1. Kyiv – 18-20 February 2015
Mikhail Bulgakov opens White Guard — his semi-autobiographical novel about the Turbin family and their experiences in Kiev during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) — with a brief description of the winter night sky: “…highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.” The first time I read it, perhaps 20 years ago, I groaned at the labored Prince of Peace vs. God of War metaphor. Written in the stars, no less. Ugh. Another Russian drama queen.
It happens less often nowadays, but it turns out that in the right circumstances I can still be an ass — Prince of Peace vs. God of War is about damn right. It was last year over these three days that 105 Ukrainians died when a political protest taking place about a half-mile from Bulgakov’s Kyiv home went medieval — that is, if you’re comfortable with broadening the received definition of ‘medieval’ to include turning fire-hoses on crowds in -10˚C temperatures, family-packs of Molotov cocktails, and sniper fire. This is the first time I’ve been in a hot war zone, and the only thing I’ve learned is that I’m too old for this shit.
Bulgakov volunteered for it, and then watched as the Chekhovian gentility his family enjoyed was crushed between strident Bolshevism and myopic Nationalism. For that, I can forgive him his bathetic imagery. I can also see (better late than never) how the picture works well as a fulcrum for this novel of war and its horrors, of loyalty and its limits. I can forgive him because history seems to be repeating itself here in Kyiv, and he called it in White Guard. Desperate for peace, yet no end of war.
He’s tricky about it. Tricky like Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, which, for about 200 pages, has you thinking you’re reading a standard detective thriller, and then suddenly you’re not, at all. That level of tricky. That species of tricky.
Bulgakov teases with some noirish Kyiv urbanscapes, irritates with some tedious description of military equipment, and charms with samovars and Orthodoxy and tea on the veranda. And all the while he’s sneaking up behind you with a two-by-four, because what he’s really been talking about this whole time is collapse. Outlining the inevitable failure of those who resist conscious engagement of the world; prophesying the certainty that men will make war, sometimes assembling randomly on the same ground twice in a century; and above all, offering a nuanced critique of the tendency to cloister ourselves when confronted with an unexpectedly complex world. The novel conveys his sense of loss, of befuddlement, while managing to issue a clear challenge to the smug imperturbability — and culpability — borne by privilege in times of cultural collapse. Where The Master and Margarita or Heart of a Dog subvert with satire, you see it coming, but with the guileless White Guard you don’t. Joseph Stalin, sentimental fool, and perhaps grasping the value of a writer who could express so beautifully the futility of resistance, let Bulgakov live.
Traveling to Kyiv? White Guard is an indispensible vade mecum for the lit-minded tourist moving through streets and yards once again soaked in blood, and hoping for a glimpse into the city’s ancient heart.
2. November 1, 2013
An old soviet joke. Guy goes to a fortune teller: “For ten years you won’t have enough to eat, your friends will betray you, and your life will be a web of lies,” she says.
“Ten years?” he groans. “Then what?”
“You get used to it.”
Post-Soviet life is badly lit but you get used to it. I’m in a second floor interior room of a publicly-funded medical facility near the center of Kyiv. There’s just enough light in here to reveal some hulking thing in the shadows that swallow the opposite wall. I’m not alone. A woman is issuing clipped instructions in a voice more smoke than sound, like something out of a Soviet film from the “let’s-all-slit-our-wrists-but-let’s-get-blind-drunk-first” school. The whisperer alternates as clinic radiologist and apparent doppelganger of Margarita Terekhova, the actress who illuminates Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo. She’s also probably too young to have seen the film.
Will this generation be the one? Or will they emerge from this as jaded as their elders? In his (1993) debut novel The Year of the Frog, Slovak writer Martin Šimečka depicts the airless existence of a young man in communist Czechoslovakia. A dissident father’s political essays have left his son, a long-distance runner, blacklisted from university. His prospects truncated, the boy endures soul-numbing humiliation as he searches for a response to his censure preferable to that of simple resignation. If dignity in identity exists, then the question is not whether to resist a tyrant, but how and for how long. What impresses most about the people who undergird Ukraine’s “Revolution in Dignity” is that they, like Šimečka’s protagonist, are in this for the long run.
She extends a tiny birdboned hand and I surrender my overcoat and belt. She hangs them on a hook that she can see but I cannot. Then my shirt, which she drapes across the back of a chair. It shimmers in the soft focus of the half-light. She takes me by the elbow and leads me toward the shadows. Shirtless and out of options except to follow. I’m breathing through a straw. We stop near the hulking thing — some kind of metal booth on a six-inch platform. She helps me step up and inside and tells me to cross my arms above my head. Her cool hand on my back, she urges me to lean forward onto a metal sheet, which I — freed of any thoughts of resistance — do. She’s off toward her booth, closing a door, punching a button. An analog of her voice pulses over an ancient speaker in an invitation to corruption — “breathe deep, hold, do not move” — followed by an electric hiss and a thud. The voice comes back on to tell me we are done here. I take comfort in “we,” somewhat less in “here.” She thumbs one switch in a bank of four and the room goes dark.
3. February 18, 2014
I live on Podil, a thousand-year-old Kyiv neighborhood squeezed between low hills and the right bank of the Dnieper River. In 1811, a fire rid the quarter of its wooden structures, and the place was rebuilt in brick and stone by Russian Empire architects with a thing for proscenium arches, fluted pilasters, and mascarons. It is robust and residential, a mix of significant Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, and flush with small business. The bug-eyed shock of Western European news reports on “Ukraine’s Fascist Problem” strike us as particularly unreflective — tendentious, and not at all helpful. The area is proving largely impervious to gentrification: no doubt the result of our fascist problem. It takes a brisk 20 minutes from my flat, uphill and down, to reach the fighting on Maidan.
It’s late, after 11, and I am walking in a silent drizzle down an otherwise deserted Pritisko-Mykilska Street, trying hard to recall the century. I stop in front of the Florivska Convent, named for Florus and Laurus – saints and stonemasons. The sisters ran a hospital here for the better part of three centuries, and busloads of health pilgrims from Moscow still arrive each week. In summer the rose gardens dazzle. Eyeballing the distances, from this spot a right fielder with a good arm could hit the abbey, swivel left to pick off St. Nicholas Church at one end of the street, and then back right to target Our Lady of Pirogoscha bookending the other. Around another corner curves St. Andrew’s Descent – Andreyevsky Spusk to locals – and the home of White Guard, where Mikhail Bulgakov spent half his life.
4. November 1, 2013
The radiologist takes me to her cabinet and offers me tea. While we wait for the electric kettle she holds up my film to the desk lamp and stares. She wags a finger at a smudge she sees there and sits to write out her diagnosis in duplicate, longhand. It’s something you notice — the immaculate penmanship. No heart-topped i’s or schoolgirl loops: this is Klingon cursive. That and the near sacral insistence on handwritten documentation.
It starts early, this insistence. Arts or sciences, crisp classroom dictation and flawless transcription are tried and true staples of (post-)Soviet pedagogy. In Ukraine’s education system — so utterly shattered and for so long — flawless calligraphy provides cheap validation that some standards are immutable. On some days there is more solace than despair in the thought that Kyiv of 2015 is not so far removed from Kiev of 1918. Not that long ago, and with computers on every desk, the tellers at the branch where I do my banking still also wrote out each transaction by hand. “Handwritten is more reliable” they tell me. So near the Bulgakov home, who can argue.
In his engrossing Love and Garbage, Czech writer Ivan Klima writes about the inevitable cultural stagnation that follows the sanguinity of an uprising. His is the story of a Prague writer-cum-street sweeper discredited by the totalitarian regime, yet determined to pursue that which most engages him — life itself. The loneliness and alienation are palpable as Klima guides us on a lover’s tour of Prague, urging us to consider: “When does a person become what he otherwise only pretends to be?” What are the limits of a disengaged conscience? What is the true nature — and genesis — of coercion?
An older woman in a lab coat knocks and enters as we sip our tea. She’s carrying a tray of large, white onions, cut in half. She sets a half-onion on the desk and leaves, closing the door behind herself.
5. February 20, 2015
Andreyevsky Spusk is a cobblestoned switchback rising along the contours of the hill – witness to the truth that beauty in ancient cities is not a consequence of design, but of resistance to it. Stones come loose, yards overgrown, random, tumbling watercourses following a heavy rain, and light from a streetlamp curving through fog in a way that quantum physics rejects but the 19-century insists on. The street is beautiful in the way that a thing can be only at advanced age — after history has weighed in and done its worst.
Noises carry surprisingly well down its length. An arguing couple walking downhill on an otherwise quiet night are sound long before they’re light. I follow the curve up, and just past the Bulgakov home on the sweep of the wind comes the sound of drums, atavistic, insistent, from Maidan.
6. December 18, 2014
We learn that Oleh Lysheha died last night. One of the good ones — a sculptor, playwright, and the nation’s finest lyric poet. He enjoyed going barefoot in the city. James Brasfield’s translation in The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha with its spare Ukrainian–English antiphony is something of a minor miracle.
7. November 1, 2013
She clips one copy of her report about my slushy left lung to the enormous x-ray and slides it over to me. The other she drops onto a pile on the corner of her desk. She is 25 — probably — freckled, almond-eyed, with a Slavic jawline evolved for a Paris runway. Inside a bulky sweater and lab coat she is also tiny. I’m two of her.
8. January-February 2014
Protestors erecting Mad Max barricades control Kyiv’s Independence and European Squares: Maidan. Mounds of burning car tires endlessly replenished provide a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus, Mars, and now Vulcan. Small squads of priests vested in penitential black approach the riot lines at regular intervals to pray. Regular orchestrated volleys of gunfire come through the smoke from the police side. Casualties begin to mount. The American Embassy issues its advisory to stay clear.
I’m back at the clinic for an all-clear. Kyivites by the hundreds, including my radiologist, tend to the wounded in field hospitals on Maidan.
About a year ago, The Millions readers recommended that I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita after I wrote about Crime and Punishment – which was not so much a commentary on Dostoevsky’s fantastic writing, but a plea for more excellent Russian literature. As happens with a lot of books I end up reading, I stumbled upon the novel per chance: a friend visiting me in DC had a copy he intended to read, but gave it to me as a travel companion.Enter the devil – or Messire, as his servants respectfully call him. Set in Moscow, ostensibly sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, and in Yershalayim right before and after the Crucifixion, Bulgakov’s eccentric satire brings the ruler of the shadows into the lives of unassuming citizens.As a heavily censored author in communist Russia, Bulgakov mocks the bureaucracy, hints at literary and political persecution, and employs the tightly regulated social life under Stalin to create a colorful scene of chaos.It all begins when Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz urges the poet Ivan Homeless to revise his latest piece in a way to demonstrate that religion is bogus – namely by explaining that Jesus never existed. A curious stranger joins the debate and, taken aback by the suggestion that the devil does not exist, begins prophesizing about Berlioz’s fast-approaching death. When the chubby publisher succumbs to his fate as foretold, Ivan loses it. And soon, many people in Moscow do too.Surrounded by an incredible retinue comprising an odd-looking fellow in a pince-nez suit; a talking, drinking and mischievous black tom; a beautiful and often naked red-haired woman; and a vicious, stocky, short man with a fang protruding from his mouth, Messire – or Woland as others call the devil – rules Moscow for a brief few days, amusing himself and his entourage and terrifying many others.But the devil’s show is not inherently evil, rather it is a collection of minor acts that play on the actors’ vices: bribery, free-goods and personal favors go a long way for the citizens of a cash-strapped USSR. And while Bulgakov amuses his reader with Woland’s deeds and his victims, he introduces the Master and his lover, Margarita. And, he solemnly tells the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.The Master, who is banished to an insane asylum after his novel about the Crucifixion is deemed unfit for publishing and subjected to scathing reviews by literary authorities, might just symbolize the author. For The Master and Margarita shared the same fate as the Master’s piece on Pilate – it was published in 1967, 27 years after Bulgakov died.But the similarities do not stop there. Like the Master who burns his manuscripts, Bulgakov, in an effort to convince Soviet authorities to let him emigrate, destroyed his “book about the devil,” and later rewrote the novel from memory. At the time of his death, the work was still not in its final form.Bulgakov dictated revisions and additions to his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, even from his death bed, and it was she who brought the work to light. Much like Margarita in the novel, who relentlessly pursues her Master and his writings, aiming to both satisfy her desire to know how the story in Yershalayim unfolds and share the masterpiece with the world.The Master is not the sole teller of this story, however. As time winds back and forth between certain parts of the book, the reader hears the story from Woland, the Master and a narrator from ancient times. One is, all of a sudden, observing the painful contemplations of Pilate, his disgust for the post in the Middle East and the brewing tensions in Yershalayim. I’m not much for Christian history, but from what I can tell Bulgakov sheds a different light on to the whole situation. This becomes manifest later on as the reader sees the symbiotic tie between the devil and Jesus as they decide certain characters’ fate.The Master and Margarita shows the folly of Soviet repression, but it does not stop at mere cynicism and irony. Bulgakov also illustrates that the devil might watch out for Jesus, and vice versa, i.e., there are more gray areas even in the scripture than one might ordinarily perceive.The gripping plot surely helps with the read, but Bulgakov’s genius is in the subtle theories and observations he advances throughout this page-turner, forcing a reader to think about what it all means as a grin maliciously spreads across his face.PS: I was reading the book on the bus in DC one evening. A kid, probably about five, saw the cover and remarked, “The cat has a snake’s tongue. That’s stupid.” Clearly the subtlety was lost on the child, but I still find the comment very amusing. This brings me to a stylistic note: The version I have has the black tom in a suit looking over his left shoulder and slithering his split tongue; similarly, The Heart of a Dog – also by the same author – features a dog in a suit, with his tongue out, and looking over his right shoulder. Just a random note…