I would never call war literature my genre of choice, but it was always going to be a major element of my Russian Reading project. Now that I’m into the revolutionary civil wars it’s a case of deciding how squeamish I feel when balanced out with my wish to do the thing properly.
What is striking about my reading into the revolutionary wars is how hard it is to sympathise with any side. The Reds were fighting for the Bolsheviks and their victory heralded the tyranny of Soviet repression. The Whites were fighting for the grand old tradition of Czarist tyranny and associated repression. Both sides were responsible for terrible atrocities against their enemies and the civilian population.
One thing that has given an added dimension to the three civil war-set books that I’ve read so far, is that each book represents a different ideology. Babel’s ‘Red Cavalry’ and Bulgakov’s ‘White Guard’ of course speak for themselves, but if you want to have an idea of where the boundaries between the two fall than I’d recommend Sholokhov. He was writing about Don Cossacks, who were traditionally Czarist supporters although Cossacks also found their way into the Red Army. I skated over this when writing about the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Sholokhov was the only Soviet writer who was allowed to win this award (Bunin was classified as ‘stateless’, Pasternak was forced to decline and Solzhenitsyn couldn’t accept until he was expelled from the USSR). This means that the Cossacks in his tales are fairly evenly distributed between the Red and White forces, allowing him to make much of how the civil war tore families and communities apart. Sholokhov has fathers killing their sons and sons killing their fathers as families are divided across party lines. It is clear where his sympathies lie; the blurb of my edition correctly states that he ‘movingly and compassionately portrays the death-agonies of the Old Russia and the bloody birthpangs of the New‘. Characters might miss the old days, but it’s clear that times have changed and the future is Soviet. The stories are brutal and violent, but probably essential reading for anyone interested in the literature of the civil war.
Babel’s war stories are very different in style, setting and perspective, even if the political ideology is similar. For a start, he’s writing about a different war (the 1920 Polish-Soviet war), but there are other. more fundamental contrasts to grapple with. While Sholokhov added layers of immersive description on to his realist stories, Babel’s style is stripped back to the most stark Soviet realism. Also contrasting is the theatre of war, Babel is writing as a Jewish reporter, not a Cossack fighter. He is less interested in conscription and choosing sides than in the impact of the war on civilians, especially the Jews in the destroyed villages he passes. Where Sholokhov has fathers killing sons, Babel has women being forced to watch their father’s murder. Also, while many of the Don tales are narrated in the first person, this narrator is a part of the community; Babel’s narrator, in comparison, is a clear outsider in the field of war. Jewish, urban and literate, he can barely ride a horse and can never quite identify with the Red comrades around him. Don’t let the title put you off, Babel may have been a Bolshevik newspaper man to, but these stories show a much more complex understanding of the realities of the revolutionary wars.
Then there’s the White and proud Bulgakov. I’m still not entirely sure how even the start of this novel was published in 1925 (the journal in which it was serialised was closed down before it got to the last sections). Unlike the other two books this is a full-length novel and it takes place in a single town. In fact, I think it’s one of the great city novels for its presentation of Kiev, though that’s not really the topic here. What makes ‘The White Guard’ so special is that, not only does it deal with the loyal Tzarist forces, it is also a consciously reactionary novel, referencing Pushkin, Tolstoy and Bunin rather than conforming to the emerging Soviet realism writing tradition. ‘The White Guard’ will be a shock to the system for any readers searching out another ‘Master and Margarita’, but it is an excellent war novel. It’s also much more 12-rated adventure story rather than Babel and Sholokhov’s 18-rated extreme and bloody violence.
There we are, three classic war tales as interpreted by someone who does not enjoy war literature. It’s a testimony to the skill of three very different writers that I got so much out of the experience.
Match the picture to the author: the journalist, the Cossak and the middle-class doctor.