Sweet James | Finding Bulgakov LRB February 17, 2022

I went out to buy a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard. He was originally from Kiev, although he later moved to Moscow. He based the book on his experiences of several armies – German, Ukrainian Nationalist, Bolshevik, Polish – attacking Kiev at the end of World War I. It’s a portrait of a Russian bourgeois family, loyal to the Tsar and to each other, shattered by selfish opportunists and ruthless geopolitical forces so distant and untouchable that they seem divine. That much of the book was captured by the play Bulgakov wrote based on it, The days of the turbines, a favorite of Stalin – perhaps because Stalin liked to think of himself as a divine force, apart from good and evil, for whom crushing beautiful bourgeois families was as natural as breathing. But what the play loses is Kyiv, the way Bulgakov’s prose sanctifies the city itself, incorporating fictional joys, horrors and disgraces, love, blood and guns, into its streets. and its actual quarters. The layer of myth that Bulgakov places on the map of Kiev, its strange mixture of adoration and bitterness, and its mood of good people oppressed by mortal danger, was one of the main reasons I became interested in Kiev in the 1990s. The book is not so easy to find here now, even if the atmosphere it evokes is present again.

I’m sure you can get your hands on a copy quite easily in Kyiv if you know where to look; the Russian original is available for free online. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the magnitude of my efforts – two bookstores and the Bulgakov Museum. But none of them had it. Leaving the first store, a place that sells coffee as well as books, I thought about my naive way of reading The White Guard, in English, when I got there: how I had missed or ignored Russian patriot Bulgakov’s ambivalence, bordering on chauvinism, towards Ukrainians as a people; how I hadn’t given enough thought to the significance of the author’s obvious sympathies for the imperial tsarist system and his dislike for the Bolsheviks. The book is wonderful and lucid about identity, but the world it describes, from Russian imperial cities floating in a deep and mysterious sea of ​​Ukrainian peasant villages, was radically changed in the 20th century, and the process of urban Ukrainianization accelerated. since independence. I can understand that modern Ukrainians, whatever language they prefer, feel uncomfortable with the patriarchal and colonial currents of The White Guard.

The first store did not have The White Guard in Russian, but why should it? Do Norwegian bookstores only carry Danish books in Danish? There was no Ukrainian version either, but the shelf space was tight. It wasn’t like there was a law against it, and the authorities can hardly be said to have taken against the Russian classics: the main thoroughfare the bookstore is on is called Pushkinska.

I took the metro to Podil, near the river, to look for another bookstore. The central Kiev metro is deep. Older escalators take a while to descend to platform level. I want to say that the great depth of the underground is reassuring, with respect to aerial attacks, but this possibility still seems fanciful. “How,” my obviously flawed subconscious logic seems to go, “could Russia fire missiles at a city with so many cool cafes?” Since I’m talking about my subconscious, I’m trying to figure out why the neglected state of the subway – the old trains, the dingy advertising, the dark, dirty subways leading to station entrances that haven’t changed much in the years 1990 – makes me so uncomfortable. The explanation, I think, lies in how Vladimir Putin’s speech on Ukraine reminds me of an angry ex. If anyone knows of a scene in literature where a woman panics about the state of her living room before her abusive ex-husband visits, please let me know.

They did not have The White Guard neither at the Podil bookstore. It was not in Ukrainian in the “foreign literature” section, which contained, among others, translations by Jeffrey Archer and Geoffrey Chaucer. It was also not in Russian among the “literature in foreign languages”. It seemed to me that they didn’t have Bulgakov, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, but I was wrong. Anastasia, the manager, told me that they sometimes The White Guard in Ukrainian. It was out of stock. She found me a Ukrainian translation of one of the books Bulgakov wrote in Moscow, heart of a dogan anti-Bolshevik satire about a doctor who implants the organs of a drunken, rowdy criminal into the body of a dog.

At first, I took Anastasia, who is 23, for the kind of person I imagined living in the new Ukraine, but had never met – someone who broke the old assumption that anyone speaks Ukrainian in Ukraine will also be able to speak Russian fluently. She seemed to be able to speak Ukrainian and English, and not know Russian at all. Gradually it became clear that in fact she spoke Russian, but had consciously decided not to. Born and raised in Odessa to parents who spoke, as she puts it, “surzhik” – a mix of Ukrainian and Russian – she went to a Ukrainian-language school, but also spoke Russian. Five years ago, exasperated by the Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine and Russian propaganda, she decided she was going to try to erase Russian from her mind. She wouldn’t speak it. If someone spoke to her in Russia, she would only answer in Ukrainian. She would try to think only in Ukrainian. If she read Dostoyevsky, it would be in Ukrainian. The only exception she would admit was for Marina Tsvetaeva.

I walked from Podil to the steep cobbled street where the Bulgakov family lived. It started to rain heavily. The magic of Bulgakov’s name and the beauty of the street, with its wide curve and toy-shaped church at the top, attracted money; the picturesque is threatened by developers. Bulgakov’s house has become a museum, although sanctuary might be a better word. This is more veneration than interpretation. Inside, furniture that never belonged to the family has been painted white, and almost everything is white. The museum staff owned most of Bulgakov’s books, but not The White Guard. They didn’t want to talk about its relevance to modern Ukraine. They stuck to the script of the tour.

There was another visitor on the tour, a young woman, also from Odessa. She had read The Master and Margarita three times, and found new things each time, but had never read The White Guard. I asked her what she thought of Anastasia’s drastic decision. “I respect him,” she said. “I haven’t gotten to that point myself yet.”

About Norma Wade

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