The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (1926)

Finish The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel (1925). A Vintage paperback but a bit of a swizz, just a recovered edition of Michael Glenny’s 1967 translation without any introduction or the detailed notes which it’s crying out for.

The novel covers just a few days at the end of 1918 in the lives of the Turbin family and friends in Kiev as the occupying Germans abruptly leave the city (one of the terms of the November Armistice) along with the civilian nationalist government, leaving the citizens exposed to the advance of the Bolsheviks under Simon Petliura.

The generally conservative citizens who had acquiesced in the German occupation and the right-wing nationalist government suddenly find themselves being rounded up in the streets, shot on sight, hunted through back alleys. Betrayal, fear, panic, weeping women, murder, robbery, shootings and beheadings follow, but also Bulgakov’s trademark grotesque and fantasy. I find Bulgakov’s sense of the absurd and comic far more attractive than Pasternak’s high-minded and rather dim spirituality. Not many jokes in Dr Zhivago. God doesn’t do funny. But Bulgakov’s Devil is full of wicked, black humour.

The eldest son is in the White cadets, and the description of his puny squad of underarmed soldiers being routed by the overwhelming numbers of Red cavalry, and then his panic-stricken flight through the back streets and alleys of Kiev is one of the most thrilling things I’ve read. This is really a brilliant novel which everyone should read.

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