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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sub-Tolstoyan, 31 May 2010
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This review is from: The White Guard (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
This edition was translated by Michael Glenny, a seasoned and reliable translator of Russian novels and more. Mikhail Bulgakov's work came late to publication in English (from 1967) and is still not as well known as it should be. The Master And Margarita (Penguin Classics), begun in 1928 and completed sometime before his death in 1940, but not officially published until 1966, is his greatest work, but White Guard (1926) also merits attention as a novel, as a semi-autobiographical work, and as a document of the Civil War waged over Kiev, Ukraine and Russia following the October 1917 revolution.

Bulgakov asserted that Kiev changed hands 14 times during 1918-19 and that he personally witnessed 10 of those changes. This novel presents just a snapshot; the departure of the German Imperial Army and its puppet, the Hetman of Ukraine; their replacement by the opportunist peasant leader Petlyura; and his departure 47 days later as the Bolshevik Red Army advanced on the city. In the background are the Ukrainian nationalist movement that briefly held Ukraine as an independent sovereign state, and the White Guard, supporting Imperial Russia and reinstatement of the Tsar. Bulgakov's alter ego, Alexie Turbin, and his brother Nikolai are White Guard officers who, along with a number of friends also featured in the novel (and indeed much of the population of Kiev), are placed in danger of their lives as Petlyura takes over the city.

Bulgakov's view of war leans towards the Tolstoyan - the utter insignificance, historically, of Petlyura, and of the puppet Hetman before him, of whose pompous strutting and inability to speak Ukrainian Bulgakov makes comedy; the sheer waste of life, youth and energy sacrificed in fighting war. "Everything passes away, suffering, pain, blood, hunger, pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will still remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the earth. There is no man who does not know this. Why then will we not turn our eyes towards the stars? Why?" Bulgakov also seems to foresee tribulations yet to come for Ukraine; "Blood is cheap on those red fields, and no-one would redeem it. No-one."

But the novel is not all philosophical reflection; far from it. There is plenty of military action, written, as with Tolstoy, with the authority of personal experience and woven into the domestic and civic circumstances of the participants, plus a loving description of the Bulgakov family home as it can still be seen in Kiev. For those acquainted with Kiev, it is also possible to trace much of the action, street by street. Civil War brings battlefield and domestic hearth excruciatingly close. Although the centenary of the Russian Revolution fast approaches, Bulgakov's novel remains very much a document for our time.
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