Days of the Turbins, a dramatization of the playwright’s novel Belaya gvar diya (1927, 1929; The White Guard, 1971), represents a White (loyalist) family’s reactions to the triumph of the Red Army in Kiev at a crisis of the postrevolutionary civil war, as that conflict took shape in the Ukraine. The complex, shifting political situation there would have been known to the 1926 Soviet audience at the play’s premiere, but some brief background is necessary for most readers outside the Soviet Union.
The city of Kiev was a battleground of crisscrossing efforts among those seeking a socialist and independent Ukraine, Bolsheviks seeking to establish the new regime, and forces loyal to the old regime or to the March democratic revolution. In 1918, after the Bolsheviks had seized power in St. Petersburg, Ukrainians long restless under Russian rule began seeking an independent Ukraine. They turned to their own governing body, the Rada, for leadership; its military forces were led by the socialist-oriented Symon Petlyura. Soviet armies entered Kiev in February, 1918, however, and the Rada sought help from the Germans, who had, until the Bolsheviks pulled the country out of the conflict, been engaged in World War I against Russian armies. The Germans did defeat the Soviets in Kiev, whereupon Petlyura and the Rada returned. Soon after, the Germans installed an unpopular and reactionary puppet government under Herman Skoropadsky, the Hetman of the play. Skoropadsky’s government collapsed when the Germans acknowledged general defeat in November, 1918, and the play begins at the moment of their unceremonious retreat from Kiev. Petlyura became commander in chief for a fragmentary Rada in this vacuum but was again defeated in February, 1919, upon the return of the Soviet army. At this point, the play ends, as surviving Turbin family members turn toward the future, a Soviet Ukraine.
In such a setting, long-standing loyalties and modes of life are tested. Mikhail Bulgakov, a native Kievan, shows in his play the impact of these confusing shifts in power on a family very like his own: loyalist, intellectual, bourgeois. Biographer Ellendea Proffer calls the play a “love song to his youth and family.” The security of a humane and civilized home and a caring family is set against the incoherence and precariousness of violent civil war. Tragedy is implicit, but Bulgakov mixes comedy and tragedy to create characters the audience can love. Action outside the cozy room generates the reactions inside, and the play shows the family’s gradual realization that the old life and values are gone. Their individual responses to the shift to a new life under the Bolsheviks make the epochal events play out in human terms, joy and wit juxtaposed to tragic loss. The White Guard, the novel on which the play is based, was, according to one Soviet artist, the first to “engrave the soul of Russia’s internal strife.” Its images of the city and its characters and plot proved evocative for readers of both the Left and the Right.
Days of the Turbins is in four acts, the first three set in Kiev on the day of the German retreat, the fourth acting as a kind of epilogue two months later. Act 1 is in the Talberg apartment; act 2, scene 1 in the Hetman’s office and scene 2 with Petlyura’s army. Act 3, the climax, is set among loyal cadets in the high school, and act 4 is back in the Turbin apartment after both these armies have failed against the Bolsheviks and while the Reds approach.
Act 1 acquaints the audience with the characters and the ominous situation in the city. The sound of gunfire is loud, the lights go out, disorder is apparent. The only woman in the play,...
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