“The White Guard”, Chapter IV – Weekly Reads
The next Chapter of “The White Guard” transports us to Kiev, a city teeming with refugees from Moscow and Petrograd – merchants, bankers, industrialists, lawyers, actors, landlords, ex-members of the State Duma, engineers, doctors, and writers, all sharing a hatred for the Bolsheviks. Kiev has become a center of resistance. But for how long?
Find out more in Chapter IV below! Enjoy the read!
Beautiful in the frost and mist-covered hills above the Dnieper, the life of the City hummed and steamed like a many-layered honeycomb. All day long smoke spiralled in ribbons up to the sky from innumerable chimney- pots. A haze floated over the streets, the packed snow creaked underfoot, houses towered to five, six and even seven storeys. By day their windows were black, while at night they shone in rows against the deep, dark blue sky. As far as the eye could see, like strings of precious stones, hung the rows of electric globes suspended high from the elegant curlicues of tall lamp-posts. By day the streetcars rolled by with a steady, comfortable rumble, with their yellow straw-stuffed seats of handsome foreign design. Shouting as they went cabmen drove from hill to hill and fur collars of sable and silver fox gave beauty and mystery to women’s faces.
The gardens lay silent and peaceful, weighed down with white virgin snow. And there were more gardens in the City than any other city in the world. They sprawled everywhere, with their avenues of chestnuts, their terraces of maples and limes.
The beautiful hills rising above the Dnieper were made even lovelier by gardens that rose terrace-wise, spreading, at times flaming into colour like a million sunspots, at others basking in the perpetual gentle twilight of the Imperial Gardens, the terrifying drop over the escarpment quite unprotected by the ancient, rotting black beams of the parapet. The sheer hillsides, lashed by snowstorms, fell away to the distant terraces below which in turn spread further and wider, merging into the tree-lined embankments that curved along the bank of the great river. Away and away wound the dark river like a ribbon of forged steel, into the haze, further than the eye could see even from the City’s highest eminence, on to the Dnieper Rapids, to the Zaporozhian Sech, to the Chersonese, to the far distant sea.
In winter, more than in any other city in the world, quiet fell over the streets and alleyways of the two halves of the City – the Upper City on the hilltops and the Lower City spread along the curve of the frozen Dnieper – and the City’s mechanical roar retreated inside the stone buildings, grew muffled and sank to a low hum. All the City’s energy, stored up during a summer of sunshine and thunderstorms, was expended in light. From four o’clock in the afternoon light would start to burn in the windows of the houses, in the round electric globes, in the gas street-lamps, in the illuminated house-numbers and in the vast windows of electric power-stations, turning people’s thoughts towards the terrifying prospect of man’s electric-powered future, those great windows through which could be glimpsed the machines whose desperate, ceaselessly revolving wheels shook the earth to its very core. All night long the City shone, glittered and danced with light until morning, when the lights went out and the City cloaked itself once more in smoke and mist.
But the brightest light of all was the white cross held by the gigantic statue of St Vladimir atop Vladimir Hill. It could be seen from far, far away and often in summer, in thick black mist, amid the osier-beds and tortuous meanders of the age-old river, the boatmen would see it and by its light would steer their way to the City and its wharves. In winter the cross would glow through the dense black clouds, a frozen unmoving landmark towering above the gently sloping expanse of the eastern bank, whence two vast bridges were flung across the river. One, the ponderous Chain Bridge that led to the right- bank suburbs, the other high, slim and urgent as an arrow that carried the trains from where, far away, crouched another city, threatening and mysterious: Moscow.
In that winter of 1918 the City lived a strange unnatural life which is unlikely ever to be repeated in the twentieth century. Behind the stone walls every apartment was overfilled. Their normal inhabitants constantly squeezed themselves into less and less space, willy-nilly making way for new refugees crowding into the City, all of whom arrived across the arrow-like bridge from the direction of that enigmatic other city.
Among the refugees came gray-haired bankers and their wives, skilful businessmen who had left behind their faithful deputies in Moscow with instructions to them not to lose contact with the new world which was coming into existence in the Muscovite kingdom; landlords who had secretly left their property in the hands of trusted managers; industrialists, merchants, lawyers, politicians. There came journalists from Moscow and Petersburg, corrupt, grasping and cowardly. Prostitutes. Respectable ladies from aristocratic families and their delicate daughters, pale depraved women from Petersburg with carmine-painted lips; secretaries of civil service departmental chiefs; inert young homosexuals. Princes and junk-dealers, poets and pawnbrokers, gendarmes and actresses from the Imperial theatres. Squeezing its way through the crack, this mass of people converged on the City.
All spring, beginning with the election of the Hetman, refugees had poured into the City. In apartments people slept on divans and chairs. They dined in vast numbers at rich men’s tables. Countless little restaurants were opened which stayed open for business until far into the night, cafes which sold both coffee and women, new and intimate little theatres where the most famous actors bent themselves into contortions to raise a laugh among the refugees from two capitals. That famous theatre, the Lilac Negro, was opened and a gorgeous night club for poets, actors and artists called Dust and Ashes kept its cymbals ringing on Nikolaevsky Street until broad daylight. New magazines sprang up overnight and the best pens in Russia began writing articles in them abusing the Bolsheviks. All day long cab-drivers drove their passengers from restaurant to restaurant, at night the band would strike up in the cabaret and through the tobacco smoke glowed the unearthly beauty of exhausted, white-faced, drugged prostitutes.
The City swelled, expanded, overflowed like leavened dough rising out of its baking-tin. The gambling clubs rattled on until dawn, where some gamblers were from Petersburg and others from the City itself, others still were stiff, proud German majors and lieutenants whom the Russians feared and respected, card-sharpers from Moscow clubs and Russo-Ukrainian landlords whose lives and property hung by a thread. At Maxim’s cafe a plump, fascinating Roumanian made his violin whistle like a nightingale; his gorgeous eyes sad and languorous with bluish whites, and his hair like velvet. The lights, shaded with gypsy shawls, cast two sorts of light – white electric light downwards, orange light upwards and sideways. The ceiling was draped starlike with swathes of dusty blue silk, huge diamonds glittered and rich auburn Siberian furs shone from dim, intimate corners. And it smelled of roasted coffee, sweat, vodka and French perfume.
All through the summer of 1918 the cab-drivers did a roaring trade and the shop windows were crammed with flowers, great slabs of rich filleted sturgeon hung like golden planks and the two-headed eagle glowed on the labels of sealed bottles of Abrau, that delicious Russian champagne. All that summer the pressure of newcomers mounted – men with gristly-white faces and grayish, clipped toothbrush moustaches, operatic tenors with gleaming polished boots and insolent eyes, ex-members of the State Duma in pince-nez, whores with resounding names. Billiard players took girls to shops to buy them lipstick, nail-polish, and ladies’ panties in gauzy chiffon, cut out in the most curious places.
They sent off letters through the only escape-hole across turbulent, insecure Poland (not one of them, incidentally, had the slightest idea what was going on there or even what sort of place this new country – Poland – was) to Germany, that great nation of honest Teutons – begging for visas, transferring money, sensing that before long they would have to flee Russian territory altogether to where they would be finally and utterly safe from the terrible civil war and the thunder of Bolshevik regiments. They dreamed of France, of Paris, in anguish at the thought that it was extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible to get there. And there were other thoughts, vague and more frightening, which would suddenly come to mind in sleepless nights on divans in other people’s apartments.
‘And what if… what if that steel cordon were to snap… And the gray hordes poured in. The horror…’
These thoughts would come at those times when from far, far away came the dull thump of gunfire: for some reason firing went on outside the City throughout the whole of that glittering, hot summer, when those gray, metallic Germans kept the peace all around, whilst in the City itself they could hear the perpetual muffled crack of rifle-fire on the outskirts. Who was shooting at whom, nobody knew. It happened at night. And by day people were reassured by the occasional sight of a regiment of German hussars trotting down the main street, the Kreshchatik, or down Vladimir Street. And what regiments they were! Fur busbies crowning proud faces, scaly brass chinstraps clasping stone-hard jaws, the tips of red ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’ moustaches pointing upward like twin arrows. Squadrons of horses advancing in tight ranks of four, powerful seventeen-hand chestnuts, all six hundred troopers encased in blue-gray tunics like the cast-iron uniforms on the statues of their ponderous Germanic heroes that adorned the city of Berlin.
People who saw them were cheered and reassured, and jeered at the distant Bolsheviks, who were furiously grinding their teeth on the other side of the barbed wire along the border.
They hated the Bolsheviks, but not with the kind of aggressive hatred which spurs on the hater to fight and kill, but with a cowardly hatred which whispers around dark corners. They hated by night, choking with anxiety, by day in restaurants reading newspapers full of descriptions of Bolsheviks shooting officers and bankers in the back of the neck with Mausers, and how the Moscow shopkeepers were selling horsemeat infected with glanders. All of them – merchants, bankers, industrialists, lawyers, actors, landlords, prostitutes, ex-members of the State Council, engineers, doctors and writers, felt one thing in common-hatred.
And there were officers, officers who had fled from the north and from the west – the former front line – and they all headed for the City. There were very many of them and their numbers increased all the time. They risked their lives to come because being officers, mostly penniless and bearing the ineradicable stamp of their profession, they of all refugees had the greatest difficulty in acquiring forged papers to enable them to get across the frontier. Yet they did manage to cross the line and appeared in the City with hunted looks, lousy and unshaven, without badges of rank, and adopted any expedient which enabled them to stay alive and eat. Among them were old inhabitants of the City who had returned home with the same idea in their minds as Alexei Turbin – to rest, recuperate and start again by building a new life, not a soldier’s life but an ordinary human existence; there were also hundreds of others for whom staying in Petersburg or Moscow was out of the question. Some of them – the Cuirassiers, Chevalier Guards, Horse Guards and Guards Lancers – swam easily in the murky scum of the City’s life in that troubled time. The Hetman’s bodyguard wore fantastic uniforms and at the Hetman’s tables there was room for up to two hundred people with slicked- down hair and mouthfuls of decayed yellow teeth with gold fillings. Anyone who was not found a place in the Hetman’s bodyguard was found an even softer billet by women in expensive fur coats in opulent, panelled apartments in Lipki, the most exclusive part of town, or settled into restaurants or hotel rooms.
Others, such as staff-captains of shattered and disbanded regiments of the line, or hussars who had been in the thick of the fighting like Colonel Nai- Turs, hundreds of ensigns and second lieutenants, former students like Karas, their careers ruined by the war and the revolution, and first lieutenants, who had also enlisted from university but who could never go back and study, like Viktor Myshlaevsky. In their stained gray coats, with still unhealed wounds, with a torn dark strip on each shoulder where their badges of rank had been, they arrived in the City and they slept on chairs, in their own homes or in other people’s, using their greatcoats as blankets. They drank vodka, roamed about, tried to find something to do and boiled with anger. It was these men who hated the Bolsheviks with the kind of direct and burning hatred which could drive them to fight.
And there were officer cadets. When the revolution broke out there were four officer-cadet schools in the City – an engineers’ school, an artillery school and two infantry schools. They were closed and broken up to a rattle of gunfire from mutinous soldiery and boys just out of high school and first-year students were thrown out on to the street crippled and wounded. They were not children and not adults, neither soldiers nor civilians, but boys like the seventeen-year-old Nikolka Turbin…
‘Of course I’m delighted to think that the Ukraine is under the benevolent sway of the Hetman. But I have never yet been able to discover, and in all probability never will until my dying day, just exactly who is this invisible despot with a title that sounds more appropriate to the seventeenth century than the twentieth.’
‘Yes – exactly who is he, Alexei?’
‘An ex-officer of the Chevalier Guards, a general, rich landowner, his name is Pavel Petrovich Skoropadsky…’
By some curious irony of fate and history his election, held in April 1918, took place in a circus-a fact which will doubtless provide future historians with abundant material for humor. The people, however, in particular the settled inhabitants of the City who had already experienced the first shocks of civil war, not only failed to see the humor of the situation but were unable to discern any sense in it at all. The election had taken place with bewildering speed. Before most people knew it had happened it was all over – and God bless the Hetman. What did it matter anyway, just so long as there was meat and bread in the market and no shooting in the streets, and so long – above all – as the Bolsheviks were kept out and the common people were kept from looting. Well, more or less all of this was put into effect under the Hetman – indeed to a considerable degree. At least the Moscow and Petersburg refugees and the majority of people in the City itself, even though they laughed at the Hetman’s curious state and like Captain
Talberg called it a ludicrous operetta, sincerely blessed the Hetman, and said to themselves ‘God grant that it lasts for ever’.
But whether it could last for ever, no one could say – not even the Hetman himself.
For the fact was that although life in the City went on with apparent normality – it had a police force, a civil service, even an army and newspapers with various names – not a single person in it knew what was going on around and about the City, in the real Ukraine, a country of tens of millions of people, bigger than France. They not only knew nothing about the distant parts of the country, but they were even, ridiculous though it seems, in utter ignorance of what was happening in the villages scattered about twenty or thirty miles away from the City itself. They neither knew nor cared about the real Ukraine and they hated it with all their heart and soul. And whenever there came vague rumors of events from that mysterious place called ‘the country’, rumors that the Germans were robbing the peasants, punishing them mercilessly and mowing them down by machine-gun fire, not only was not a single indignant voice raised in defense of the Ukrainian peasants but, under silken lampshades in drawing-rooms, they would bare their teeth in a wolfish grin and mutter:
‘Serve them right! And a bit more of that sort of treatment wouldn’t do ’em any harm either. I’d give it ’em even harder. That’ll teach them to have a revolution – didn’t want their own masters, so now they can have a taste of another!’
‘You’re so mistaken…’
‘What on earth d’you mean, Alexei? They’re nothing more than a bunch of animals. The Germans’ll show ’em…’
The Germans were everywhere. At least, they were all over the Ukraine; but away to the north and east beyond the furthest line of the blue-brown forest were the Bolsheviks. Only these two forces counted.
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