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The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

The White Guard (1926)

by Mikhail Bulgakov

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There is a sense in which – like Tolstoy’s happy families – all Russian novels are alike. A blizzard of polysyllabic names potentially confusingly embellished with the corresponding patronymics not to mention the seemingly obligatory diminutives, with always a sense of foreboding in the background, if not the foreground. You certainly don’t turn to them for sweetness and light. Then again, love, sex and death are the wider novel’s perennial preoccupations.

To be sure there isn’t much focus on love in The White Guard, no sex at all, and I can recall only three actual deaths described in the text; but the prospect of death hangs over everything. Here there can be, too, as I also noticed when reading War and Peace, a sudden lurching through time from a particular chapter to the next. One surprising thing I discovered from it is that a Ukrainian clock seems to make the sounds tonk-tank rather than tick-tock.

The novel is set in Ukraine, in “the city” (only once identified as Kiev,) amid the turmoil that followed the 1917 revolution and centres round the affairs of the Turbin family and those who live in the same building. During the novel the city starts out under the rule of the Hetman - in whose army the male Turbins serve as officers - but is threatened by Ukrainian Nationalist forces led by Simon Petlyura; and beyond that, the Bolsheviks. The disorganisation and unpreparedness of the defending forces is well portrayed – a bit like Dad’s Army but without the laughs – and the mist of rumour and counter-rumour accompanying the situation when the city falls to Petlyura conveys the commensurate sense of febrility.

Bulgakov’s first novel and the only one to be published in the USSR in his lifetime, The White Guard is an insight into an all-but forgotten moment in an interregnum of upheaval and change and is worth reading for that alone. But a marker of the futility of it all is the thought that, “Blood is red on those deep fields and no one would redeem it. No one.”

While it has touches of the fantastic, including several dream sequences, The White Guard does not (cannot) touch the heights of the same author’s The Master and Margarita but it is well worth reading on its own terms. ( )
  jackdeighton | Aug 18, 2017 |
While I love Bulgakov's the Master and Margherita, I just couldn't get into the White Guard. I didn't find it political enough, but it wasn't really personal enough either. I couldn't imagine why he would be writing this or why Stalin would see the book as a threat. ( )
  StefanieBrookTrout | Feb 4, 2017 |
I chose this for it's beautiful cover, and because I did enjoy The Master and Margarita. Still to read
  jkdavies | Jun 14, 2016 |
Right from the opening words, Mikhail Bulgakov leaves the reader in no doubt where and when his novel takes place, nor does he minimize the menace: 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. He immediately introduces the Turbin family: the siblings Alexei, Elena and seventeen year old Nikolka, their maid Anyuta, and Elena's new husband Captain Sergei Talberg.

Pausing only to give a detailed description of their warm and comfortable apartment, a picture worthy of a Merchant - Ivory set designer, Bulgakov immediately moves on to hint once more at the subject of his novel. It may be cosy inside, but outside, The snow-storm from the north howled and howled, and now they themselves could sense a dull, subterranean rumbling, the groaning of an anguished land in travail. As 1918 drew to an end the threat of danger grew rapidly nearer.

The danger he alludes to was the Ukrainian Revolution. In December 1918, Ukraine was part of Russia. Russia itself was in turmoil following its own revolution and the murder of the Tsar and his family. Russia, along with Ukrainians, had been fighting the Germans on Ukrainian soil. The Treaty of Brest - Litovsk, which theoretically had awarded Ukraine its independence had just collapsed. Ukrainian nationalists were fighting Russia. White Russians and reds were fighting each other in Ukraine and eastward to the Pacific. At the heart of the Ukrainian turmoil was Kiev. Bulgakov himself was from Kiev. His minutely detailed descriptions of the city throughout the novel show his deep love of his birthplace. However, despite his immersion in the heart of Ukraine, he considered himself Russian.

His world was about to change. In 1918 Kiev was changing before both his eyes and those of the Turbins, as refugees from the Russian Revolution flocked to the city. Again there is that feeling of hurry and urgency:Among the refugees came grey-haired bankers and their wives, skilful businessmen who had left behind their faithful deputies in Moscow with instructions to them not to lose contact with the new world which was coming into existence in the Muscovite kingdom; landlords who had secretly left their property in the hands of trusted managers; industrialists, merchants, soldiers, politicians. There came journalists from Moscow and Petersburg, corrupt, grasping and cowardly. Prostitutes. Respectable ladies from aristocratic families and their delicate daughters, pale depraved women from Petersburg with carmine-painted lips; secretaries of civil service departmental chiefs; inert young homosexuals. Princes and junk-dealers, poets and pawnbrokers, gendarmes and actresses from the Imperial theatres. Squeezing its way through the crack, this mass of people converged on the city.
Then, inevitably, all the turmoil from the fighting in the surrounding countryside came to Kiev. Petlyura, leader of Ukraine's fight for independence, overran the city. Alexei Turbin, like Bulgakov a former White Guard doctor, and Nikolka the young cadet, joined the forces of resistance. Street fighting from corner to corner provides gripping action. There is treachery, personal betrayal, and settling of scores, but Bulgakov skilfully intersperses these dramatic scenes with quieter domestic ones, or humorous ones from the life of the Turbins' landlord, Lisovich.

The battle for Kiev is fast and furious. Alexei was gravely wounded, again like Bulgakov himself. The reader sees the world of the noncombatants struggling through the turmoil as Alexei struggles for his life.

[The White Guard] was initially serialized, starting in 1925, in the magazine Rossiya, which ceased publication before the last episodes of the novel had been published. Permission was not given to publish in book form, but the story was made into a highly successful play, The Days of the Turbins. For reasons never fully understood, the play was a great favourite of Stalin's. There are those who feel this may have saved Bulgakov's life when so many of his peers were being purged.

There isn't much of the magical realism here* of Bulgakov's later [The Master and Margarita], but this first novel does have the same wonderful way with language. It seems more in line with those other masters of adventure, Dumas and Scott. It was not until 1966 that [The White Guard] was published in novel form in Russia.


* I just discovered when checking the publishing history, that the first English translation, the 1971 Michael Glenny one that I read from my TBR pile, actually omitted dream flashbacks. These might have given it a different feel altogether. There is a newer 2008 translation from Yale by Marian Schwartz, which has the complete novel. It also has background on the political situation which would have been much appreciated. I'll have to get this new edition. I'd certainly have no hesitation in reading it again.
2 vote SassyLassy | Jan 20, 2015 |
1918 in Kiev when Petlyura took over the city. The hero of the book, Dr. Turbin is wounded during the fighting. He was an officer of the Tsar's army. It is the story of his comfortable family life in their lovely apartment. He has a married sister whose Geman husband escapes to Germany. His younger brother is a cadet, and avoids the slaughter through luck and fast running. The miniseries is wonderful. ( )
  almigwin | Feb 1, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (40 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mikhail Bulgakovprimary authorall editionscalculated
彰三, 浅川Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
甫, 中田Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dobrenko, EvgenyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Güell, Josep M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glenny, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schwartz, MarianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Пошел мелкий снег и вдруг повалил хлопьями. Ветер завыл; сделалась метель. В одно мгновение темное небо смешалось с снежным морем. Все исчезло.

- Ну, барин, - закричал ямщик, - беда: буран!

"Капитанская дочка"
И судимы были мертвые по написанному в книгах сообразно с делами своими...
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Любови Евгеньевне
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Велик был год и страшен год по рождестве Христовом 1918, от начала же революции второй.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0897332466, Paperback)

The White Guard is less famous than Mikhail Bulgakov's comic hit, The Master and Margarita, but it is a lovely book, though completely different in tone. It is set in Kiev during the Russian revolution and tells a story about the war's effect on a middle-class family (not workers). The story was not politically correct and thereby contributed to Bulgakov's lifelong troubles with the Soviet authorities. It was, however, well-loved, and the novel was turned into a successful play at the time of its publication in 1967.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:48 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov's semi-autobiographical first novel, is the story of the Turbin family in Kiev in 1918. Alexei, Elena, and Nikolka Turbin have just lost their mother - their father had died years before - and find themselves plunged into the chaotic civil war that erupted in the Ukraine in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In the context of this family's personal loss and the social turmoil surrounding them, Bulgakov creates a brilliant picture of the existential crises brought about by the revolution and the loss of social, moral, and political certainties. He confronts the reader with the bewildering cruelty that ripped Russian life apart at the beginning of the last century as well as with the extraordinary ways in which the Turbins preserved their humanity. In this volume Marian Schwartz, a leading translator, offers the first complete and accurate translation of the definitive original text of Bulgakov's novel. She includes the famous dream sequence, omitted in previous translations, and beautifully solves the stylistic issues raised by Bulgakov's ornamental prose. Readers with an interest in Russian literature, culture, or history will welcome this superb translation of Bulgakov's important early work. This edition also contains an informative historical essay by Evgeny Dobrenko." --from book description, Amazon.com.… (more)

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Yale University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 030012242X, 0300151454

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