Thursday, July 9, 2015

The wrath of Bulgakov: running through the night with the White Guard

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.

White Guard 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 Tsarist Russia has been overthrown in the October Revolution, the Russian army has withdrawn from World War I, and Russia is being torn apart by a civil war.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 and 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, as 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."
...and...
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 which 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.

2 comments:

  1. I need to read more Bulgakov, so this is going on the ever-expanding list.

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    1. I'm going to revisit War and Peace this winter if I can find a multi-volume set. No way I'm dragging it around as a complete edition.

      There's plenty of good Bulgakov. I assume you've read The Master and Margarita? His early stuff is not like that one at all. I'll be reading the book (Diary of a Dead Man, I think it's called) about him working with Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater soon. I hear it's pretty good. White Guard is terrific, though. Highly recommended.

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