I’ve been wanting to read this short novel for a while, ever since I first discovered Bulgakov. I like reading novels about Russia, especially ones written by Russian satirists. One of my life goals is to finish reading The Master and Margarita. The White Guard is one of Bulgakov’s early novels, written about a family in Kiev (I presume) during the winter of 1918-1919.
Reading this book was a lot like reading an extended series of vignettes. There wasn’t much plot to speak of, but that wasn’t the point of the book. The point of this book, for me, was to show the chaos that people lived with as Russia went from World War I to the Soviet Union and the Russian Civil War. When you think about it, you’ll realize that Russia was at war in some form or another from 1914 all the way to 1921 and beyond. In reading this book, you get a little bit of a sense of the choas. Unless you’re well-versed in Ukrainian history (which I am not, despite my best efforts with Wikipedia), you have about as much idea as ordinary Kiev citizens at the time had of what was going on. Throughout the book, Bulgakov gives you brief glimpses of all the rumors flying around. There are German soldiers left over in Kiev from the way, Symon Petlyura‘s citizen army, and Bolshevik’s on the way from Moscow and St. Petersburg. In general, I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t know what was going on during that winter. It was kind of refreshing, instead of frustrating. Most of the time when I’m reading about impending historical disasters, I want to yell at the characters to get the hell out and head for a safe country.
In the middle of all the chaos, the story roughly follows the experiences of the Turbin family and their friends and acquaintances. Their downstairs neighbor is stocking up on money and supplies for when the Bolshevik’s show up. The male members of the family and their friends all decide to volunteer for Ukrainian nationalist forces, to defend the city against Petlyura. Unlike what the title of the book would have you believe, the men aren’t really tsarists. They’re just not Socialists. Two of the men–the eldest brother Alexei and his friends Karas and Myshlaevsky–have some army experience. Myshlaevsky was a WWI veteran. But the youngest brother, Nikolka, had only been to the military academy and only has some basic training under his belt. The sister, Elena, is left by her German husband at the beginning of the book, and spends a lot of the rest of the time worrying about her brothers.
I can understand why this book wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until the 1960s. None of the conquering forces in this book is shown in a particularly good light. And the tsarists and nationalists aren’t painted as entirely evil. Instead what you get in this novel, is a ground view of the Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War, where men are given rifles and told to shoot at the other guys without being told why. Throughout the invasion of Kiev by Petlyura, Bulgakov keeps showing orders being phoned in by anonymous officers to posts where most of the men have deserted and/or the equipment is malfunctioning or broken. Cadets are ordered to reinforce other platoons only to find that those platoons are missing in action.
One thing that always strikes me when I read a book about either the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution, is how quickly people start turning on each other, at the anger they feel towards each other and towards the government. Having never experienced such a thing in this country, I don’t think I’ll ever understand.