IIn his novel The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov painted an evocative portrait of a house from his childhood. Inside was a Dutch oven burning with heat, a piano and library, and cream curtains. The family apartment on the first floor was located in a “two-story building with a strikingly unusual design.” In winter, the snow covering the roof resembled a “white general’s fur cap” – a reference to the anti-Bolshevik white movement.
But Bulgakov’s house in Kiev is now at the center of a fierce public debate. In the Soviet era, it became a literary museum. The National Union of Writers of Ukraine has called for the closure of the museum at number 13A Andriivskyi Descent -
He cites Bulgakov’s well-known antipathy to Ukrainian nationalism and the “horror, death and destruction” that Russia is currently wreaking on Ukraine. According to the union, Bulgakov “hated” the idea of Ukrainian statehood and “glorified” the Russian Tsar and the monarchy. He also “tarnished” Ukrainian nationalists, including Symon Petliura, whose troops entered Kyiv in 1918, he writes.
Set amidst the tumultuous events of that year, The White Guard describes how Petljura’s forces surrounded the capital. He was defended by a disorganized group of white officers including the fictional Turbin brothers. Turbines is loosely based on Bulgakov and his family. He wrote the novel in the early 1920s. It was published in its entirety only in 1966 after his death.
The debate over Bulgakov’s cultural legacy began in 2015, after Moscow annexed Crimea and launched a bloody war in the eastern Donbass region. In a scathing essay, the writer Oksana Zabuzhko described his work as “propaganda literature”. She suggested renaming the museum after Vasyl Listovnych, Bulgakov’s downstairs neighbor who owned the house.
The Bolsheviks executed Listovnych when they entered Kyiv. Bulgakov portrays his boss in the White Guard as an “unpleasant” miser and a “cowardly engineer”. “You should at least know Ukrainian culture. Do not confuse owners and tenants,” Zabuzhko wrote. She added: “It’s time for us, dear Kyivans, to at least hang a memorial plaque to Vasili Listovnič.”
The invasion in February prompted a broad reappraisal of Russian monuments and street names. Some have been removed, including a plaque commemorating Bulgakov in front of Kyiv University, where the writer studied medicine. The Minister of Culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, said that this process is not “derusification”. Instead, he argues, it is about “overcoming the consequences of Russian totalitarianism,” with cases being decided after consultation.
The minister pointed to the way in which the Kremlin used Russian culture as a “weapon of war”. In Kherson – a southern city liberated by Ukraine in November – Russian invaders hung banners celebrating Pushkin, Russia’s leading poet. They banned the Ukrainian language, removed Ukrainian books from schools and libraries, and used explosives to tear down a bust of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko.
Speaking in September, Tkachenko rejected calls to close the Bulgakov museum. He noted that the anti-Ukrainian opinions that offended the union of “dialogue” writers were spoken by fictional characters in the early 20th century, during what he called the “liberation struggle.” “I don’t think the museum is to blame. It certainly shouldn’t be touched,” he said.
The director of the museum, Lyudmila Gubianuri, also hit back at the criticism, calling Bulgakov “a man of his time.” “He was born and lived in the Russian Empire. Bulgakov had an inherent imperial way of thinking, but neither he nor his family were ever Ukrainophobes,” she stressed. “Bulgakov did not believe in the reality of an independent Ukraine, like many people at that time.”
She continued: “That’s why we can’t consider him a Ukrainian writer, even though he was born in Kiev and lived here most of his life. But Bulgakov’s work is definitely part of the Ukrainian cultural space.” His sympathies – in the White Guard and the novel The Master and Margarita – were “metaphysical”, not “political”, she said.
Bulgakov’s English translator, Roger Cockrell, described him as “a Russian writer trapped in Soviet space.” Bulgakov’s relationship with Stalin was “very complex,” he said. The Soviet leader admired Pišch’s plays, including Days of the Turbins, based on the White Guard. But he refused to allow Bulgakov to travel abroad to Rome and Paris, and after 1925 prevented him from publishing prose. “Bulgakov certainly didn’t like Stalin,” Cockrell said.
The White Guard was neither an autobiography nor a history, he added. “It’s a visionary novel born of a very original and creative imagination,” he said, adding that it would be “a shame” if the museum were to close. Cockrell said that he devoted a large part of his life to Russian literature. He recognized that his greatness coexisted with the “horrible horror” of Vladimir Putin. “There are two Russias,” he claimed.
Other observers claimed that there was no significant difference. Olesya Khromeychuk, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, said Russian writers have traditionally portrayed Ukrainians as “cunning, silly and uncultured”. “There is a constant difference between them and other non-Russians,” she said, adding: “I would encourage people to read Russian literature critically.”
Khromeychuk – the author of a memoir about her brother, who was killed in 2017 fighting with the Ukrainian army – said Moscow has repeatedly tried to erase Ukrainian culture. She cited members of the Ukrainian avant-garde who were executed in the 1920s and 1930s and the poet and dissident Vasili Stus who died two generations later – in 1985 – in a Soviet labor camp.
“There is so much anti-imperialist Ukrainian literature that people don’t know about. You can start with Shevchenko and Lesja Ukrainka [the feminist writer and poet],” she said.
Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival by Luke Harding is published by Guardian Faber and available from Guardian Bookshop