“The White Guard”, Chapter V – Weekly Reads

Dear readers!

And so “The White Guard” continues to introduce us to new characters. A piece of paper arrived at the city prison ordering the release of the prisoner in Cell No. 666 – Petlyura, about whom no one seemed to know anything definite. However, this man is set play a significant role in political destabilisation of Kiev.

Find out more in Chapter V below! Enjoy the read!



Then suddenly, out of the blue, a third force appeared on the vast chessboard. A poor chess-player, having fenced himself off from his opponent with a line of pawns (an appropriate image, as Germans in their steel helmets look very like pawns) will surround his toy king with his stronger pieces – his officers. But suddenly the opponent’s queen finds a sly way in from the side, advances to the back line and starts to knock out pawns and knights from the rear and checks the terrified king. In the queen’s wake comes a fast-moving bishop, the knights zig-zag into action and in no time the wretched player is doomed, his wooden king checkmated.

All of this happened very quickly, but not suddenly, and not before the appearance of certain omens.

One day in May, when the City awoke looking like a pearl set in turquoise and the sun rose up to shed its light on the Hetman’s kingdom; when the citizens were already going about their little affairs like ants; and sleepy shop-assistants had begun opening the shutters, a terrible and ominous sound boomed out over the City. No one had ever heard a noise of quite that pitch before – it was unlike either gunfire or thunder – but so powerful that many windows flew open of their own accord and every pane rattled. Then the sound was repeated, boomed its way around the Upper City, rolled down in waves towards Podol, the Lower City, crossed the beautiful deep-blue Dnieper and vanished in the direction of distant Moscow. It was followed instantly by shocked and bloodstained people running howling and screaming down from Pechyorsk, the Upper City. And the sound was heard a third time, this time so violently that windows began shattering in the houses of Pechyorsk and the ground shook underfoot. Many people saw women running in nothing but their underclothes and shrieking in terrible voices. The source of the sound was soon discovered. It had come from Bare Mountain outside the City right above the Dnieper, where vast quantities of ammunition and gunpowder were stored. There had been an explosion on Bare Mountain.

For five days afterwards they lived in terror, expecting poison gas to pour down from Bare Mountain. But the explosions ceased, no gas came, the bloodstained people disappeared and the City regained its peaceful aspect in all of its districts, with the exception of a small part of Pechyorsk where several houses had collapsed. Needless to say the German command set up an intensive investigation, and needless to say the City learned nothing of the cause of the explosions. Various rumors circulated.

‘It was done by French spies.’

‘No, the explosion was produced by Bolshevik spies.’

In the end people simply forgot about the explosions.

The second omen occurred in summer, when the City was swathed in rich, dusty green foliage, thunder cracked and rumbled and the German lieutenants consumed oceans of soda-water. The second omen was truly appalling.

One day on Nikolaevsky Street, in broad daylight, just beside the cab- stand, no less a person than the commander-in-chief of the German forces in the Ukraine, that proud and inviolable military pro-consul of Kaiser Wilhelm, Field Marshal Eichhorn was shot dead! His assassin was, of course, a workman and, of course, a socialist. Twenty-four hours after the death of the Field Marshal the Germans had hanged not only the assassin but even the cab driver who had driven him to the scene of the incident. This did nothing, it is true, towards resurrecting the late distinguished Field Marshal, but it did cause a number of intelligent people to have some startling thoughts about the event.

That evening, for instance, gasping by an open window and unbuttoning his tussore shirt, Vasilisa had sat over a cup of lemon tea and said to Alexei Turbin in a mysterious whisper:

‘When I think about all these things that have been happening I can’t help coming to the conclusion that our lives are extremely insecure. It seems to me that the ground (Vasilisa waved his stubby little fingers in the air) is shifting under the Germans’ feet.

Just think… Eichhorn… and where it happened. See what I mean.’ (Vasilisa’s eyes looked frightened.)

Alexei listened, gave a grim twitch of his cheek and went.

Yet another omen appeared the very next morning and burst upon Vasilisa himself. Early, very early, when the sun was sending one of its cheerful beams down into the dreary basement doorway that led from the backyard into Vasilisa’s apartment, he looked out and saw the omen standing in the sunlight. She was incomparable in the glow of her thirty years, the glittering necklace on her queenly neck, her shapely bare legs, her generous, resilient bosom. Her teeth flashed, and her eyelashes cast a faint, lilac-colored shadow on her cheeks.

‘Fifty kopecks today’, said the omen in a lilac-colored voice, pointing to her pail of milk.

‘What?’ exclaimed Vasilisa plaintively. ‘For pity’s sake, Yav-dokha – forty the day before yesterday, forty-five yesterday and now today it’s fifty. You can’t go on like this.’

‘It’s not my fault. Milk’s dear everywhere’, replied the lilac voice. ‘They tell me in the market it’s fetching a rouble in some places.’

Again her teeth flashed. For a moment Vasilisa forgot about the price of milk, forgot about everything and a deliciously wicked shiver ran through his stomach – the same cold shiver that Vasilisa felt whenever this gorgeous sunlit vision appeared before him in the morning. (Vasilisa always got up earlier than his wife.) He forgot everything and for some reason he imagined a clearing in the forest, the scent of pinewoods. Ah, well…

‘See here, Yavdokha’, said Vasilisa, licking his lips and looking quickly round in case his wife was coming. ‘You’ve blossomed since this revolution. Look out, or the Germans will teach you a lesson or two.’ ‘Dare I kiss her or daren’t I?’ Vasilisa wondered agonisingly, unable to make up his mind.

A broad alabaster ribbon of milk spurted foaming into the jug.

‘If they try and teach us a lesson we’ll soon teach them it doesn’t pay’, the omen suddenly replied, flashing, glittering, rattling her pail; swung her yoke and herself, even brighter than

the sunlight, started to climb up the steps from the basement into the sunlit yard. ‘Ah, what legs’, groaned Vasilisa to himself.

At that moment came his wife’s voice and Vasilisa, turning round, bumped into her.

‘Who were you talking to?’ she asked, giving a quick, suspicious glance upward.

‘Yavdokha’, Vasilisa answered casually. ‘Can you believe it -milk’s up to fifty kopecks today.’

‘What?’ exclaimed Wanda. ‘That’s outrageous! What cheek! Those farmers are impossible… Yavdokha! Yavdokha!’ she shouted, leaning out of the window. ‘Yavdokha!’

But the vision had gone and did not come back.

Vasilisa glanced at his wife’s angular figure, her yellow hair, bony elbows and desiccated legs and suddenly felt so nauseated by everything to do with his life that he almost spat on the hem of Wanda’s skirt. Sighing, he restrained himself, and wandered back into the semi-darkness of the apartment, unable to say exactly what was depressing him. Was it because he had suddenly realised how ugly Wanda looked, with her two yellow collar bones protruding like the shafts of a cart? Or was it something vaguely disturbing that the delicious vision had said?

‘What was it she said? “We’ll teach ’em it doesn’t pay”?’ Vasilisa muttered to himself. ‘Hell – these market women! How d’you like that? Once they stop being afraid of the Germans… it’s the beginning of the end. “… teach ’em it doesn’t pay” indeed! But what teeth – bliss…’

Suddenly he seemed to see Yavdokha standing in front of him stark naked, like a witch on a hilltop.

‘What cheek… “we’ll teach ’em”… But those breasts of hers… my God…’

The thought was so disturbing that Vasilisa felt sick and dizzy and had to go and wash his face in cold water.

Imperceptibly as ever, the fall was creeping on. After a ripe, golden August came a bright, dust-laden September and in September there came not another omen but a happening that at first sight was completely insignificant.

It was one bright September evening that a piece of paper, signed by the appropriate official of the Hetman’s government, arrived at the City’s prison. It was an order to release the prisoner being held in cell No. 666. That was all.

That was all?!Without any doubt that piece of paper was the cause of the untold strife and disaster, all the fighting, bloodshed, lire and persecution, the despair and the horror that were to come…

The name of the prisoner was quite ordinary and unremarkable: Semyon Vasilievich Petlyura. Both he and the City’s newspapers of the period from December 1918 to February 1919 used the rather frenchified form of his first name – Simon. Simon’s past was wrapped in deepest obscurity. Some said he had been a clerk.

‘No, he was an accountant.’ ‘No, a student.’

On the corner of the Kreshchatik and Nikolaevsky Street there used to be a large and magnificent tobacco store. Its oblong shop-sign was beautifully adorned with a picture of a coffee-colored Turk in a fez, smoking a hookah and shod in soft yellow slippers with turned-up toes. There were people who swore on their oath that not long ago they had seen Simon in that same store, standing elegantly dressed behind the counter and selling the cigarettes and tobacco made in Solomon Cohen’s factory. But then there were others who said:

‘Nothing of the sort. He was secretary of the Union of Municipalities.’ ‘No, not the Union of Municipalities, the Zemstvo Union,’ countered yet

a third opinion; ‘a typical Zemstvo official.’

A fourth group (refugees) would close their eyes as an aid to memory and mutter:

‘Now just a minute … let me think…’ Then they would describe how, apparently, ten years ago – no, sorry, eleven years ago – they had seen him one evening in Moscow walking along Malaya Bronnaya Street carrying under his arm a guitar wrapped in a black cloth. And they would add that he had been going to a party given by some friends from his home town, hence the guitar. He had been going, it seems, to a delightful party where there were lots of gay, pretty girl students from his native Ukraine, bottles of delicious Ukrainian plum-brandy, songs, a Ukrainian band… Then these people would grow confused as they described his appearance and would muddle their dates and places… ‘He was clean-shaven, you say?’

‘No, I think… yes, that’s right… he had a little beard.’ ‘Was he at Moscow University?’ ‘Well no, but he was a student somewhere…’ ‘Nothing of the sort. Ivan Ivanovich knew him. He was a schoolteacher in Tarashcha.’

Hell, maybe it wasn’t him walking down Malaya Bronnaya, it had been so dark and misty and frosty on the street that day… Who knows? … A guitar … a Turk in the sunlight … a hookah… chords on a guitar, it was all so vague and obscure. God, the confusion, the uncertainty of those days… the marching feet of the boys of the Guards’ Cadet School marching past, lurking figures shadowy as bloodstains, vague apparitions on the run, girls with wild, flying hair, gunfire, and frost and the light of St Vladimir’s cross at midnight.

Marching and singing Cadets of the Guards Trumpets and drums Cymbals ringing…

Cymbals ringing, bullets whistling like deadly steel nightingales, soldiers beating people to death with ramrods, black-cloaked Ukrainian cavalry-men are coming on their fiery horses.

The apocalyptic dream charges with a clatter up to Alexei Turbin’s bedside, as he sleeps, pale, a sweaty lock of black hair plastered damply to his forehead, the pink-shaded lamp still burning. The whole house was asleep, – Karas’ snores coming from the library, Shervinsky’s sibilant breathing from Nikolka’s room… Darkness, muzzy heads … A copy of Dostoevsky lay open and unread on the floor by Alexei’s bed, the desperate characters of The Possessed prophesying doom while Elena slept peacefully.

‘Now listen: there’s no such person. This fellow Simon Petlyura never existed. There was no Turk, there was no guitar under a wrought-iron lamp- post on the Malaya Bronnaya, he was never in the Zemstvo Union… it’s all nonsense.’ Simply a myth that grew up in the Ukraine among the confusion and fog of that terrible year 1918.

… But there was something else too – rabid hatred. There were four hundred thousand Germans and all around them four times forty times four hundred thousand peasants whose hearts blazed with unquenchable malice. For this they had good cause. The blows on the face from the swagger-canes of young German subalterns, the hail of random shrapnel fire aimed at recalcitrant villages, backs scarred by the ramrods wielded by Hetmanite cossacks, the IOU’s on scraps of paper signed by majors and lieutenants of the German army and which read:

‘Pay this Russian sow twenty-five marks for her pig.’ And the derisive laughter at the people who brought these chits to the German headquarters in the City. And the requisitioned horses, the confiscated grain, the fat-faced landlords who came back to reclaim their estates under the Hetman’s government; the spasm of hatred at the very sound of the words ‘Russian officers’.

That is how it was.

Then there were the rumors of land reform which the Lord Hetman was supposed to carry out… and alas, it was only in November 1918, when the roar of gunfire was first heard around the City, that the more intelligent people, including Vasilisa, finally realised that the peasants hated that same Lord Hetman as though he were a mad dog; and that in the peasants’ minds the Hetman’s so-called ‘reform’ was a swindle on behalf of the landlords and that what was needed once and for all was the true reform for which the peasants themselves had longed for centuries:

All land to the peasants. Three hundred acres per man. No more landlords.

A proper title-deed to those three hundred acres, on official paper with the stamp of authority, granting them perpetual ownership that would pass by inheritance from grandfather to father to son and so on. No sharks from the City to come and demand grain. The grain’s ours. No one else can have it, and what we don’t eat ourselves we’ll bury in the ground. The City to supply us with kerosene oil.

No Hetman – or anyone else – could or would carry out reforms like those. There were some wistful rumors that the only people who could kick out both the Hetman and the Germans were the Bolsheviks, but the Bolsheviks themselves were not much better: nothing but a bunch of Yids and commissars. The wretched Ukrainian peasants were in despair; there was no salvation from any quarter.

But there were tens of thousands of men who had come back from the war, having been taught how to shoot by those same Russian officers they loathed so much. There were hundreds of thousands of rifles buried under- ground, hidden in hayricks and barns and not handed in, despite the summary justice dealt out by the German field courts-martial, despite flailing ramrods and shrapnel-fire; buried in that same soil were millions of cartridges, a three- inch gun hidden in every fifth village, machine-guns in every other village, shells stored in every little town, secret warehouses full of army greatcoats and fur caps.

And in those same little towns there were countless teachers, medical orderlies, smallholders, Ukrainian seminarists, whom fate had commissioned as ensigns in the Russian army, healthy sons of the soil with Ukrainian surnames who had become staff-captains -all of them talking Ukrainian, all longing for the Ukraine of their dreams free of Russian landlords and free of Muscovite officers; and thousands of Ukrainian ex-prisoners of war returned from Austrian Galicia.

All these plus tens of thousands of peasants could only mean trouble… And then – this prisoner… the man with the guitar, the man from Cohen’s tobacco store, Simon, the one time Zemstvo official? All nonsense, of course. There was no such man. Rubbish, mere legend, a pure mirage. But when the wise Vasilisa, clasping his head in horror, had exclaimed on that fateful November day ‘Quem deus vult perdere, prius dementat!’ and cursed the Hetman for releasing Petlyura from the filthy City prison, it was already too late.

‘Nonsense, impossible,’ they said. ‘It can’t be Petlyura – it’s another man.

No, it’s someone else.’

But the time for omens was past and omens gave way to events. The second crucial event was nothing so trivial as the release of some mythical figure from prison. It was an event so great that all mankind will remember it for centuries to come. Far away in western Europe the Gallic rooster in his baggy red pantaloons had at last seized the steel-gray Germans in a deathly grip. It was a terrible sight: these fighting-cocks in Phrygian caps, crowing with triumph, swarmed upon the armor-plated Teutons and clawed away their armor and lumps of flesh beneath it. The Germans fought desperately, thrust their broad-bladed bayonets into the leathered breasts of their adversaries and clenched their teeth; but they could not hold out, and the Germans – the Germans! -begged for mercy.

The next event was closely connected with this and was directly caused by it. Stunned and amazed, the whole world learned that the man whose curled moustache-ends pointing upwards like two six-inch nails and were as famous as his name, and who was undoubtedly made of solid metal without a trace of wood, had been deposed. Cast down, he ceased to be Emperor. Everyone in the City felt a shiver of horror: they watched with their own eyes as the color drained from every German officer, as the expensive material of their blue-gray uniforms was metamorphosed into drab sackcloth. All this happened in the City within the space of a few hours: every German face paled, the glint vanished from the officers’ monocles and nothing but blank poverty stared out from behind those broad glass discs.

It was then that the reality of the situation began to penetrate the brains of the more intelligent of the men who, with their solid rawhide suitcases and their rich women-folk, had leaped over the barbed wire surrounding the Bolshevik camp and taken refuge in the City. They realised that fate had linked them with the losing side and their hearts were filled with terror.

‘The Germans are beaten’, said the swine. ‘We are beaten’, said the intelligent swine.

And the people of the City realised this too. Only someone who has been defeated knows the real meaning of that word. It is like a party in a house where the electric light has failed; it is like a room in which green mould, alive and malignant, is crawling over the wallpaper; it is like the wasted bodies of rachitic children, it is like rancid cooking oil, like the sound of women’s voices shouting obscene abuse in the dark. It is, in short, like death.

Of course the Germans will leave the Ukraine. As a result some people will have to run away, others to stay and face the City’s next wave of new, unpredictable and uninvited guests. And some, no doubt, will have to die. The ones who run away will not die; who, then will die?…

As the fall turned to winter death soon came to the Ukraine with the first dry, driven snow. The rattle of machine-gun fire began to be heard in the woods. Death itself remained unseen, but its unmistakable herald was a wave of crude, elemental peasant fury which ran amok through the cold and the snow, a fury in torn bast shoes, straws in its matted hair; a fury which howled. It held in its hands a huge club, without which no great change in Russia, it seems, can ever take place. Here and there ‘the red rooster crowed’ as farms and hayricks burned, in other places the purple sunset would reveal a Jewish innkeeper strung up by his sexual organs. There were strange sights, too, in Poland’s fair capital of Warsaw: high on his plinth Henryk Sienkiewicz smiled with grim satisfaction. Then it was as if all the devils in hell were let loose. Priests shook the green cupolas of their little churches with bell-ringing, whilst next door in the schoolhouses, their windows shattered by rifle bullets, the people sang revolutionary songs.

It was a time and a place of suffocating uncertainty. So – to hell

with it! It was all a myth. Petlyura was a myth. He didn’t exist. It was a myth as remarkable as an older myth of the non-existent Napoleon Bonaparte, but a great deal less colorful. But something had to be done. That outburst of elemental peasant wrath had somehow to be channelled into a certain direction, because no magic wand could conjure it away.

It was very simple. There would be trouble; but the men to deal with it would be found. And there appeared a certain Colonel Toropetz. It turned out that he had sprung from no less than the Austrian army…

‘You can’t mean it?’

‘I assure you he has.’

Then there emerged a writer called Vinnichenko, famous for two things

– his novels and the fact that as far back as the beginning of 1918 fate had thrown him up to the surface of the troubled sea that was the Ukraine, and that without a second’s delay the satirical journals of St Petersburg had branded him a traitor.

‘And serves him right…’

‘Well, I’m not so sure. And then there’s that mysterious man who was released from prison.’

Even in September no one in the City could imagine what these three men might be up to, whose only apparent talent was the ability to turn up at the right moment in such an insignificant place as Belaya Tserkov. By October people were speculating furiously about them, when those brilliantly- lit trains full of German officers pulled out of the City into the gaping void that was the new-born state of Poland, and headed for Germany. Telegrams flew. Away went the diamonds, the shifty eyes, the slicked-down hair and the money. They fled southwards, southwards to the seaport city of Odessa. By November, alas, everyone knew with fair certainty what was afoot. The word ‘Petlyura’ echoed from every wall, from the gray paper of telegraph forms. In the mornings it dripped from the pages of newspapers into the coffee, immediately turning that nectar of the tropics into disgusting brown swill. It flew from tongue to tongue, and was tapped out by telegraphists’ fingers on morse keys. Extraordinary things began happening in the City thanks to that name, which the Germans mispronounced as ‘Peturra’.

Individual German soldiers, who had acquired the bad habit of lurching drunkenly around in the suburbs, began disappearing in the night. They would vanish one night and the next day they would be found murdered. So German patrols in their tin hats were sent around the City at night, marching with lanterns to put an end to the outrages. But no amount of lanterns could dissolve the murky thoughts brewing in people’s heads.

Wilhelm. Three Germans murdered yesterday. Oh God, the Germans are leaving – have you heard? The workers have arrested Trotsky in Moscow!! Some sons of bitches held up a train near Borodyanka and stripped it clean. Petlyura has sent an embassy to Paris. Wilhelm again. Black Senegalese in Odessa. A mysterious, unknown name – Consul Enno. Odessa. General Denikin. Wilhelm again. The Germans are leaving, the French are coming.

‘The Bolsheviks are coming, brother!’

‘Don’t say such things!’

The Germans have a special device with a revolving pointer -they put it on the ground and the pointer swings round to show where there are arms buried in the ground. That’s a joke. Petlyura has sent a mission to the Bolsheviks. That’s an even better joke. Petlyura. Petlyura. Petlyura. Peturra…

There was not a single person who really knew what this man Peturra wanted to do in the Ukraine though everyone knew for sure that he was mysterious and faceless (even though the newspapers had frequently printed any number of pictures of Catholic prelates, every one different, captioned ‘Simon Petlyura’) and that he wanted to seize the Ukraine. To do that he would advance and capture the City.

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