“The White Guard”, Chapter VIII – Weekly Reads
At daybreak, Colonel Kozyr-Leshko, commander of a regiment of Petlyura’s cavalry, awakens in the village of Pelyukha, and receives the order to advance. Not partial to milk or tea, he opts for vodka for breakfast – as do many of the troops. But will this habit help in battle?
Find out in Chapter VIII below. Enjoy the read!
Mist. Mist, and needle-sharp frost, claw-like frost flowers. Snow, dark and moonless, then faintly paling with the approach of dawn. In the distance beyond the City, blue onion-domes sprinkled with stars of gold leaf; and on its sheer eminence above the City the cross of St Vladimir, only extinguished when the dawn crept in across the Moscow bank of the Dnieper.
When morning came the lighted cross went out, as the stars went out. But the day did not warm up; instead it showed signs of being damp, with an impenetrable veil suspended low over the whole land of the Ukraine.
Ten miles from the City Colonel Kozyr-Leshko awoke exactly at daybreak as a thin, sour, vaporous light crept through the dim little window of a peasant shack in the village of Popelyukha. Kozyr’s awakening coincided with the word: ‘Advance.’
At first he thought that he was seeing the word in a very vivid dream and even tried to brush it away with his hand as something chill and threatening. But the word swelled up and crept into the shack along with a crumpled envelope and the repulsive red pimples on the face of an orderly. Kozyr pulled a map out of a gridded mica map-case and spread it out under the window. He found the village of Borkhuny, then Bely Hai, and from these used his fingernail to trace the route along the maze of roads, their edges dotted with woods like so many flies, leading to a huge black blob the City. Added to the powerful smell of Kozyr’s cheap tobacco, the shack reeked of homegrown shag from the owner of the red pimples, who assumed that the war would not be lost if he smoked in the colonel’s presence. Faced with the immediate prospect of going into battle, Kozyr was thoroughly cheerful. He gave a huge yawn and jingled his complicated harness as he slung the straps over his shoulders. He had slept last night in his greatcoat without even taking off his spurs. A peasant woman sidled in with an earthenware pot of milk. Kozyr had never drunk milk before and did not wish to start now. Some children crept up. One of them, the smallest, with a completely bare bottom, crawled along the bench and reached out for Kozyr’s Mauser, but could not get his hands on it before Kozyr had put the pistol into his holster.
Before 1914 Kozyr had spent all his life as a village schoolmaster. Mobilised into a regiment of dragoons at the outbreak of war, in 1917 he had been commissioned. And now the dawn of
December 14th 1918, found Kozyr a colonel in Petlyura’s army and no one on earth (least of all Kozyr himself) could have said how it had happened.
It had come about because war was Kozyr’s true vocation and his years of teaching school had been nothing more than a protracted and serious mistake.
This, of course, is something that happens more often than not in life. A man may be engaged in some occupation for twenty whole years, such as studying Roman law, and then in the twenty-first year it suddenly transpires that Roman law is a complete waste of time, that he not only doesn’t understand it and dislikes it too, but that he is really a born gardener and has an unquenchable love of flowers. This is presumably the result of some imperfection in our social system, which seems to ensure that people frequently only find their proper metier towards the end of their lives. Kozyr had found his at the age of forty-five. Until then he had been a bad teacher, boring and cruel to his pupils.
‘Right, tell the boys to get out of those shacks and stand to their horses’, said Kozyr in Ukrainian and tightened the creaking belt around his stomach.
Smoke was beginning to curl up from the chimneys of Popel-yukha as Colonel Kozyr’s cavalry regiment, four hundred sabres strong, rode out of the village. An aroma of shag floated above the ranks, Kozyr’s fifteen-hand bay stallion prancing nervously ahead of them, whilst strung out for a quarter of a mile behind the regiment creaked the waggons of the baggage train. As soon as they had trotted clear of Popelyukha a two-color standard was unfurled at the head of the column of horsemen – one yellow strip and one blue strip of bunting tacked to a lance-shaft.
Kozyr could not abide tea and preferred to breakfast on a swig of vodka. He loved ‘Imperial’ vodka, which had been unobtainable for four years, but which had reappeared all over the Ukraine under the Hetman’s regime. Like a burst of flame the vodka poured out of Kozyr’s gray army canteen and through his veins. In the ranks, too, a liquid breakfast was the order of the day, drunk from canteens looted from the stores at Belaya Tserkov; as soon as the vodka began to take effect an accordion struck up at the head of the column and a falsetto voice started a refrain which was at once taken up by a bass chorus.
The trooper carrying the colors whistled and flicked his whip, lances and shaggy black braided fur caps bobbing in time to the song. The snow crunched under a thousand iron-shod hoofs. A drum gaily tapped out the cadence.
‘Fine! Cheerful does it, lads’, said Kozyr approvingly. And the whip cracked and whistled its melody over the snowbound Ukrainian fields.
As they passed through Bely Hai the mist was clearing, the roads were black with troops and the snow crunching under the weight of marching feet. At the crossroads in Bely Hai the cavalry column halted to let pass a fifteen- hundred-strong body of infantry. The men in the leading ranks all wore identical blue long-skirted tunics of good quality German cloth; they were thin-laced, wiry, active little men who carried their weapons like trained troops: Galicians. In the rear ranks came men dressed in long heel-length hospital robes, belted in with yellow rawhide straps. On their heads, bouncing atop their fur caps, were battered German army helmets and their hob-nailed boots pounded the snow beneath them.
The white roads leading to the City were beginning to blacken with advancing troops.
‘Hurrah!’ – the passing infantry shouted in salute to the yellow and blue ensign.
‘Hurrah!’ echoed the woods and fields of Bely Hai.
The cry was taken up by the guns to the rear and on the left of the marching column. Under cover of night the commander of the support troops, Colonel Toropets, had already moved two batteries into the forest around the City. The guns were positioned in a half-circle amid the sea of snow and had started a bombardment at dawn. The six-inch guns shook the snow-capped pine trees with waves of thundering explosions. A couple of rounds fell short in the large village of Pushcha-Voditsa, shattering all the windows of four snowbound houses. Several pine trees were reduced to splinters and the explosions threw up enormous fountains of snow.
Then all sound died in the village. The forest reverted to its dreamy silence and only the frightened squirrels were left scuttling, with a rustle of paws, between the trunks of centuries-old trees. After that the two batteries were withdrawn from Push-cha and switched to the right flank. They crossed boundless acres of arable land, through the wood-girt village of Urochishche, wheeled on to a narrow country road, drove on to a fork in the road and there they deployed in sight of the City. From early in the morning a high-bursting shrapnel bombardment began to fall on Podgorodnaya, Savskaya and on Kurenyovka, a suburb of the City itself. In the overcast, snow-laden sky the shrapnel bursts made a rattling noise, as though someone were playing a game of dice. The inhabitants of these villages had taken cover in their cellars since daybreak, and by the early morning half-light thin lines of cadets, frozen to the bone, could be seen conducting a skirmishing withdrawal towards the heart of the City. Before long, however, the artillery stopped and gave way to the cheerful rattle of machine-gun fire somewhere on the northern outskirts of the City. Then it too died down.
The train carrying the headquarters of Colonel Toropets, commander of the support troops, stood deep in the vast forest at the junction about five miles from the village of Svyatoshino, lifeless, snowbound and deafened by the crash and thunder of gunfire. All night the electric light had burned in the train’s six cars, all night the telephone had rung in the signal-box and the field-telephones squealed in Colonel Toropets’ grimy compartment. As the glimmer of a snowy morning began to light up the surroundings, the guns were already thundering ahead up the line leading from Svyatoshino to Post- Volynsk, the bird-like calls of field-telephones in their yellow wooden boxes were growing more urgent and Colonel Toropets, a thin, nervous man, said to his executive officer Khudyakovsky:
‘We’ve captured Svyatoshino. Find out please, whether we can move the train up to Svyatoshino.’
Toropets’ train moved slowly forward between the timber walls of the wintry forest and halted near the intersection of the railroad and a great highroad which thrust its way like an arrow to the very heart of the City. Here, in the dining-car, Colonel Toropets started to put into operation the plan which he had worked out for two sleepless nights in that same bug-ridden dining-car No. 4173.
The City rose up in the mist, surrounded on all sides by a ring of advancing troops. From the forests and farmland in the north, from the captured village of Svyatoshino in the west, from the ill-fated Post-Volynsk in the south-west, through the woods, the cemeteries, the open fields and the disused shooting-ranges ringed by the railroad line, the black lines of cavalry trotted and jingled inexorably forward along paths and tracks or simply cut across country, whilst the lumbering artillery creaked along behind and the ragged infantry of Petlyura’s army trudged through the snow to tighten the noose that they had been drawing around the City for the past month.
The field-telephones shrilled ceaselessly in the saloon car, its carpeted floor trodden and crumpled, until Franko and Garas, the two signalmen, began to go mad.
Toropets’ plan was a cunning one, as cunning as the tense, black- browed, clean-shaven colonel himself. He had intentionally sited his two batteries behind the forest, intentionally blown up the streetcar lines in the shabby little village of Pushcha-Voditsa. He had then purposely moved his machine-guns away from the farmlands, deploying them towards the left flank. For Toropets wanted to fool the defenders of the City into thinking that he, Toropets, intended to assault the City from his left (the northern) flank, from the suburb of Kurenyovka, in order to draw the City’s forces in that direction whilst the real attack on the City would be delivered frontally, straight along the Brest-Litovsk highway from Svyatoshino, timed to coincide with a simultaneous assault from the south, on his right flank, from the direction of the village of Demiyovka.
So, in accordance with Toropets’ plan, Petlyura’s regiments were moving across from the left to the right flank, and to the sound of cracking whips and accordion music, with a sergeant at the head of each troop marched the four squadrons of Kozyr-Leshko’s regiment of horse.
‘Hurrah!’ echoed the woods around Bely Hai, ‘Hurrah!’ Leaving Bely Hai, they crossed the railroad line by a wooden bridge and from there they caught their first glimpse of the City. It lay in the distance, still warm from sleep, wrapped in a vapor that was half mist, half smoke. Rising in his stirrups Kozyr stared through his Zeiss field-glasses at the innumerable roofs of many-storey houses and the domes of the ancient cathedral of Saint Sophia.
Fighting was already in progress on Kozyr’s right. From a mile or so away came the boom of gunfire and the stutter of machine-guns; waves of Petlyura’s infantry were advancing on Post-Volynsk as the noticeably thinner and more ragged lines of the motley White Guard infantry, shattered by the heavy enemy fire, were retreating from the village.
The City. A heavy, lowering sky. A street corner. A few suburban bungalows, a scattering of army greatcoats.
‘I’ve just heard – people are saying they’ve made an agreement with Petlyura to allow all Russian-manned units to keep their arms and to go and join Denikin on the Don ‘
‘Well? So what?’
A rumbling burst of gunfire. Then a machine-gun started to bark. A cadet’s voice, full of bewilderment and despair:
‘But then that means we must cease resistance, doesn’t it?’ Wearily, another cadet’s voice:
‘God alone knows ‘
Colonel Shchetkin had been missing from his headquarters since early morning, for the simple reason that the headquarters no longer existed. Shchetkin’s headquarters had already withdrawn to the vicinity of the railroad station on the night of the fourteenth and had spent the night in the Rose of Stamboul Hotel, right alongside the telegraph office. The field-telephone still squealed occasionally in Shchetkin’s room, but towards dawn it grew silent. At daybreak two of Colonel Shchetkin’s aides vanished without trace. An hour later, after searching furiously for something in his trunks and tearing certain papers into shreds, Shchetkin himself left the squalid little Rose of Stamboul, although no longer wearing his regulation greatcoat and shoulder straps. He was dressed in a civilian fur coat and trilby hat, which he had suddenly and mysteriously acquired.
Taking a cab a block away from the ‘Rose’, Shchetkin the civilian drove to Lipki, where he arrived at a small but cosy and well furnished apartment, rang the bell, kissed the buxom golden-haired woman who opened the door and retired with her to the secluded bedroom. The blonde woman’s eyes widened with terror as he whispered to her face:
‘It’s all over! God, I’m exhausted…’ With which Colonel Shchetkin sank down on to the bed and fell asleep after a cup of black coffee prepared by the loving hands of the lady with golden hair.
The cadets of the 1st Infantry Detachment knew nothing of this. This was a pity, for if they had known, it might have roused their imagination and instead of cowering under shrapnel fire at Post-Volynsk they might have set off for that comfortable apartment in Lipki, dragged out the sleepy Colonel Shchetkin and hanged him from the lamp-post right opposite the blonde creature’s apartment.
They would have done well to do so, but they did not because they knew nothing and understood nothing. Indeed, no one in the City understood anything and it would probably be a long time before they did.
A few rather subdued steel-helmeted Germans could still be seen around the City, and for all anyone knew the foxy Hetman with his carefully trimmed moustaches (that morning only very few people yet knew of the wounding of the mysterious Major von Schratt) was still there, as were his excellency Prince Belorukov and General Kartuzov, busy forming detachments for the defense of the Mother of Russian Cities (nobody yet knew that they had run away that morning). In fact the City was ominously deserted. The name ‘Petlyura’ still aroused fury in the City and that day’s issue of the News was full of jokes at Petlyura’s expense, made by corrupt refugee journalists from St Petersburg; uniformed cadets were still walking around the City, yet out in the suburbs people could already hear the whistling sound of Petlyura’s motley cavalry troops cracking their whips as his lancers crossed from the left to the right flank at an easy gallop. If the cavalry is only three miles out of town, people asked, what hope can there be for the Hetman? And it’s his blood they’re out for… Perhaps the Germans will back him up? But in that case why were the tin-hatted Germans grinning and doing nothing as they stood on Fastov station and watched trainload after trainload of Petlyura’s troops being brought up to the assault? Perhaps an agreement has been made with Petlyura to let his troops occupy the City peacefully? But if so, why the hell are the White officers’ guns still shooting at Petlyura?
The fact was that no one in the City knew what was happening on that fourteenth of December.
The field-telephones still rang in the headquarters, but less and less often…
‘What’s happening?…’ Rrring…
‘Send more ammunition to Colonel Stepanov…’ ‘Colonel Ivanov…’
‘We should pull out and join Denikin on the Don… things don’t seem to be working out here…’
‘To hell with those swine at headquarters…’ ‘… to the Don…’
By noon the telephones had almost stopped ringing altogether.
There would be occasional bursts of firing in the City’s outskirts, then they would die down…. But even at noon, despite the sound of gunfire, life in the City still kept up a semblance of normality. The shops were open and still doing business. Crowds of people were streaming along the sidewalks, doors slammed, and the streetcars still rumbled through the streets.
It was at midday that the sudden cheerful stutter of a machine-gun was heard coming from Pechorsk. The Pechorsk hills echoed to the staccato rattle and carried the sound to the center of the City. Hey, that was pretty near!… What’s going on? Passers-by stopped and began to sniff the air, and suddenly the crowds on the sidewalks thinned out.
What was that? Who is it?
Drrrrrrrrrrrrrat-tat-ta-ta. Drrrrrrrat-ta-ta. Ta. Ta. ‘Who is it?’
‘Who? Don’t you know? It’s Colonel Bolbotun.’
So much for the story that Bolbotun had turned his coat and deserted Petlyura.
Bored with trying to execute the complex manoeuvers devised by Colonel Toropets’ general-staff mind, Bolbotun had decided that events needed a little speeding up. His mounted troops were freezing as they waited beyond the cemetery due south of the City, a stone’s throw away from the majestic snowbound Dnieper. Bolbotun was frozen too. He suddenly raised his cane in the air and his regiment of horse began moving off in threes, swung on to the road and advanced towards the flat ground bordering the outskirts of the City. Here Bolbotun encountered no resistance. The noise of six of his machine-guns echoed around the garden suburb of Nizhnyaya Telichka. In a trice Bolbotun had cut across the line of the railroad and stopped a passenger train which had passed the switches across the railroad bridge, carrying a fresh load of Muscovites and Petersburgers with their elegant women and fluffy lap-dogs. The passengers were terrified, but Bolbotun had no time to waste on lap-dogs. The frightened crews of some empty freight trains were switched from the Freight Depot on to the Passenger Station, with much hooting of switching engines, while Bolbotun brought down an unexpected hail of bullets on the roofs of the houses in Svyatotroitzkaya Street. On and on went Bolbotun, on into the City, unhindered as far as the Military Academy, sending out mounted reconnaissance patrols down every side street as he went. He was only checked at the colonnaded building of the Nicholas I Military Academy, where he was met by a machine-gun and a ragged burst of rifle-fire from a handful of troops. A cossack, Butsenko, was killed in the leading troop of Bolbotun’s forward squadron, five others were wounded and two horses were hit in the legs. Bolbotun’s progress was checked. He had the impression that he was faced by forces of untold strength, whereas in reality the detachment which greeted the blue-capped colonel consisted of thirty cadets, four officers and one machine-gun.
The order was given and Bolbotun’s troopers deployed at the gallop, dismounted, took cover and began an exchange of shots with the cadets. Pechorsk filled with the sound of gunfire which echoed from wall to wall and the district around Millionnaya Street seethed with action like a boiling tea- kettle.
Bolbotun’s advance produced an immediate reaction in the center of the City, as steel shutters came crashing down on Elisa-vetinskaya, Vinogradnaya and Levashovskaya streets and all the gay shop-fronts turned sightless and blank. The sidewalks emptied at once and became eerily resonant. Janitors stealthily shut doors and gateways. The advance was also reflected in another way – the field-telephones in the defense headquarters fell silent one by one.
An outlying artillery troop calls up battery headquarters. What the hell’s going on, they’re not answering! An infantry detachment rings through to the garrison commander’s headquarters and manages to get something done, but then the voice at headquarters mutters something nonsensical.
‘Are your officers wearing badges of rank?’ ‘Well, so what?’
‘Send a detachment to Pechorsk immediately!’ ‘What’s happening?’
And the sound of one name crept all over town: Bolbotun, Bolbotun, Bolbotun….
How did people know that it was Bolbotun and not someone else? It was a mystery, but they knew. Perhaps they knew because from noon onward a number of men in overcoats with lambskin collars began mingling with the passers-by and the usual riff-raff of City idlers, and as they strolled about these men eavesdropped and watched. They stared after cadets, refugees and officers with long, insolent stares. And they whispered:
And they whispered it without the least regret. On the con-trary, their eyes showed that they were delighted, and the stuttering rattle of machine-gun fire round the hills of Pechorsk echoed their news.
Rumors flew like wildfire:
‘Bolbotun is the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich.’
‘No he isn’t: Bolbotun is the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.’ ‘Bolbotun is simply Bolbotun.’
‘There’ll be a pogrom against the Jews.’
‘No there won’t: The troops are wearing red ribbons in theircaps.’ ‘Better go home.’
‘Bolbotun’s against Petlyura.’
‘You’re wrong – he’s on the Bolsheviks’ side.’
‘Wrong again: he’s for the Tsar, only without the officers.’ ‘Is it true the Hetman ran away?’
‘Is it true… Is it true… Is it true… Is it true…?’
A reconnaissance troop of Bolbotun’s force, led by Sergeant Galanba, was trotting down the deserted Millionnaya Street.
Then, if you can believe it, a front door opened and out of it, straight towards the troop of five lancers, ran none other than Yakov Grigorievich Feldman, the well-known army contractor. Had he gone mad, running out into the streets at a time like this? He certainly looked crazy. His sealskin fur hat had slipped down on to the back of his neck, his overcoat was undone and he was staring wildly around him.
Yakov Grigorievich Feldman had reason to look crazy. As soon as the firing had begun at the Military Academy, there came a groan from his wife’s bedroom. Another groan, and then silence.
‘Oi, weh’, said Yakov Grigorievich as he heard the groan. He looked out of the window and decided that the situation looked very bad indeed. Nothing but empty streets and gunfire.
There came another groan, louder this time, which cut Yakov Grigorievich to the heart. His stooping old mother put her head round the bedroom door and shrieked:
‘Yasha! D’you hear? She’s started!’
All Yakov Grigorievich’s thoughts turned in one direction – to the little house on the corner of Millionnaya Street with its familiar, rusting sign with gold lettering: E. T. Shadnrskaya Registered Midwife
It was dangerous enough on Millionnaya Street, even though it was not a main thoroughfare, as they were firing along it from Pechorskaya Square towards the upper part of town.
If only he could just hop across… If only His hat on the back of his
head, terror in his eyes, Yakov Grigorievich started to creep along close to the wall.
‘Halt! Where d’you think you’re going?’
Sergeant Galanba turned around in the saddle. Feldman’s face turned purple, his eyes swivelling as he saw that the lancers wore the green cockades of Petlyura’s Ukrainian cavalry.
‘I’m a peaceful citizen, sir. My wife’s just going to have a baby. I have to fetch the midwife.’
‘The midwife, eh? Then why are you skulking along like that? Eh? You filthy little yid?’
‘Sir. I ‘
Like a snake the sergeant’s whip curled around his fur collar and his neck. Hellish pain. Feldman screamed. His colour changed from purple to white and he had a vision of his wife’s face.
Feldman pulled out his wallet, opened it, took out the first piece of paper that came to hand and then he shuddered as he suddenly remembered… Oh my God, what have I done? Why did he have to choose that piece of paper? But how could he be expected to remember, when he has just run out of doors, when his wife is in labor? Woe to Feldman! In a flash Sergeant Galanba snatched the document. Just a thin scrap of paper with a rubber stamp on it, but it it spelled death for Feldman:
The Bearer of this pass, Mr Y. G. Feldman, is hereby permitted freely to enter and leave the City on official business in connection with supplying the armored-car units of the City garrison. He is also permitted to move freely about the City after 12 o’clock midnight. Signed: Chief of Supply Services
Illarionov, Major-General Executive Officer Leshchinsky, 1st Lieutenant.
Feldman had supplied General Kartuzov with tallow and vaselinefor greasing the garrison’s weapons.
Oh God, work a miracle!
‘Sergeant, sir, that’s the wrong document… May I ‘
‘No, it’s the right one’, said Sergeant Galanba, grinning diabolically. ‘Don’t worry, we’re literate, we can read it for ourselves.’
Oh God, work a miracle. Eleven thousand roubles… Take it all. Only let me live! Let me! Shma-isroel!
There was no miracle. At least Feldman was lucky and died an easy death. Sergeant Galanba had no time to spare, so he simply swung his sabre and took off Feldman’s head at one blow.
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