One hundred years ago, a Russian masterpiece anticipated the war in Ukraine

The best-known 20th century Ukrainian novelist is … ?

No, not Marina Lewycka, author of the prize-winning British novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which won a clutch of prizes in 2005 and sold over a million copies.

Just to demonstrate the complexity of Ukraine’s history, it’s an English writer, Joseph Conrad, the author of Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, in Berdychiv, a small city about 150 km southwest of Kyiv.

In those days Berdychiv had several names, depending on which language you spoke. It was Berdychiv to Ukrainians, Berdichev to Russians, Berdyczów to Poles, and Barditshev to Jews. Conrad grew up speaking Polish, but most of the inhabitants of Berdychiv spoke Yiddish. No longer – the Jews who remained in 1941, about 30,000 of them, were murdered by the Nazis.

All four cultures and languages flourished in this cultural crossroads, suggesting that the notion of Ukrainian identity is very fluid. Of the ten most famous writers born in Ukraine listed on the Pantheon website, four wrote in Russian, two in German, one in Hebrew, one in Yiddish, one in English, and only one in Ukrainian. (Yes, I know, internet lists aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.)

Conrad’s competitor for the title of best-known 20th century born-in-Ukraine novelist is Mikhail Bulgakov, who was born in Kyiv but wrote in Russian. The author of The Master and Margarita, a surreal masterpiece about Satan in 1930s Moscow, he is also regarded as one of the greatest of Russian novelists. This book was only published in 1973, 30 years after his death, because it had been suppressed by Stalin’s censors. As an index of his fame in Ukraine, the Bulgakov family house has been preserved as a museum in the centre of Kyiv, within walking distance of Maidan Square. But -- to support my point about cultural fluidity -- there is another Bulgakov Museum in Mocow.
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Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, published in 1927 in Paris, is not as well known in English as The Master and Margarita, but it deserves to be. It gives a vivid picture of the cultural and political chaos in Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian Civil War. Bulgakov also turned it into a four-act play, The Days of the Turbins, which Stalin liked so much that he reportedly watched it a dozen times.

The White Guard is an eerie foreshadowing of the current war in Ukraine. It is set in Kiev (to use its Russian name) in the winter of 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution and the Armistice. The central characters are the two Turbin brothers, Alexei and Nikolka; their sister Elena; and their friends, all Russian-speakers.

It opens with an apocalyptic leitmotif:

Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, hardly the second since the Revolution. 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.

And under the star of Mars, the god of war, Kiev in 1918 suffered like Kyiv in 2022. The story open with the disintegration of the Hetmanate, a regime supported by the defeated Germans. Elena’s husband, a Baltic German serving in the Hetman's army, abandons her in the opening chapter, jumping onto a train with the fleeing Germans. The poorly organised defenders of Kiev are Czarists and supporters of the White Russian general Anton Denikin. Thousands of refugees have flooded into the city.

Surrounding them is the army of Symon Petlyura, a Ukrainian leading Ukrainians, who was the head of the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic. Bloody and brutal fighting on the outskirts and then in the streets of Kiev is constant during the novel. In the background is Trotsky’s Bolshevik Army marching from Moscow. Petlyura’s army occupies Kiev and then fades away as the Reds arrive. The novel ends with a five-pointed star glittering in the sky, a symbol of the triumph of the Bolsheviks.

For most English-speaking readers, the historical background is bewildering – but that is how the characters experienced that nightmarish winter as well. There are even rumours that the Senegalese will save them. The Senegalese? Yes, in one of those strange-but-true historical absurdities, the French landed African troops at Odessa as part of the Allies’ failed campaign against the Bolsheviks. (They never reached Kiev.)

In the bitter winter cold, it is hard to tell one rag-tag army from another. In the snow all of their blood is red… There are violent scenes but much of it is surreal. Nikolka goes to the city morgue to search for the body of his commanding officer and discovers a professor happily dissecting a treasure trove of bodies from amongst the piles of corpses.

What becomes obvious as the novel moves on is the uneasy relationship between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers – much as it is today. The Russian-speaking Turbins and their friends fear the advance of the mysterious Petlyura and his Ukrainian-speaking peasant rabble. There’s a vivid description of a church service in St Sophia’s Cathedral (which is still standing) with this interchange illustrating Ukrainian nationalism:

'What language were they holding the service in, I didn't understand?'
'In God's language, dear.' 
'It's been strictly forbidden to use Russian in church any more.'
'What's that? Aren't we allowed to use our own Orthodox language any more

Bulgakov’s attitude towards Christianity is, astonishingly in the light of the savage atheism of 1920s Russia, quite respectful. He uses the Book of Revelation to bookend the novel and the novel’s geographical centre is the Cathedral. The White Guard ends with a burst of all-but-Christian poetry:

The night flowed on. During its second half the whole arc of the sky, the curtain that God had drawn across the world, was covered with stars. It was as if a midnight mass was being celebrated in the measureless height beyond that blue altar-screen. The candles were lit on the altar and they threw patterns of crosses, squares and clusters on to the screen. Above the bank of the Dnieper the midnight cross of St Vladimir thrust itself above the sinful, bloodstained, snowbound earth toward the grim, black sky. From far away it looked as if the cross-piece had vanished, had merged with the upright, turning the cross into a sharp and menacing sword.

But the sword is not fearful. Everything passes away - suffering, pain, blood, hunger and pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will still remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars? Why?

Today we can read The White Guard as a vivid and thought-provoking gloss on Vladimir Putin’s theory that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia”. Yes and no, Bulgakov seems to say. Yes, Russians were an integral part of modern Ukraine (along with Poles and those vanished Jews). But no, as well. Ukrainian nationalism was real and fervent and stridently anti-Russian before the Bolsheviks arrived.


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