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Issue #1508      6 July 2011

Culture & Life

Hardly figures of fun

Beauty, according to the popular saying, is in the eye of the beholder. So too is political interpretation. I remember an anti-Soviet Russian in Sydney once insisting on previewing a Soviet-made film of one of Chekhov’s plays because he feared that “Lenin might appear in it”. Which would have surprised the hell out of Chekhov!

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov.

Just as British (and Australian) royalists and anti-monarchists today have opposing views about the squandering of massive amounts of public money on keeping the British “Royal family” in the lap of luxury, so too left and right-wingers have contradictory reactions to the events and personalities of the October Revolution.

This is very evident in the case of the Soviet writer Bulgakov, whose political understanding of the Revolution was never particularly deep. His satirical play The White Guard, about Ukrainian counter-revolutionaries, was adapted from his own novel The End of The Turbins.

The Americans Sayers and Kahn, in their splendid book The Great Conspiracy Against Soviet Russia, summarise the historical background of both the novel and the play thus: “From the beginning of the Russian Revolution, the Ukraine with its rich wheat-lands and the Don Region with its immense coal and iron deposits had been the scene of savage conflict.

“Following the establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in December 1917, the Ukrainian anti-Soviet leader, General Simon Petlura [a character in Bulgakov’s play], had urged the German High Command to send troops into the Ukraine and help him overthrow the Soviet regime. WW1 was raging, and the Germans, with hungry eyes on the Ukraine’s vast food resources, needed no second invitation.

“Under the command of Field-Marshall Hermann von Eichhorn German troops swept into the Ukraine. Von Eichhorn himself had a considerable personal interest in the campaign: his wife was the Countess Durnovo, a wealthy Russian noblewoman who had been one of the largest landowners in the Ukraine.

“The Soviet forces were driven from Kiev and Kharkov, and a puppet ‘Independent Ukraine’, controlled by the German Army of Occupation, was formed with General Petlura at its head.

“Declaring his aim to be the establishment of ‘National Socialism’, Petlura instigated a series of bloody anti-Semitic pogroms throughout the Ukraine. Ruthless punitive measures were employed to suppress the revolutionary Ukrainian workers and peasants.”

But it was all to no avail: with great courage and bloody effort, the revolutionaries overcame the forces of the counter-revolutionary “Whites” and their foreign sponsors and allies. Bulgarkov’s play portrays the final days of a “White” family in Kiev as they await the arrival of the victorious Reds and the end of civilization as they know it.

For revolutionaries, the play is a pithy and witty depiction of the demoralisation and collapse of a decadent and moribund society, as a new society pounds on the door.

And there is ample scope for satire in the various types of opportunism, self-interest, greed and lust for power displayed by the various anti-Soviet forces assemble here.

For anti-Soviet folk, however, the Whites are the good guys and they sympathise with them. The play was recently revived with a stellar season at London’s Royal National Theatre, and this production (by Andrew Upton) has just been presented by the Sydney Theatre Company.

Needless to say, most reviewers in the bourgeois media, both here and in London, like Upton himself, favoured an anti-Soviet interpretation. No surprise there!

Polly Simons’ review for example said: “The novel-turned-play was one of Stalin’s favourites – he apparently saw it more than 15 times – but it beggars belief that, thinly disguised under a communist crust, he would miss the subversive heart that beats beneath.”

Yes, it does beggar belief, but I suppose any bourgeois newspaper critic would have to be smarter and more perceptive than a mere Josef Stalin, wouldn’t they?

Also like Andrew Upton, who may have good intentions but has little understanding, the bourgeois critics tend to see the play as a bit of giggle rather than a satire. One Sydney critic actually wrote that “Bulgakov’s mission seems to be largely to mock and discredit all sides of the conflicts he describes (the revolution and civil war)”, which is not very perceptive.

The same critic also commented that “Upton has arguably played it a little too much for outright comedy, as opposed to parody”. Parody!? Of what?

When the play was written, the Soviet audience at whom it was aimed knew exactly what the White Guards were. Embodying all the worst attributes of the Tsarist Black Hundreds gangs – anti-Semitism, contempt for ordinary people, especially workers and peasants, hatred of anything left-wing – White Guard became and remains a byword for brutal, vicious, sadistic savagery.

Throwing Bolshevik prisoners into the boilers of locomotives was just one of the ingenious forms of barbarism practiced by these champions of “civilized” society.

No wonder then that in last week’s Guardian, an article by John Foster reproduced from the US newspaper People’s World, reported on protests today in the Ukraine against what the Ukrainian Communist Party calls “the threat of nationalistic fascism, the attempt to link national sentiment to fascist and White Guard episodes in the country’s past”.

Fascism, and its White Guard variant, is unfortunately not something that has yet been consigned to the dustbin of history. It is still around, a very real and present danger.

Just compare the tactics of NATO in Libya today with Germany in the Ukraine in 1918.  

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