Saturday, December 31, 2016

Petlura at the Gates

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.
But in days of blood as in days of peace the years fly like an arrow and the thick frost of a hoary white December, season of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, joy and glittering snow, overtook the young Turbins unawares. . . .
Those are the opening lines of Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard in the translation of Michael Glenny.  It was December 1918, and Petlura stood at the gates of Kyiv.  

Kyiv in 1918-19.  I don't recall how many times the city changed hands, but it was at least a dozen times or more.  For many of the educated Russian elite who escaped there from Moscow and Petrograd, Kyiv seemed to offer an oasis, the hope of a non-Bolshevik future.  First there was the German occupation under Hetman Skoropadsky that, had Germany prevailed in World War I, might have continued for years if not decades.  Then there was Petlura.  Then the Bolsheviks.  Then the White Army under General Denikin in its drive na Moskvu to restore a Great Russia.  Then the Bolsheviks again, with many of the educated elite fleeing together with the Whites for Crimea and a final, doomed stand against the Bolsheviks.

13 Alekseevsky spusk, Kyiv
With the world churning around them, the Turbin family huddled together in their home on Alekseevsky Spusk No. 13 in Kyiv.  It was a holiday season saddened by the loss of their mother and by the uncertainties of what 1919 would bring.  As best they could, they laughed, sang, and made light of their fears, writing graffiti on their tiled Dutch stove to poke fun at the competing political movements and revolutions that would destroy them.

Bulgakov Museum, Kyiv; the Dutch Stove
I've been thinking of the Turbins at the end of this year.  In 1918 Symon Petlura, a Ukrainian nationalist, perhaps even a populist, stood at the gates of Kyiv, leader of the first of a series of political and military movements that would destroy the way of life that the Turbins and others in the educated elite had taken for granted.  As 2017 dawns, many of us fear what the new Trumpist revolution will bring and what it will mean for the liberal democracy that we thought would last forever.  Like the Turbins, we have found comfort in family and friends this Christmas-New Year week.  For one week we can push away the reality that is standing at our gates.

Symon Petlura
2017 also marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Great October Soviet Socialist Revolution.  One could say that it was the November Surprise of Russian political life that year.  (Since Russia was still using the Julian calendar, the October Revolution actually took place in November.)  A ruinous war had demoralized the country, and both the army and the broad masses of workers and peasants were fertile ground for the Bolshevik rallying cry of Peace, Land, Bread!  Few had any presentiment that those same workers and, in particular, the peasants would have the most to lose in decades of Communism, Stalinism, collectivization of agriculture, and five year plans.  I wonder how Moscow will choose to note this 100th anniversary?  

Days of the Turbins, Stage Production
Another image from my university years comes to mind, that of U.Va. history professor Walter Sablinsky telling us that when the Russian Empire collapsed, it went down with its flags flying and trumpets sounding.  The Romanovs had just celebrated their tricentennial.  Their order and that of the European continent seemed permanent.  War in Europe was unthinkable, yet World War I and revolution were about to sweep it all away. 

So how will we look back 100 years from now?  Will the Trumpist ascendancy fizzle out and mainstream politics reassert themselves?  Or, like Russia in 2017, are we destined for an authoritarian future and just don't know the outlines yet?  Is the post-World War II order coming to an end?

All I can offer today for those of us who supported Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is the same comfort that the Turbins found at the end of 1918.  Like the Turbins, we can look for sardonic humor, posting it to our Facebook pages, the Dutch stoves of our times.  And may we, unlike the Turbins, look back a year from now and not find that events have forced us to wipe those stoves clean as censorship and self-censorship become the norm of a new age.  

So for the moment let's find comfort, joy, and solace in our family and friends.  It's still 2016.  Petlura is only at the gates of the city, not yet inside.  



1) Many who read The White Guard come to it after reading Bulgakov's more famous novel Master and Margarita, but I came to it in a different way.  While a history student at the University of Virginia in the 1970s, I read George Kennan's The Decision To Intervene about the U.S. decision to intervene in the Russian Civil War that followed the revolutions of 1917.  Kennan began his historical account by quoting these opening lines from The White Guard, which he referred to as an out-of-print novel by a nearly forgotten author.  Ironically, Stalin liked The Days of the Turbins, the stage production of The White Guard at the Moscow Art Theater in the 1920s.  Nevertheless, Stalin slammed the doors shut on Bulgakov's literary career.  When Bulgakov wrote Master and Margarita in the 1930s, he wrote it for the desk, knowing it would not be published in his lifetime.  When Kennan wrote The Decision To Intervene in the 1950s, Bulgakov was indeed nearly unknown outside the Soviet Union.  Only when Master and Margarita was published posthumously in the 1960s did Bulgakov become recognized as one of the Russian literary greats of the twentieth century.

2) A very Soviet, 1976 film version of Days of the Turbins can be found on YouTube in two parts:  Part 1 and Part 2 .

3) A serialized film version of The White Guard premiered on Russian television in 2012.  Brilliantly filmed and acted, this 2012 version contains a subtext, comparing the situation in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union with that in 1918.

No comments:

Post a Comment