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It is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings live in the house of their recently deceased mother in the city. They are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, the Hetman Skoropadsky, and the Ukranian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement, under their leader Petlyura. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.

"Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds' star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red."

I found the beginning of this book rather difficult because I had no idea who all the various factions and real-life characters were, nor what they were attempting to achieve. But I soon realised that in this I differed less from the fictional characters than I first thought. This is a book about confusion and betrayal, shifting allegiances, chaos and fear. Bulgakov takes a panoramic approach, following one character and then panning off to another. This gives it an episodic feel and adds to the sense of events moving too quickly for the people involved ever to fully grasp. The Turbins actually aren't in it a lot of the time, but they provide a thread for us to catch at in the maze, and a human side to the story for us to care about.

One of the early episodes tells the story of the soldier Victor, a friend of the Turbins, who with 39 companions is ordered to defend the city from the approaching forces of Petlyura. Ill-equipped and insufficiently clothed for the extreme cold, two of the men die of frostbite and the rest are lucky to survive. They achieve nothing. While reading this, I was simultaneously reading the beginning of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, where he talks of the mass mobilisation of workers and peasants into the Russian army to fight against Germany in WW1. His description of the ill-trained, poorly-equipped troops dying needlessly in vast numbers is chillingly similar and I found that each book lent verisimilitude to the other.

Although the Turbins are on the side of the Tsar, the book itself doesn't seem to take a political stance. If anything, it paints an equally despicable picture of all the various faction leaders, as cowards hiding behind the men they send carelessly to their deaths. As senior officers on all sides run into hiding, middle-ranking officers are left to decide whether to make a stand or disband their troops, many of them no more than young boys in cadet corps. It gives an only too credible feeling for the chaos in the city, for people not knowing what's happening, and for each new rumour spreading like wildfire. Amidst all this, we see odd glimpses of life continuing – boys out playing in the snow, workers making their way to their jobs, people shopping. Through the Turbin brothers, Nikolka and Alexei, we see the battle each man must individually face between fear and heroism, while Elena, their sister, must wait at home, praying for their safety.

In the gaps between scenes of extreme brutality, Bulgakov lets us glimpse his love for the city. He describes the streets his characters pass through, the alleyways they use to escape, the ancient cathedral, the huge statue of Saint Vladimir on the hill above the city. But we are never allowed to forget the approaching threat...

"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."

As the chaos worsens, so we see the atrocities that are never far from war – the criminals jumping on the lack of order to terrorise an already demoralised citizenry, the bodies left unidentified and unclaimed in the City's morgue, the wounded frightened to seek help for fear of capture. Not quite knowing who every faction was made it even more unsettling, though I wondered if Bulgakov's first readers would have known, and so might have read it differently.

A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution. And here we are, one hundred years later, with Moscow again invading the Ukraine – this troubled and divided territory still fighting what is essentially the same war...

"The snow would just melt, the green Ukranian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth... The gorgeous sunrises would come again... The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain. Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.

No one."
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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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on 8 August 2017
Could not stop reading until the end. A magnificent canvas of realist and surrealist stories linked by impeccable figures. Excellent translation. A Russian poetry in action.
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on 29 June 2017
Entertaining story about the Whites in the Ukraine
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Originally appearing in serial form unfortunately that particular magazine was closed down before the whole book was finished in appearing in it, with only about two thirds appearing, and thus for Russians really they only knew about this story due to the play that it spawned. Of course here we have the entire novel, from beginning to end.

And so we follow the fortunes of the Turbin family and others in a rather turbulent period, one which was to see the rise of the Bolsheviks. As Germany loses the First World War and withdraw from the Ukraine so the people are hearing of a revolution in Russia.

Thus the Turbin’s who are middle class, a part of the bourgeoisie find themselves in the centre of things, as they reside in Kiev. The city itself shines through all the time, showing Mikhail Bulgakov’s love for the place. With rumours flying around and genuine news in high demand the people have no way of really knowing of what is happening, as different armies fight it out. For some the hopes of a fully independent Ukraine run high, whereas others just want to remain under Russian rule.

Semi-autobiographical in places, and full of incident we see the corruption, anti-Semitism, problems and desires of all the major groups in winning the Ukraine and Kiev, as Bulgakov gives us something that really doesn’t take sides with any particular group. In all a rather hectic period of real history is brought to life in an easily understood story in this wonderful novel.
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on 30 March 2008
I am one of those people who believe that the greatest novels have already been written. I also believe that they were written by Russians. Following on from the towering edifices of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky et al in the nineteenth century Mikhail Bulgakov (along with Mikhail Sholokov) was a worthy successor. This, his first work (originally recast into a play), tells the story of how the tumult of WWI/Revolution/Civil War impacted upon the unfortunate citizens of Kiev (then within the Russian Empire) as the city dissolves into a morass of confusion, turmoil and fear. White Guard royalists, Bolsheviks, Ukrainian nationalists, Cossacks, the rump German army, Poles, and even Senegalese troops, fight it out with nobody having the least notion of what is happening or even why. Commands and counter-commands, retreats, advances, rumours, counter-rumours, flight, corpses, chaos...
Whereas Tolstoy had sought to unravel the meaning and causes of war and Andreyev to describe graphically the horror, Bulgakov depicts the imbecility, the sheer monumental stupidity of it all, and its messy aftermath. He does this with a rare sensitivity through the experiences of the young Turbin family, a family of Tsarist patriots who live in an apartment in central Kiev. Following the death of their mother, twenty-eight year old Alex, a doctor, is left as the eldest, with his married (and abandoned) sister Elena, teenage brother Nikolai and their maid Anyuta. As ever with Russian novels in this tradition, we see the world through the eyes of real, thinking, feeling people, an ordinary family, caught up in the turbulence and having to make life-changing decisions with minimal or no information on which to base those decisions, and deeply concerned about the consequences of their actions on both their family and their own notions of self-worth. Like War and Peace, this book is a deeply moving look at the way different individuals respond to life's challenges and emerge as greater or lesser people.
The true tragedy for the people of the Ukraine (from 1922 a republic of the Soviet Union) is that this period of upheaval was followed by far greater horrors: the purges, the famine, the gulag, the Great Patriotic War; human sacrifices and loss on a scale that no other European country save neighbouring Russia and Poland has ever comparably suffered. As for Bulgakov, well it was a few years yet before he was to produce his fantasy masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, but this is a genuine classic, too.
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on 4 February 2004
Other than War and Peace, I can think of no better evocation of the random horror of war; like Tolstoy, Bulgakov doesn't allow us to draw easy conclusions in this, his first novel. The disjointed tapestry of a narrative is by turns anecdotal, fantastical (Satan swinging in the belfry is a wonderful image) and epic-heroic - and then just when you've settled in a comfortable reading pattern (as far as this is ever possible with Bulgakov) some terrible act of violence will shock you. It's not quite the finished article (see M&M), but the mixture of experimentation and classical realism is an engaging blend, making for a great read.
I would heartily recommend this to any fan of modern fiction, and anyone who's wondering where to go after Master and Margarita.
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on 16 August 2011
I am no literati and cannot claim to be an avid reader of Russian novels but having stumbled upon Mistress and Margerita (which I confess I enjoyed although did not entirely understand it) I progressed onto The White Guard.

Other than Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 (non-fiction) I have never read anything that pulls you into the claustrophobia of a doomed city. Without descending into cliches, the tension is truly palpable. The complexity of the situation in The Ukraine with a three-way battle for control demonstrates again how reality can be more ingenious than the best fiction writer when it comes to plot lines.

Despite the apparent confidence in themselves exhibited by the Turbin family, you get a real sense that they are in denial or at the very least, in ignorance of the true state of affairs. You can taste the bitter sense of betrayal when it comes and you get utterly caught up in the chaos, pandemonium and sheer fear as a victorious army comes into contact with the defeated populace of a city about to fall.

The street by street account as the tide of the enemy encroaches deeper and deeper into the city is nail biting. But don't think this is all shooting and battles because oddly it is not. Whilst it is about a military family during a siege during a bitter civil war, the focus is on the people and how they perceive and feel about the great events washing around them.

I can only assume that this and the same publishers version of M&M are good translations: I don't know much about Bulgakov but he comes across in both books as having a dry wit and a beautiful turn of phrase that does not seem to have been lost in translation.

Don't fear Russian litrature; This is a good place to start.
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on 8 April 2004
`The White Guard' follows the story of a few days in the lives of a Ukranian family (the Turbins) living in Kiev during the final days of Russia's participation in WWI and with the revolution impending. The city is braced for the attack of the communists, led by the infamous and demonic figure of Petlyuria , putting its faith in the German army and Ukranian Hetman Skoropodsky for protection. As the townsfolk organise themselves into resistance movements, it soon becomes clear that Skoropodsky and the Germans have decided to abandon the people of Kiev to their fate. The Turbins, along with many others, rush to the defence of Kiev, only to find that their resistance has crumbled into an embarrassing mess as the war is lost before a shot is fired in anger. The book focuses on the actions of the people of Kiev, and the Turbins in particular, as they resign themselves to losing the war.

This book was less fantastic than `The Master and Marguerita', though some wonderful demonic imagery creeps in every now and then. Its strength lies in the contrast it draws between the glorious ideals of war and its rather banal reality. When Petlyuria's men take Kiev the people pour onto the streets in celebration, despite the fact that they despise him, and despite the fact that many of the celebrating people have no idea who has won. In the midst of this surreality, a brutal execution takes place, a reminder of the horrors going on around them. The resistance is presented as being a righteous cause, but right is ultimately not enough as might prevails. The final scenes, in which the Turbins abandon their dreams of fighting for a free Ukraine and begin to resign themselves to life under the Soviets are heartbreaking, both for their sense of failure and their sense of futility.

This is one of the best books about ordinary people at war that I have read (though not as good as Skvorecky's `The Cowards'). The contrast between what we think war is and what it is actually like is brilliantly realised, and by the end of the book I really felt the Turbins' despair. The events being told are firmly rooted in history, albeit a history I was largely ignorant of, which made it an interesting read anyway, but Bulgakov's superb writing and easy style meant that this book was a pleasure to read.
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on 31 March 2017
Interesting writer, I generally like him.
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