I seem to be reading a lot of war literature just now; I'm not sure how
that happened. I am however happy with my reading choices: Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War
and Bulgakov's first novel White Guard
are absolutely fantastic. I was going to write a post that compared the
two books, claiming that the use of the military in pressing political
agendas has not changed in 2500 years (I was also going to point out the
parallels between the way military alliances shifted during the ancient
Greek war and the way the Ukrainians allied themselves out of political
expediency with the Germans--or perhaps I should say the way the
Germans allied themselves with the Ukrainians in order to place a large
number of troops in Kiev during 1918, until the Germans abandoned Kiev
after the fall of the Kaiser back in Berlin), but I have decided that is
all less interesting than the observation that Bulgakov's White Guard
is a parody of Tolstoy's War and Peace
, as well as a version of Dostoyevsky's Devils
The most important thing to keep in mind when reading Bulgakov's novel,
I think, is that the author was angry. Very, very angry.
is set in December 1918. Tsarist Russia has been
overthrown in the October Revolution, the Russian army has withdrawn
from World War I, and Russia is being torn apart by a civil war.
Ukraine, now an independent state, is a battleground as four armies (the
Imperial German army, the Whites (monarchists), the Reds (Bolsheviks),
and the Ukrainian Nationalists (led by a warlord named Petlyura)) fight
for control. Bulgakov's novel dramatizes the fall of Kiev--capitol city
of Ukraine--as the Germans withdraw, the White army collapses and the
Ukrainian Nationalists sweep into Kiev while the Red army marches south
from Moscow. Bulgakov lived through the events of White Guard
gives a detailed and scathing account of both the high-level political
maneuvering and the intimate lives of the citizens caught up in the fall
of Kiev. In this way the novel is modeled on War and Peace
the action shifts between troop movements on the battlefield and
terrified lovers hiding in darkened houses as gunfire rattles on the
other side of the wall.
I seem to be losing my topic as I write, there being so many things in
this novel to distract the essyist, so I will just throw out these other
signs that Bulgakov is alluding to War and Peace
: the central
action of Tolstoy's novel is the Battle of Borodino, a huge conflict
between the Russian army and the army of Napoleon, a struggle to stop
Napoleon's advance on Moscow. The Russians lost the battle but declared
it a victory so as not to demoralize the army. Soon after Borodino,
Napoleon's troops walked the streets of Moscow. Bulgakov mentions
Borodino a dozen times and the White army commanders who hope to defend
Kiev invoke the "victory" at Borodino to rally the troops. The irony is,
of course, that Borodino was a defeat for the Russians, and just as
Moscow fell, so will Kiev. In White Guard
, Bulgakov focuses his
attention on a Kiev artillery division that is formed from cadets and
civilians, is given uniforms, weapons and a day's training, and is then
disbanded the following day without having seen combat when the unit's
commander learns that Kiev's government has abandoned the city. Tolstoy,
of course, served in the Imperial Russian artillery, and cannons (and
cannonballs) play a tremendous role in Tolstoy's telling of the Borodino
fight. In Bulgakov's novel, the Kiev artillery is impotent, unused or
futile. One of Bulgakov's artillery officers has read only one novel: War and Peace
So we are meant, I believe, not only to see that the battle to save
Kiev for the Whites was doomed from the start and the political leaders
of Kiev's resistance were self-serving cowards, but also to consider
that tales of patriotic heroism and grand struggles to save empires are
just grand historical lies.
When a novelist mentions books in a work of fiction, I always suspect
that I am being given a hint. Bulgakov mentions three works of
literature in White Guard
: Tolstoy's War and Peace
, Dostoyevsky's Devils
(a pointer to the madness which descends upon Kiev, the evil chaos
personified by the followers of Petlyura's Ukranian Nationalists), and
unnamed "literary journals from the 1860s" which are used as tinder by
the artillery division to light their heating stoves. I am not quite
sure what Bulgakov is saying with that last bit, ha ha.
Whatever, man. This whole post is just an excuse to quote two of my favorite passages from the novel:
Deep in the snow, some five miles beyond the outskirts of the City to
the north, in an abandoned watchman's hut completely buried in white
snow sat a staff captain. On the little table was a crust of bread, the
case of a portable field telephone and a small hurricane lamp with a
bulbous, sooty glass. The last embers were fading in the stove. The
captain was a short man with a long sharp nose, and wearing a greatcoat
with a large collar. With his left hand he squeezed and crumbled the
crust of bread, whilst pressing the knob of the telephone with his
right. But the telephone seemed to have died and gave no response.
For three miles around the captain there was nothing but darkness, blizzard and snowdrift. [...]the telephone rang.
"Is that Number 6 Battery?" asked a distant voice.
"Yes, yes," the captain replied, wild with excitement.
"Open fire at once on the target area..." quacked the blurred voice down
the line, "...with maximum fire power..." the voice broke off. "...I
have the impression..." At this the voice was again cut off.
"Yes, I'm listening," the captain screamed into the receiver, grinding
his teeth in despair. There was a long pause. "I can't open fire," the
captain said into the mouthpiece, compelled to speak although well aware
that he was talking into nothingness. "All the gun crews and my three
lieutenants have deserted. I'm the only man left in the battery. Pass
the message on to Post-Volynsk."
The captain sat for another hour, then went out. The snowstorm was
blowing with great violence. The four grim, terrible, field guns were
already half buried in snow and icicles had already begun to festoon
their muzzles and breech mechanisms. In the cold of the screaming,
whirling snowstorm the captain fumbled like a blind man. Working
entirely by feel, it was a long time before he was able to remove the
first breech block. He was about to throw it into the well behind the
watchman's hut, but changed his mind and went into the hut. He went out
three more times, until he had removed the four breech blocks from all
the guns and hidden them under a trap door in the floor, where potatoes
were stored. Then, having first put out the lamp, he went out into the
darkness. He walked for about two hours, unseen and unseeing through the
darkness until he reached the highway leading into the City, lit by a
few faint sparse streetlamps. Under the first of these lamps he was
sabred to death by a party of pigtailed horsemen, who removed his boots
and his watch.
The same voice came to life in the receiver of a telephone in a dugout
four miles to the west of the watchman's hut. "Open fire at once on the
target area. I have the impression that the enemy has passed between
your position and ours and is making for the City."
[...] Three officers and three cadets clambered out of the dugout with
lanterns. The fourth officer and two cadets were already in the gun
position, standing around a lantern which the storm was doing its best
to put out. Five minutes later the guns began to jump and fire into the
darkness. They filled the countryside for ten miles around with their
terrible roar [...]
Prancing through the snow, a troop of cavalry leaped out of the dark
beyond the lamplight and killed all the cadets and four of the officers.
The battery commander, who had stayed by the telephone in the dugout,
shot himself in the mouth. The battery commander's last words were:
"Those swine at headquarters. It's enough to make one turn Bolshevik."
Before 1914 Kozyr had spent all his life as a village schoolmaster.
Mobilized into a regiment of dragoons at the outbreak of war, in 1917 he
had been commissioned. And now the dawn of December 14th 1918, found
Kozyr a colonel in Petlyura's army and no one on earth (least of all
Kozyr himself) could have said how it had happened. It had come about
because war was Kozyr's true vocation and his years of teaching school
had been nothing more than a protracted and serious mistake.
This, of course, is something that happens more often than not in life. A
man may be engaged in some occupation for twenty whole years, such as
studying Roman law, and then in the twenty-first year it suddenly
transpires that Roman law is a complete waste of time, that he not only
doesn't understand it and dislikes it too, but that he is really a born
gardener and has an unquenchable love of flowers. This is presumably the
result of some imperfection in our social system, which seems to ensure
that people frequently only find their proper metier towards the
end of their lives. Kozyr had found his at the age of forty-five. Until
then he had been a bad teacher, boring and cruel to his pupils.
In 1926 Bulgakov wrote a stage play based on White Guard
was immensely popular in Moscow despite a sympathetic portrayal of the
White Guard officers. It was apparently a favorite of Stalin's. This
baffles me, given the intensely anti-revolutionary slant of the novel,
but it's true that Stalin had the crazy in his head. I have not
seen/read the play. It's been nearly forty years since I read War and Peace