“The White Guard”, Chapter I – Weekly Reads
Our exciting journey through Bulgakov`s masterpieces is about to resume as we delve into Bulgakov`s “The White Guard”, a story which unfolds in 1918 Ukraine, following the Turbin family and the Ukrainian War of Independence which sees various armies (the Whites, the Red, the Imperial German Army and the Ukrainian nationalists) fight for the city of Kyiv.
This insightful novel brilliantly portrays the brutal and terrifyingly real horrors unleashed in the wake of a bloody revolution. As British book reviewer Alfred Searls notes, “Bulgakov’s genius as a writer came to be accepted both in Russia and the wider world. For him, the truth was something that truly mattered and in “The White Guard” Bulgakov tells us that great truth in life is that meaning and redemption can only be found in individual acts of human kindness towards those around you.” (the full review by Alfred Searls is available here – https://www.northernsoul.me.uk/book-review-the-white-guard-mikhail-bulgakov/
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.
But in days of blood as in days of peace the years fly like an arrow and the thick frost of a hoary white December, season of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, joy and glittering snow, overtook the young Turbins unawares. For the reigning head of the family, their adored mother, was no longer with them.
A year after her daughter Elena Turbin had married Captain Sergei Talberg, and in the week in which her eldest son Alexei Turbin returned from years of grim and disastrous campaigning to the Ukraine, to the City of Kiev and home, the white coffin with the body of their mother was carried away down the slope of St Alexei’s Hill towards the Embankment, to the little church of the St Nicholas the Good.
Their mother’s funeral had been in May, the cherry and acacia blossom brushing against the narrow lancet windows of the church. His cope glittering and flashing in the golden sunlight, their parish priest Father Alexander had stumbled from grief and embarrassment while the deacon, his face and neck mauve, vested in beaten gold down to the tips of his squeaky boots, gloomily intoned the words of the funeral service for the mother who was leaving her children.
Alexei, Elena, Talberg, Anyuta the maid who had grown up in the Turbins’ house, and young Nikolka, stunned by the death, a lock of hair falling over his right eyebrow, stood at the foot of the ancient brown ikon of St Nicholas. Set deep on either side of his long bird-like nose, Nikolka’s blue eyes had a wounded, defeated look. Occasionally he raised them towards the ikon screen, to the vaulted apse above the altar where that glum and enigmatic old man, God, towered above them and winked. Why had he inflicted such a wrong on them? Wasn’t it unjust? Why did their mother have to be taken away, just when they had all been reunited, just when life seemed to be growing more tolerable?
As he flew away through the crack that had opened up in the sky, God vouchsafed no answer, leaving Nikolka in doubt whether the things that happened in life were always necessary and always for the best.
The service over, they walked out on to the ringing flagstones of the porch and escorted their mother across the vast City to the cemetery, to where their father had long lain under a black marble cross. And there they buried their mother…
For many years before her death, in the house at No. 13 St Alexei’s Hill, little Elena, Alexei the eldest and baby Nikolka had grown up in the warmth of the tiled stove that burned in the dining-room. How often they had followed the story of Peter the Great in Holland, ‘The Shipwright of Saardam’, portrayed on its glowing hot Dutch tiles; how often the clock had played its gavotte; and always towards the end of December there had been a smell of pine-needles and candles burning on evergreen branches. In answer to the gavotte played by the bronze clock in their mother’s bedroom – now Elena’s – the black clock on the wall had struck its steeple chimes. Their father had bought both clocks long ago, in the days when women had worn funny leg-of- mutton sleeves. Those sleeves had gone, time had slipped by like a flash, their father the professor had died, and they had all grown, but the clock remained the same and went on chiming. They had all grown used to the idea that if by some miracle that clock ever fell off the wall, it would be as sad as if a beloved voice had died and nothing could ever be hung there in its place. But clocks are fortunately quite immortal, as immortal as the Shipwright of Saardam, and however bad the times might be, the tiled Dutch stove, like a rock of wisdom, was always there to radiate life and warmth.
The stove; the furniture covered in old red velvet; the beds with their shiny brass knobs; the worn carpets and tapestries, some plain red, some patterned, one with a picture of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, another showing Louis XIV reclining beside a silken lake in paradise; the Turkish carpets with their gorgeous oriental curlicues which had danced in front of little Nikolka’s eyes when he was once delirious from scarlet fever; the bronze lamp and its shade; the finest bookshelves in the world full of books that smelled mysteriously of old chocolate with their Natasha Rostovs and their Captain’s Daughters, gilded cups, silver, portraits, drapes: all seven of those crammed, dusty rooms in which the young Turbins had been raised; all this, at a time of great hardship, was bequeathed to the children by their mother who as she lay gasping, her strength failing, had clutched the hand of the weeping Elena and said:
‘Go on living… and be kind to one another…’
Hut how, how were they to go on living? Alexei Turbin, the eldest and a doctor, was twenty-eight, Elena twenty-four. Her husband Captain Talberg was thirty-one, and Nikolka seventeen and a half. Their life had been darkened at its very dawning. Cold winds had long been blowing without cease from the north and the longer they persisted the worse they grew. The eldest Turbin had returned to his native city after the first blast had shaken the hills above the Dnieper. Now, they thought, it will stop and we can start living the kind of life they wrote about in those chocolate-smelling books. But the opposite happened and life only grew more and more terrible. 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 drew rapidly nearer.
The time was coming when the walls would fall away, the terrified falcon fly away from the Tsar’s white sleeve, the light in the bronze lamp would go out and the Captain’s Daughter would be burned in the stove. And though the mother said to her children ‘Go on living’, their lot would be to suffer and die.
One day at twilight, soon after their mother’s funeral, Alexei Turbin called on Father Alexander and said:
‘It has been a terrible blow for us, Father Alexander. Grief like ours is even harder to bear when times are so bad . .. The worst is, you see, that I’d only just come home from the war and we were looking forward to straightening things out and leading a reasonable life, but now . . .’
He stopped and as he sat at the table in the half light he stared thoughtfully into the distance. Branches of the churchyard trees overshadowed the priest’s little house. It was as if just out there, beyond the walls of his cramped, book-lined study was the edge of a tangled, mysterious, springtime forest. From outside came the muffled evening hum of the City and the smell of lilac.
‘What can we do?’ muttered the priest awkwardly. (He always felt embarrassed when he had to talk to people.) ‘It is the will of God.’
‘Perhaps all this will come to an end one day? Will things be any better, then, I wonder?’ asked Turbin of no one in particular.
The priest shifted in his armchair.
‘Yes, say what you like, times are bad, very bad’, he mumbled. ‘But one mustn’t lose heart . . .’
Then drawing it out of the black sleeve of his cassock he suddenly laid his white hand on a pile of books, and opened the topmost one at the place marked by a bright embroidered ribbon.
‘We must never lose heart’, he said in his embarrassed yet somehow profoundly convincing voice. ‘Faintness of heart is a great sin . . . Although I must say that I see great trials to come. Yes, indeed, great trials’, he said with growing certainty. ‘I have been spending much of the time with my books lately, you know. All concerned with my subject of course, mostly books on theology . . .’
He raised the book so that the last rays of the sun fell on the open page and read aloud:
‘And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.’
Source: “The White Guard”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny, with an epilogue by Viktor Nekrasov, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Great Britain, 1971, 70-140252 08844