Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, weaves an affecting story about the power of human connection in times of crisis.1 First serialized in 1925, albeit not to completion, and informed by his own experiences, it employs psychological realism to capture life in Ukraine during the catastrophic Russian Civil War, which had ended only a few years earlier.2 That experience included the wildfire spread of “uncertain knowledge.” Not surprisingly, rumors—as well as talk of rumors—abound in The White Guard, providing a window into a world fraught with uncertainty.
The novel begins in December 1918, just after the Germans have lost World War I and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty has become void. The German occupiers retreat, and their Ukrainian puppet government follows suit, leaving a power vacuum in the city of Kiev. The first to fill the it are Ukrainian nationalists led by Semyon Petlyura. Angered by the mistreatment of peasants under German troops and by stunted attempts at Ukrainian independence, these nationalists hunt the streets and houses for their sworn political enemy: members of the White Guard, a vestige of Imperial Russia. Two former officers, brothers Alexei and Nikolai Turbin, and their sister, Elena, brace themselves for the unknown.
Wartime interruptions and censorship of newspaper and wire communications alike exacerbate the confusion for urbanites like the Turbins. Field telephones between the military fronts and headquarters in Kiev work only intermittently (in one scene, a soldier continually shouts “Can you hear me?'” into a phone). Just as a “a non-party, democratic newspaper” is touting the inevitable downfall of Petlyura, coffins of mutilated officers enter the city. “A voice” in the gathered crowd explains that Petlyura’s army had ambushed the officers in the night.3 The newspaper thus appears to contain either falsified propaganda or already obsolete information. Vast stretches of countryside with bad roads and lack of telephone wiring limit knowledge of what is happening in the city’s immediate hinterland. Without access to or trust in formal communications channels, the novel’s characters try to fill in the blanks. Rumors arise as a response to and symptom of this “information crisis.”4
Scholars of the Russian Civil War have delved into the role rumors played in public opinion, military decision-making, and accounts of the conflict. Many historical analyses build on the assumption of rumors as “groundless,” more expressions of a cultural worldview than fact, or instead self-fulfilling prophecies. This characterization does not seem to apply to many rumors in The White Guard. 5 The characters, at least initially, view rumors as unconfirmed information, conjectures, exaggerations or outright falsehoods (“‘No, it’s not rumors,’ Elena countered firmly. ‘That wasn’t a rumor—it was true . . .’”).6 It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the rumors are often true. This informal communication begins to carry more weight than the formal kind, or it is the only kind that exists. The reader must dispense with any preconceptions about gossip being unreliable and formal communications trustworthy. As rumored, the Germans eventually withdraw from their occupied zone, Petylura’s troops invade Kiev, and Bolshevik troops invade a month afterward.
Through rumors, the novel portrays the intersections of knowledge and people on the move during the Russian Civil War. While information spread quickly by word of mouth in everyday social spheres in Kiev, the mass internal migration of the era also played a part. The White Guard illustrates how migrants became “carriers, translators, and producers of knowledge.”7 Anti-Bolshevik refugees from Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the Bolsheviks held power, spill into Kiev and discuss political happenings. German officers and Ukrainian landlords gather in the city’s gambling houses. White Army soldiers retreat from battles in the countryside and tell their friends in the city what transpired.
Besides recreating a historical atmosphere, rumors serve another narrative purpose in The White Guard: they create a sense of impending danger; they build suspense. In the first half of the novel, the reader becomes emotionally invested in the Turbin family: Alexei, the older brother and a doctor; Nikolai, the youngest wanting to prove himself; and Elena, one of two main female characters, who are described primarily by how pretty they look in certain light. Through word of mouth, the urban pro-tsarists (and the reader) slowly realize the city has no formal army to protect inhabitants against vengeful countryside forces. As the author, Bulgakov can either substantiate these fears or add a narrative twist that hinges on the rumors being false. He chooses the former course. Once they enter the city, Petlyura’s troops (and the bandits who portray themselves as such) are just as violent against pro-tsarists and Jews as had been rumored.8 The shocking beheading of a Jewish man desperately looking for a midwife, but who accidentally showed papers issued by enemy authorities, begins a spree of violence. Bulgakov conveys the total human cost of the conflict when Nikolai enters a morgue to look for the body of the colonel who saved his life. There he finds a vat full of body parts and corpses piled on top of one another. Bulgakov, normally a master of magical realism, does not need to embellish the horrors of war.
Although rumors have the potential to convey falsehoods and slanders, The White Guard illustrates how word of mouth can also be a powerful tool for people who are unable to access formal systems to spread vital knowledge, or who are inadequately protected from retaliation if they do. For example, in late December 2019 and January 2020, Scientists and medical professionals in Wuhan, China, circulated word on online about a mysterious virus spreading from person to person. Wuhan authorities initially told citizens to “not believe rumors,” yet when the COVID-19 outbreak got out of hand, officials acknowledged these reports had been correct and censored.9 In a different kind of example, the Harvey Weinstein allegations evince how people in the entertainment industry (and other communities) have used “rumors” or “gossip” to warn others about abusers. They choose the tactic because the offending person could kill their career if they came forward.10
And if rumors exaggerate, that hyperbole doesn’t necessarily negate the truth of the emotions behind the rumors. Petlyura may not have had a million men, as one report in the novel described, but the danger seems to be psychologically equivalent. In urban combat, his troops easily overpower and disorient the leaderless White Guard.11
It is difficult to say, as this is fiction, whether Bulgakov actually experienced the spread of rumors as he portrays them, or whether the validity of rumors in the story just makes a good literary device. Certainly, this frequent occurrence causes the reader to mull over what a rumor even is. The White Guard shows how people label information, how labels can diminish or increase the perceived value of that knowledge, how the terms can change in meaning, and how, sometimes, there is reason behind rumor.
Allison Schmidt is a historian of Central Europe and its global connections who is currently turning her dissertation, “Crossing Germany: Eastern European Transmigrants and Saxon State Surveillance, 1900–1924” (University of Kansas, 2016), into a book.
Featured image: White Army ammunition train following General Danikin’s cavalry in Ukraine, 1919. Source: American National Red Cross photograph collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017670587/.
- I’d like to thank the students in my Spring 2018 History of Stalinism course at SUNY-Oswego for inspiring this article after a class discussion on the book. For the sake of consistency, I use the spellings found in the Michael Glenny’s English translation. For more on Bulgakov and the circumstances that shaped the novel, see the introduction of Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard, trans. Michael Glenny (1971; Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2014). ↩︎
- For more on the situation in Ukraine, see Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914–1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 314. ↩︎
- Bulgakov, The White Guard, 90–95. ↩︎
- For a good synopsis of the historiography of rumors after the Russian Revolution, see Vladislav Benovich Aksenov, “Rumors and Mythologems of the Russian Revolution: Classification, Peculiarities of Functioning, Themes,” Russian Studies in History 56, no. 4 (2017): 225–49. ↩︎
- In addition to Aksenov, “Rumors and Mythologems,” see the overview of literature on rumors in the introduction to Gregory Evans Dowd, Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). ↩︎
- Bulgakov, The White Guard, 14. ↩︎
- For more analysis of migrants as carriers of knowledge, see Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge,” in “Knowledge and Migration,” ed. Lässig and Steinberg, special issue, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43, no. 4 (2017): 313–46, quote 322. ↩︎
- Some nationalists associated Jews with Bolshevism and liberal capitalism, both suspect because they were internationalist ideologies. Thinly veiled anti-Semitism led to a number of the pogroms in Ukraine in 1919. ↩︎
- Gerry Shih, Emily Rauhala, and Lena H. Sun, “Early Missteps and State Secrecy in China Probably Allowed the Coronavirus to Spread Farther and Faster,” The Washington Post, February 1, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/02/01/early-missteps-state-secrecy-china-likely-allowed-coronavirus-spread-farther-faster/. ↩︎
- See Anne Helen Petersen, “Here’s Why So Many Women Knew the Rumors about Harvey Weinstein,” BuzzFeed.News, October 8, 2017, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/women-believe-other-women. For more on “gossip” and the spread of knowledge, see Katrin Horn, “An Intimate Knowledge of the Past? Gossip in the Archves,” History of Knowledge, February 12, 2020, https://historyofknowledge.net/2020/02/12/gossip-in-the-archives/. ↩︎
- Bulgakov, White Guard, 184. ↩︎