The Great and Terrible Year

PUBLISHED ON

April 3, 2009

White Guard
Mikhail Bulgakov, Yale University Press, 310 pages, $18

“Great was the year and terrible the Year of Our Lord 1918, the second since the Revolution had begun.” So opens White Guard, the new and utterly admirable translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel, written some 83 years ago when the author was just 22. The closing sentences can hardly be more prescient, given the headlines of our daily newspapers:

All this will pass. The sufferings, agonies, blood, hunger, and wholesale death. The sword will go away, but these stars will remain when even the shadows of our bodies and our affairs are long gone from this earth. There is not a man who does not know this. So why are we reluctant to turn our gaze to them? Why?

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The novel — a favorite of none other than Josef Stalin — purports to cover that “great and terrible year” through the lives of three young members of the Turbin family in Kiev, as Whites and Reds struggle amid chaos and death. Bulgakov, a young doctor like his protagonist, Alexei Turbin, drew heavily on his own experiences in that year, setting them against a vivid montage that captures all the agony of the birth of the Russian Revolution.

The back story of the novel is as fascinating and compelling as the work itself. Bulgakov had originally written White Guard in 1923-24 as the first part of a planned trilogy about the Bolshevik movement as seen through the eyes of three siblings — Alexei, Elena, and Nikolka — and two of their friends. It was published as a serial in a literary journal that shut down unexpectedly, leaving the last part never to appear in print.

But the first two parts caught the attention of the Moscow Art Theatre, which suggested that Bulgakov adapt it for the stage. The first two versions Bulgakov attempted in 1925 drew the wrath of the Soviet censors, who rejected it as “an apologia for the White Guards.” The third and final version became known as The Days of the Turbins and knew an unprecedented success, playing nearly a thousand times from 1926 through 1941 (Bulgakov died in 1940).

Its success may in part be due to the fact that the Moscow Art Theatre was Stalin’s favorite theater, and The Days of the Turbins was the dictator’s favorite play. It is reported that Stalin saw the play more than 20 times — an astonishing number for any head of state at any time in modern history, above all a head of state such as Stalin, in the singularly hectic decades of the 1920s and 1930s.

What is equally amazing is the fact that the play and the novel present a balanced view of the Whites. White Guard is no work of Communist propaganda; far from it. Indeed, it is curious, moving, and a little startling to find a character responding so strongly to the Book of Revelation:

The more he read this astonishing book, the more his mind became like a gleaming sword probing the darkness. Illness and suffering were without consequence, nonexistent, to him. Infirmity fell away like the bark from a dried branch forgotten in the forest. He saw the blue, bottomless mist of the ages, a millennial corridor, and he felt not fear but rather a wise humility and awe. Peace came to his soul, and in this peace he reached these words: “And God shall wipe away all the tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.”

We should perhaps recall that, from the ages of 12 to 15, Stalin attended the seminary in his hometown of Gori. Stalin was never willing to allow his favorite author to leave his native land — but then, he never imprisoned him. There seems to be a full story here that remains to be examined.

Bulgakov’s widow managed to have White Guard partially published in the literary journal Moskva in 1966, although, as Professor Evgeny Dobrenko points out in his excellent introduction to the new edition, Soviet critics during “the last glimmerings of the Khrushchev thaw undertook no small efforts to have it fitted into the Soviet canon.”

The quality of the translation of Marian Schwartz is first-rate, letting modern readers sense the power and style of the Russian original.

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