‘Propaganda Literature’: Calls for Shutdown of Mikhail Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv | Mikhail Bulgakov

In his novel The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov painted an evocative portrait of his childhood home. Inside was a Dutch stove blazing with heat, a piano and a library, and cream curtains. The family’s first-floor apartment was in “a two-story house of surprisingly unusual design.” In winter, the snow that covered the roof resembled “a white general’s fur cap” – a reference to the white anti-Bolshevik movement.

But Bulgakov’s house in Kiev is now at the center of a bitter public dispute. In Soviet times it became a literary museum. The National Union of Ukrainian Writers has called for the closure of the museum at 13A Andriivskyi Descent, a historic cobbled street that connects the upper city with the Podil neighborhood on the banks of the Dnipro River.

He cites Bulgakov’s noted dislike of Ukrainian nationalism and the “horror, death and destruction” Russia is currently inflicting on Ukraine. According to the union, Bulgakov “hated” the idea of ​​\u200b\u200bUkrainian statehood and “glorified” the Russian tsar and monarchy. He also “smeared” Ukrainian nationalists including Symon Petliura, whose troops entered Kiev in 1918, he says.

Set amid the tumultuous events of that year, The White Guard describes how Petlyura’s forces besieged the capital. Defending him was a ragtag group of white officers, including the fictional Turbin brothers. The Turbins are loosely based on Bulgakov and his family. He wrote the novel in the early 1920s. It was only published in full in 1966 after his death.

The debate over Bulgakov’s cultural legacy began in 2015, after Moscow annexed Crimea and started a bloody war in the eastern Donbass region. In a scathing essay, the writer Oksana Zabuzhko described his work as “propaganda literature.” He proposed renaming the museum after Vasyl Listovnych, Bulgakov’s neighbor who owned the house.

The Bolsheviks executed Listovnych when they entered Kiev. Bulgakov describes his landlord in The White Guard as an “unpleasant” miser and a “cowardly engineer”. “You should at least get acquainted with Ukrainian culture. Do not confuse landlords and tenants,” wrote Zabuzhko. He added: “It’s time for us, dear Kyivans, to hang at least one memorial plaque to the beginning of Vasyl Listovnych.”

The February invasion prompted a widespread reappraisal of Russian monuments and street names. Some have been removed, including a plaque commemorating Bulgakov outside Kiev University, where the writer studied medicine. Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said this process is not a “de-Russification”. Instead, he argues, it is about “overcoming the consequences of Russian totalitarianism”, with cases decided after consultation.

The Ukrainian flag flying outside the Mikhail Bulgakov museum.
The Ukrainian flag flying outside the Mikhail Bulgakov museum. Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

The minister underlined the way the Kremlin has used Russian culture as a “weapon of war”. In Kherson, the southern city liberated from Ukraine in November, Russian invaders have hung banners celebrating Pushkin, Russia’s foremost poet. They banned the Ukrainian language, removed Ukrainian books from schools and libraries and used explosives to demolish busts of Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko.

Speaking in September, Tkachenko rejected calls for the Bulgakov museum to be closed. He noted that the anti-Ukrainian views that offended the writers’ union were “dialogues” spoken by fictional characters in the early 20th century, during what he called a “liberation struggle”. “I think the museum is not to blame. It definitely shouldn’t be touched,” he said.

Even the director of the museum, Lyudmila Gubianuri, reacted to the criticisms, calling Bulgakov “a man of his time”. “He was born and lived in the Russian Empire. Bulgakov had an inherent imperial mentality, but neither he nor his family were ever Ukrainianophobes,” she stressed. “Bulgakov didn’t believe in the reality of an independent Ukraine, like many people at the time.”

Mikhail Bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov “hated” the idea of ​​Ukrainian statehood, according to one group of writers. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

He continued: “That is why we cannot 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 in his novel The Master and Margarita – were “metaphysical” rather than “political,” he 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 the writer’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 autobiography nor history, he added. “It’s a visionary novel that springs from a very original and creative imagination,” she suggested, adding that it would be a “shame” if the museum were forced to close. Cockrell said he devoted much of his life to Russian literature. He acknowledged that his greatness coexisted with the “awesome awfulness” of Vladimir Putin. “There are two Russias,” he claimed.

Other observers have argued that there is no meaningful distinction. Olesya Khromeychuk, director of the Ukrainian institute in London, said Russian writers traditionally portray Ukrainians as “cunning, foolish and uncultured”. “There is a constant change 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 wipe out Ukrainian culture. You mentioned members of the Ukrainian avant-garde who were executed in the 1920s and 1930s, and the poet and dissident Vasyl 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 Lesya 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 is available at the Guardian Bookstore

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