White Guard (by Mikhail Bulgakov)

Bulgakov's superbly crafted novel shows Kiev on the verge of being overwhelmed by dark forces.

White Guard is the story of the Turbin family of Kiev - Alexei, an Army doctor, Nikolka, a 17-and-a-half year old cadet, and Elena - whose lives are upended by the chaos of the Russian revolution and burgeoning civil war. Bulgakov is best remembered for Master and Margarita, widely considered a masterpiece of world literature, but White Guard should be considered as another masterpiece. Bulgakov's characters and his ability to portray the turbulence of revolution in a way that makes sense of the events but also communicates the crushing uncertainty of such massive social upheaval place him in the first rank of Russian writers. The novel is on the shorter side (my edition was just a couple hundred pages), making it accessible to nearly any reader, not just devotees of Russian literature and history.

The novel features a number of autobiographical elements. The location given as the Turbin home was in fact the Bulgakov home, though slightly disguised as resting on St. Alexei's Hill (in reality St. Andrew's Hill). Alexei Turbin draws closely on Bulgakov's own experience (mobilized as an army doctor, contracted typhus and barely survived.

The story begins in December, 1918 with Kiev coming under siege, and its residents trying to make some sense of the rapidly changing events... There are at least four parties to the conflict portrayed in the narrative:

  • The Ukrainian Army under Symon Petlyura. Petlyura participated in the Hetmanate putsch of April, 1918, was incarcerated for several months, then became chief of Ukrainian military forces. In that capacity, he fought both White and Bolshevik forces in the Ukraine for most of 1919.
  • Hetmanate forces. The Hetmanate was a short-lived (April - December, 1918) anti-socialist government established by German military authorities after the dispersal of the socialist-leaning Central Council of the Ukrainian People's Republic in April
  • The German Army
  • The Red Army

When the story begins, the city is holding its collective breath as Petlyura's army, which by some rumors was as large as a million men, bears down on it. The Turbins are Tsarists and Orthodox believers, and identify with the Whites. The local sentiment seems to fall on the side of the Whites; Petlyura's army is portrayed as an outside invasionary force, even though it is the Ukrainian army. Elena's husband, Sergei Talberg, the Deputy Minister of War takes her aside to tell her that they are losing the war and that he must leave for Germany (which he does, never to return). Viktor, a fellow White Guard, arrives to tell the Turbins that the Whites have lost support of the peasants and that he is switching his allegiance to the Bolshevik side. The German leadership is abandoning the city and the Reds are moving closer. Alexei and Nikolka, are mobilized with the Whites, but that mobilization breaks down almost immediately, and they try to make it back home to their family.

The action of the book makes it clear that the Ukrainian experience of the Civil War had its own set of complexities. The predominant conflict in White Guard is between Petlyura's army and the Whites, though the Red-White conflict looms large just out of direct view. Despite sharing a common enemy, the Whites and Petlyura's pro-independence forces were largely hostile to each other, and this hostility drives most of the action we see in White Guard. As Petlyura's forces move in, they ruthlessly exterminate anyone they believe to be associated with the White forces. The situation quickly goes from bad to worse to absolute worst-case scenario, and we see the residents of Kiev reckoning with an apocalypse heading their way.

In the first chapters of the book, the White Guards are making a valiant (if scattershot) attempt to defend Kiev, summoning volunteers and collecting weapons. But even as they muster their forces, the realization is beginning to set in that this is a fool's errand, and that they stand no chance against Petlyura and the Reds. Chaos quickly becomes the order of the day, as word spreads that the Whites are hopelessly outnumbered, and commanders begin to order their troops to tear off their army insignias, hide their weapons, and go home and pretend they had no association with the Whites, so that they can hopefully avoid retribution when Petlyura's forces and the Reds arrive.

One of the novel's most skillful touches is in rendering this chaotic swirl of events. Bulgakov alternates between his main characters and briefly portraying outlying but significant events (Hetman and German forces abandoning the city, first contact with Petlyura's forces) so that the reader has a sensible view of the big picture of events. But at the same time he makes it clear that the reality of the fast-evolving conflict is different from street to street, with White guards in one area still at arms, unaware of the strength of Petlyura's forces, while not far away other Whites have completely abandoned any attempt at fighting or have begun to be slaughtered. Amidst all this, we see the residents of Kiev still trying to live their lives, as people still have to try to make a living and feed themselves despite the complete unraveling of their society around them.

This narrative scope is reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn's August, 1914, which portrays the early Russian war effort in the initial East Prussian conflicts. Though Solzhenitsyn's scope is much wider, Bulgakov's narrative skill in covering everything from the most intimate personal details to a broad view of the action and unfolding conflict is not in any way inferior. Like the Red Wheel novels, White Guard focuses on a short, discrete period of time - a few crucial weeks from the middle of December, 1918 to early February, 1919. One of Bulgakov's accomplishments is the sense of foreboding that he achieves. As difficult as these few weeks are, with the city taken over by one army and another moving in, things will of course get much worse for Ukrainians as the Civil War unfolds in the coming months of 1919.

Despite being more educated about the Russian Revolution than the average person, I have to admit that before reading White Guard I was not well-versed on the Ukrainian part of this history. Here's a selection of links to some background reading that helped me get up to speed:

Even if you don't wish to delve into any of the historical details, White Guard is still a gripping read. Though short (I read it in a couple of days), it is deeply satisfying, to dedicated fans of Russian literature and history, or simply for those readers looking for a thrilling, action-oriented portrayal of a fascinating subject that is likely unfamiliar. Mostly highly recommended.