Days of the Turbins

by Mikhail Bulgakov
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Days of the Turbins is a realistic historical play depicting the transition to the Soviet era. The moment of crisis is shown to be the time when a civilized bourgeois White family accepts the reality of defeat.

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The meaning of the play was startling to its original audience in that it humanizes the defeated, for they had been caricatured as monsters in the decade during which the Bolsheviks consolidated their power. That Mikhail Bulgakov represented the reality of that time in Kiev so exactly and that he made these characters so thoroughly human and understandable allowed even long-term political opponents of the Whites to identify with the experience. The play continues to have more meaning for audiences in the former Soviet Union than for others because of its vivid representation of this deeply felt history.

Still, the play goes beyond history; it connects with people outside the former Soviet Union (when they know enough of that history to follow the action) with its images of gallantry in defeat, its appreciation for the complexity of human beings, and its commitment to the values of peace and civilized life. These themes are developed most fully in Bulgakov’s final masterwork, Master i Margarita (1966-1967; The Master and Margarita, 1967).

Alexei’s death in Days of the Turbins illustrates all three of these themes. Deeply disillusioned by the ignominious behavior of the leaders of the army in which he serves, and recognizing the futility of his own code of honor in the debacle of the German and Ukrainian retreat, Alexei nevertheless conducts himself with credit as he tries to protect the reputation of the command that has decamped so ingloriously. He successfully maintains his leadership among the young cadets, who romanticize the military, as he orders them to disband. He acts in accordance with the values he sees fading; he covers the retreat of the last of the cadets, so encountering his death. His words at his death— “throw heroism to the devil!”—would seem to counter the heroism he has just displayed, but in fact they assert the transcendence of humane and private values over the inhumanity of military force by whatever army and over the tragedy of politics in its power to destroy human lives.

The contradiction between words and behavior, not only in Alexei but indeed in all the characters, is their ability to comprehend both comedy and tragedy and to maintain ironic understanding of their predicaments. Their preoccupations with the private values of love and tenderness, personal integrity, and the world of the arts give the characters dimension, make them so human that friend and foe alike must respond to them. Thus, the value placed on the human being caught in the conflict of politics and private human existence is the overarching theme of this first Soviet play.

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Characters