Stalin’s favourite play, The White Guard, opens next week in London and it is magnificent. No, don’t worry, it’s not about tractors, or Stakhanovite workers, or even the glorious Red army. Quite the contrary. The play is an ode to the bourgeois intelligentsia destroyed by the revolution. The Bolsheviks come out very badly, described as men “with no name, no past, no love… born of loneliness and frustration.” So why did Stalin admire this play, watch it 20 times, insist it be revived at the Moscow Art theatre, and—most uncharacteristically of all—not order the murder of its anti-Soviet author?
Mikhail Bulgakov, best know for his magical realist novel The Master and Margarita, based the play on his own family: proud Russians, committed supporters of the old order, soldiers of the White Guard, loyal to the tsar. Bulgakov (1891-1940) was the eldest son of a liberal professor at Kiev’s theological seminary. Both his grandparents were priests. Educated, cultured, and middle class, the family enjoyed theatre, opera, and literature. War and revolution destroyed their world.
The play opens in the Turbins’ large and comfortable apartment as they and their friends eat, sing songs, drink vodka, flirt, philosophise, laugh at each others jokes, and fret about the future. Outside is chaos; inside, their old world is still alive. Bulgakov believed the intelligentsia was “the best social stratum in our country.” You cannot watch this play and not feel heartbroken at the destruction of the civilization of pre-revolutionary Russia.
When the play first opened to sell-out crowds in Moscow in 1926, the communist press denounced Bulgakov, suggesting the Soviet government “just bash him over the head with a basin.” Normally a play siding with the enemies of the revolution would have been shut down immediately, but “The Days of the Turbins” (as it was called then, the censors at the time naturally rejecting its original, politically incorrect, title) found an unlikely supporter in Stalin. It became the biggest hit of its era, playing almost 1000 times during the dark days of Stalinist terror.
I can understand why the theatre audiences of Moscow and Leningrad flocked to the play, which surely reminded them of the cultured lives they had lost, but why did the communist dictator? Some scholars say it “delighted the leader, apparently because in showing the Whites as a noble group, it demonstrated that the Bolsheviks had defeated a worthy opponent.”
Seeing the play, I don’t buy that explanation. The Turbins are wonderful, kind, brave, cultured; everything you and I hope to be on our best days. But a worthy opponent they are not. They are doomed, ineffectual, easily tossed by the currents of history. I think Stalin like the play because it reminded him of the world he aspired to in his youth. Yes, young Stalin was a revolutionary, a bank robber and a bandit, but the sophisticated life of the liberal intelligentsia was all around him. A young man from Georgia must have yearned to be a part of it, loved it when he was included in it, and I think that locked in the Kremlin, surrounded by brutish toadies, he missed the world of civilized conversation and deep friendship that that he and his comrades destroyed. In some part of his black heart, he wished it wasn’t gone.
The White Guard, directed by Howard Davies, is playing at the National Theatre until 15th June. It is brilliantly written, laugh-out-loud funny and profound. This is old-fashioned theatre, with no bells and whistles (although more than a few explosions). Go see it, and remember the preciousness and fragility of civilized life.