’m coming rapidly to the conclusion I need to read a bit more about life before the Revolution to really get a feel for what the country was like, so I shall add that to my ever-growing list – thanks for the recommendation! 😀

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