Master and Ukrainians. Is Kyiv's Bulgakov memorial plaque removal a local "cancel culture"? 

That is the cost of war, and the responsibility for the fact that it comes to bear it falls on the invaders. 

Recently, a memorial plaque in honour of Mikhail Bulgakov was removed in Kyiv. It was dismantled from the Teaching and Research Institute of Philology of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. At the beginning of the 20th century, the building housed a gymnasium, which the famous Russian writer attended.

Ekspertnyj Korpus - a social organization, dealing with historical education, is the initiator of the action. It does not hide the fact that its goal is to de-Russify the Ukrainian public space.

Bulgakov's case, however, seems controversial.

It is hardly surprising for those Ukrainians who, in the face of the atrocities of the Russian troops, intend to end fairy tales about the "brotherhood" of the East Slavic nations. That is why they remove traces of Russian culture everywhere in their homeland. Such is the cost of war and the cost of responsibility for the fact that it comes to bear it falls on the invaders.

However, we can look at the situation from a different angle. Movements such as removing a memorial plaque in honour of Bulgakov can be interpreted as local 'cancel culture' expressions, but we must remember that erasing the past is always breakneck social engineering. This is what happens when ideology is forced at the expense of truth.

Therefore, a fundamental question must be asked: is cultivating the memory of Bulgakov in Kyiv sustaining the "Russkij mir" in Ukraine? Ekspertnyj Korpus replies in the affirmative, accusing the writer of Ukrainophobia. It is worth considering.

Bulgakov's life fell on the years 1891-1940. Thus, he witnessed the demolition of the Romanov Empire and the creation of the Soviet Union on its ruins.

Bulgakov's most famous work is the novel "The Master and Margarita". Usually, in discussions about it, admiration for its undoubted literary value dominates. Only that this work also expresses a specific worldview that pleases various people who dream of Christianity without the Church.

"The Master and Margarita" contains pseudo-evangelical content. This novel can be referred to as "Satanism for the intelligentsia", formulated by a contemporary Russian Orthodox clergyman, protodeacon Andrei Kurayev.

But his other work, the "White Guard" novel, deserves attention in the context of the current disputes over Bulgakov in Ukraine.
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940). Photo Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images
Its action takes place in Kyiv, not mentioned by name, at the turn of 1918 and 1919. That is the period of the civil war that broke out in Russia after the Bolshevik coup. Ukraine is trying to achieve independence. Some fighting for power is taking place all around the country. The conflicted parties are the Hetmanate (to a certain point under the patronage of Germany) headed by Paweł Skoropadski and the Directorate of the Ukrainian People's Republic under the leadership of Symon Petlura. But neither of these forces will win Ukraine. Ultimately, the Bolsheviks are victorious.

The Turbin family is involved in this drama. They are Russian intellectuals who are witnesses and participants of the historical cataclysm. There is a disinformation noise around them. Contrary to various circumstances, they bet on the Hetmanate (after all, abandoned by Skoropadski, who fled to Germany). They fear both communism and Ukrainian nationalism. Petliura's troops conquer Kyiv, but the authority of the Directorate in this city lasts only a month and a half.

"White Guard" was written in the first half of the 1920s (later, a theatrical version of it was also created - the play "Turbin Days"). There were, however, problems with the publication of the novel. During Bulgakov's lifetime, the work was not released in full. Joseph Stalin personally contributed to the fact that the writer was banned from printing from 1929. He was only allowed to work in the theatre as a literary consultant.

There are many autobiographical threads in the "White Guard". The prototype of Alexei Turbin can be considered Bulgakov himself, who, like this character, was a venerologist by profession. In the novel, the writer portrays, in self-ironic fragments, the social class to which he belonged. It reveals its fears, prejudices and naive hopes. Today it is difficult to make propaganda use of the "White Guard" in any direction. Hence the claims of the Ukrainians towards its author. Without any nuances, they need the affirmation of their national heroes, including Petliura. And this is in vain to look for in Bulgakov's novel.

Moreover, in the "White Guard", there are scenes that strike the image of Ukrainians. That is, for example, the murder of a Jew carried out by a Ukrainian mob. One can also point to the mockery of those Russian-speaking residents of Kyiv who, in an attempt to prove that they are Ukrainians, ineptly try to speak Ukrainian in a neophyte zeal.

But at the same time, Bulgakov reveals the contempt held by the Russians for Ukrainian cultural identity. And in this case, the reader comes to consider whether the writer intended to expose a compromising, condemning attitude to show such behaviour that could also be his participation.

When Bulgakov was writing the "White Guard", a policy of "korenization" began to be implemented in the USSR. “Korenization” (derived from Russian word “koren’”, meaning “root”) could be rughly translated as “rooting” – as it favoured “ethnic roots”, that is, local ethnic identities to overcome the "great-power chauvinism" inherited from tsarism. It was also carried out in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. As a result, the Russians inhabiting it were Ukrainized.

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Later, in the 1930s, there was a return to Russian imperial politics in the Soviet Union. So-called “korenization” has been replaced by the fight against "nationalism". Thus, Ukraine became subject to Russification.

Therefore, if Bulgakov presented reality in the "White Guard" in a way that today charges him with accusations of Ukrainophobia, it means that in the 1920s, the writer's message could have been perceived by Soviet dignitaries as a mockery of "korenization". Thus, the novel's author exposed himself to the Soviet regime at the time, not only because the work lacked support for Bolshevism but also because the treatment of Ukrainians was inconsistent with the current course.

Now, however, these past events are irrelevant. Ukrainians have every right to decide whose memory to honour in their homeland; their decision is nobody's business outside their own country (the exception is the cultivation of criminals). Therefore, what the Ekspertnyj Korpus has done should be respected. Let the Ukrainians settle disputes over Bulgakov in Ukraine themselves.

On the other hand, when reading the "White Guard", particular speculations arise. Even if Bulgakov, to put it mildly, did not like Ukrainians, if he had to live in Kyiv in 2022, bombed by Russian troops, he would have opted for the Ukrainian state. For example, his fear of the "orcs" from Russia could turn out to have the upper hand, which the people of Kyiv felt before the Bolsheviks over 100 years ago.

–Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: A performance based on Mikhail Bulgakov's "The White Guard" staged at the National Theater in London, directed by Howard Davies in 2010. Photo Robbie Jack / Corbis via Getty Images
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