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MIKHAIL BULGAKOV: the «war of bones» in the Ukrainian way

MIKHAIL BULGAKOV: the «war of bones» in the Ukrainian way
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Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop


War is always a confrontation not only of armies and economies but also of cultures. The one whose culture is stronger gets the chance to win. Let’s try to answer together the question: does the interpretation of Mikhail Bulgakov as a Ukrainophobic writer weaken or strengthen Ukrainian culture? Does this approach have any fundamental basis at all? Ressentiment is a bad advisor here. Therefore, let us try to look at the prospects of the «cancel culture» from the position of the world’s historical and cultural process.




Joseph Conrad is one of the greatest English-language novelists of the 19th century. Except that, despite his English name, there are a number of problems with him as an English writer.

Firstly, he is an ethnic Pole, whose Polish name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. Secondly, from the day of his birth he was a subject of the Russian Empire, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. Thirdly, he was Ukrainian by place of birth, as he was born in Berdichev, where his father’s estate was located. Also in the history of him and his family were Ukrainian Chernihiv, Odesa, and Lviv, which belonged then to another empire — the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Conrad was fluent in French, knew Russian and Polish. But he wrote in English. And was primarily oriented toward Dostoevsky’s artistic experience. He had a contradictory attitude to British colonialism. On the one hand, he was inclined to idealize the empire; on the other — they noted the injustice of colonial policy.

Nevertheless, Conrad is a recognized English classic. Hollywood makes movies based on his novels. Even Russians put a monument to him in Vologda, where Conrad’s father was in exile with his family. The irony is that Conrad the older was serving a sentence there for anti-Russian activity.

However, this did not prevent the Russians from «appropriating» his brilliant son and including him in the context of the Russian world. Why? Apparently, it’s simple: to be able to say once again: «Who are the judges?»

Read Conrad’s famous story «Heart of Darkness» about the horrors of the Belgian colonization of the Congo, and you will understand that democratic Western civilization is not much different from totalitarian Russian barbarism. However, later, in the anti-Polish and anti-British frenzy, the monument to Conrad in Vologda was torn down.

Question: how reasonable is it for Ukrainians to copy such practices?


Джозеф Конрад, при рождении Юзеф Теодор Конрад Коженевский — английский писатель польского происхождения. Считается одним из величайших английских прозаиков
Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, is a Polish-born English writer. He is considered one of the greatest English novelists /




But it is the Poles who try most fiercely to make Joseph Conrad «their own». In Ukraine, we have doubts: can Bulgakov, Gogol, and Babel be considered Ukrainian writers if they wrote in Russian? However, Poles do not care much about the fact that Conrad was not born in Poland and did not write anything in Polish.

Even worse, there are no distinctly Polish plots in the work of a writer of Polish descent. But even this does not prevent Poles from searching for and finding hidden Polish motives in him, such as «Polish spirit», «nobleman’s honor», and so on. Why would it suddenly be so easy, without a fight, to take and give a wonderful writer to Britain, Russia, or Ukraine? By the way, they are not the only ones.

There is a monument to Conrad, for example, in Singapore — simply because he was there! His museum and a memorial plaque are there for the same reason, in the Ukrainian city of Berdichev. At the same time, Conrad neither spoke nor wrote in Malay or Ukrainian.

And he ignored in his English-language works the topics relevant to Ukrainians and Singaporeans in the most indecent way. As well as the Polish one. But the Poles did not give up even here… And they found a certain elusive «Polish mystery» in an English writer who did not write about Poland and in Polish. It is impossible to determine what this mystery is — that’s why it is a mystery. The main thing is that it is Polish!

And all would be well, but the Poles did not do without the «betrayal» familiar to Ukrainians. Where is the Polish language in Conrad? Where are the novels about Poland? No matter how you look at it, this is a typical betrayal of the motherland!

Some Polish critics, who painfully experienced the «talent outflow», believed that Conrad’s sense of his own betrayal was sublimated in the novel «Lord Jim» — the writer abandoned Poland to perish just as his hero left the sinking ship.




The relationship between Ireland and the English-speaking writer James Joyce was a challenging one. Today, there is a monument in Dublin to this perhaps most famous Irishman. Despite the fact that he wrote one of the greatest novels of the XX century, which was not in Irish. However, at the state level, the attitude toward the author of «Ulysses» for a long time was, to put it mildly, unfriendly.

Joyce left Ireland in 1904. Lived in Trieste, Paris, Zurich, where he died and was buried. In Joyce’s homeland, «Ulysses» was under an unspoken ban — its content was considered «obscene» and «anti-Irish».

In a significant work on the subject, cultural historian Jessica Traynor says Joyce «condemned the conservatism, pietism, and blunt nationalism of Irish society». But strangely, the same essay says the following about the writer’s attitude toward the Irish capital literally: «His spiritual and artistic engagement with the city continued for the rest of his life».

Agree, a certain parallel can be drawn between Bulgakov and Joyce. One was madly in love with Kyiv, the other with Dublin. They tried to make one an anti-Ukrainian and the other an anti-Irishman. But no matter how the Irish state treated Joyce in favor of the political conjuncture, time put everything in its place.

Everyone forgot about the authors of the bans, and Joyce was honored with a monument and the epithet «the great Dubliner». Dublin City Council even attempted to return the writer’s remains to his homeland. The struggle between Switzerland and Ireland was so exciting for them that journalists dubbed it the «war of bones».

Back in the 1960s, it was almost impossible to bring the book Ulysses to Ireland. But since 1982, June 16 — Bloomsday — has been widely celebrated in the Irish capital. On this day, tens of thousands of Joyce fans participate in pilgrimage processions through Dublin, repeating the path of the heroes of Ulysses.

Thus, by moving away from bans and searching for «betrayal», Dubliners have turned the once «anti-Irish» writer into their pride — the leading cultural brand and resource of the creative economy.


Джеймс Августин Алоизий Джойс — ирландский писатель, которого считают одним из самых влиятельных писателей двадцатого века. Он получил всеобщее признание прежде всего благодаря своему монументальному роману «Улисс» (1922)
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish writer who is considered one of the most influential writers of the XX century. He is universally recognized primarily for his monumental novel «Ulysses» (1922) /




The list of writers who, for various reasons, have had difficulties with their homeland, mother tongue, and non-native language could go on: Beckett, Nabokov, Celan, Kristof… Martin Heidegger’s words about language as «the house of Being» are well known. It is important to remember that it is precisely a house — not a prison, not a concentration camp, and not a madhouse of Being, where language quickly turns from a means of creation into a destructive end in itself.

Remember what Freud said about the cigar? Sometimes it’s just a cigar, not an elongated object symbolizing the phallus. And language is just language. It’s not important in and of itself. It’s what you say and how you say it. Language and political opinion are secondary to contribution to world culture.

During the McCarthyism era, Hemingway and Steinbeck, Einstein and Oppenheimer, Shaw and Miller, Bernstein and Chaplin were suspected of anti-American activities… And today, all these great «anti-Americans» have been erased from world culture? No! The authors of «anti-German» books, which Hitler’s Nazis burned in the squares, have not disappeared from it either.

Bulgakov was right: manuscripts don’t burn, and from a historical perspective, the «witch hunter» will always lose to the talent he persecuted. The only thing that matters for world culture is whether the author is a genius and his work is a globally recognized masterpiece.

Heidegger never publicly renounced his membership in the Nazi NSDAP until the end of his life, but who remembers it now? Was he, along with Nietzsche, who was one of the pillars of fascist ideology in the Third Reich, expelled from university courses? No! Why?

Because the real content of their philosophical work is not in imperialism and fascism. In the same way, Bulgakov’s «transgressions» against Ukraine should not overshadow the main thing — the humanistic pathos of his works, his love for Kyiv and his dislike for «sharikovs», «shvonders», «Latunsky’s» and «Berlioz’s».


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If we conduct an unbiased revision of pseudo-patriotic reproaches to Bulgakov, we will see that they are strongly pulled by the ears. For example, the opinion that Bulgakov’s heroes express the anti-Ukrainian position of the writer himself. But is this true?

In «The Days of the Turbins», one character talks about «the comedy of Ukrainianization», and another says about Ukrainian that Hetman Skoropadskyi «terrorized the Russian population with this vile language, which does not exist in the world». But is it impossible in the XXI century to seriously assert that Bulgakov himself said this?! It is impossible, after all that has been said and written about the theory and practice of «autofiction», to identify the real personality of the writer and the fictional personality of his hero!

Bram Stoker is not identical to Count Dracula, Jaroslav Hašek — to Schweik. The Marquis de Sade did not slit his mistresses’ throats during sex. And, whatever Balzac thinks of himself, he was not Madame Bovary after all. In «The White Guard», the writer created a portrait of the era, not a self-portrait!

In the reasoning of Alexey Turbin that «only the monarchy can save Russia», everything is highly realistic. The height of improbability would be if, in a table conversation, a former tsarist officer would raise a glass with the words «Glory to Ukraine!» Could this absurdity then be recognized as pro-Ukrainian?

When Bulgakov writes about the representatives of the Central Rada as «not having boots, but having wide trousers», — this is not an anti-Ukrainian position but a reflection of the realities of the time. His lines about the «divisive actions» of the leaders of the national movement and the fact that the allies «behaved ambiguously, seeking only their own benefit and the weakening of Russia as a state» are quite realistic.

Of course, you can, if you wish, see an anti-Ukrainian position here, but you can also see it as an impartial record of the real problems that Ukrainian independence faced at that time. Many of them — the split in society, excesses in humanitarian policy, uncertainty in allies — are relevant to us, unfortunately, even now, during the war.




It is impossible to approach the reality of «The White Guard» from the position of the current Ukrainian sovereignty. At the turn of the century, new, still weak, but childishly self-confident states emerged on the ruins of world empires. With all the linguistic, ethno-cultural, and socio-political «childhood» growth diseases.

Often, the new reality was so absurd that it demanded a satirical description, which was carried to the point of absurdity. That is why Bulgakov writes about Poland: «No devil knew … what was going on in it and what kind of a new country it was». The same words can be attributed to the Ukrainian military-political chaarchy of Skoropadskyi, Vynnychenko, and Petliura. Their personal ambitions obviously did not correspond to their actual capabilities and worked instead to split Ukrainian unity.

Moreover, the Ukrainians fought on different sides of the ideological barricades: some for the UNR, some for Makhno’s peasant-anarchist ideals, some for the Whites, some for the Bolsheviks, and there were fifth, sixth, seventh… And all of them were Ukrainians! And they all fought for their image of the future, which they envisioned in different ways.

Therefore, seeing Bulgakov as anti-Ukrainian is possible only by ignoring the real historical context. The explanatory dictionary defines an Ukrainophobe as «an opponent, a hater of Ukrainians and everything Ukrainian». In a short essay, «Kyiv-city», the writer expresses the hope that «the memory of Petliura will fade away». But can Bulgakov’s anti-Petliura position testify to his anti-Ukrainianism?

After all, Petliura is not the whole of Ukraine, and the parodied signs on stores are not the whole Ukrainian language. Let us remember that even fellow members of the national-democratic camp, the same Volodymyr Vynnychenko, evaluated Petlyura exceptionally negatively. But does this make Vynnychenko a Ukrainophobe?

And does the fact that Nikita Khrushchev was enamored of his work testify to Vynnychenko’s anti-Ukrainianism? No. Then how does Stalin’s positive assessment of «The Days of the Turbins» indicate Bulgakov’s Ukrainophobia? Especially since the leader’s attitude to the writer can be described as psychological sadism, which in no way resembles respect and love.


MIKHAIL BULGAKOV: the «war of bones» in the Ukrainian way
Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov — writer, dramatist, librettist, theater director. Author of novels and plays /




Actually, that is all the evidence of Bulgakov’s Ukrainophobia. A couple of quotes from the characters of the novel «The White Guard» and the story «The Killer». A couple of lines from memoirs say that Bulgakov was a monarchist in his gymnasium years.

A strange «verdict» for a country where the entire political elite managed to be, if not in the Komsomol and communists, then in the pioneers for sure. So what is the matter then? Why, with a persistence worthy of a better application, is Bulgakov trying to be erased from Ukrainian culture?

Even the writer’s obvious opposition to Bolshevism does not save him. The fact is that Bulgakov, it turns out, is «not ours» by several criteria. The first — he did not write in Ukrainian. The second — he left Kyiv for Moscow. The third — he did not create positive images of Ukraine and Ukrainians. However, due to the specificity of the writer’s gift, he did not create positive images of anyone. Fourth — the nature of the painful reaction of both Soviet and modern persecutors of the writer is that their types are easily recognized in his heroes.

Isn’t it true that much here reminds us of the situation with Conrad and Joyce? But there is also a fifth, main criterion that made them all «strangers among their own» — their entry into a universal cultural dimension. You will not find Bulgakov anywhere preaching any «correct» ideology — he is not an «ideological» writer. Bulgakov is not indifferent to the problem of the «universal» but not to the issues of the «national» or «class».

For example, Sharikov is not Russian, Ukrainian or Tatar. He is an «artificial man», disfigured twice. The first time physically by Dr. Frankenstein-Preobrazhensky (in the text of the novel, unlike in the film version, this character is not a positive one). The second time spiritually — by ideology and bureaucracy.

Bulgakov’s Kyiv is neither a Ukrainian nor a Russian city. It is a timeless, eternal city, Jerusalem on the Dnipro. This is how Vladimir the Holy and Yaroslav the Wise conceived it, not the Bolsheviks and Petlyurovtsy. This is where Bulgakov’s attitude to both Sovietization and Ukrainianization as something transitory, accidental, and superfluous comes from.




Bulgakov’s Soviet and Ukrainian critics can be understood: the writer’s non-ideological position does not really provide anything useful from the point of view of any idea, either class or national. It affirms a completely different value absolute… But even with resentment in mind, are we in too much of a hurry to abandon Bulgakov’s legacy?

At one time, the Irish realized that they needed Joyce more than Joyce needed them — banning and abolishing him in his homeland would neither add nor detract from his world fame. At the same time, the psycho traumas and phobias of the Irish, 800 years under the heel of the British «big brother», are definitely no less. Are we ready to give Bulgakov to the Russians?

Who will we do worse — Putin, Bulgakov, Russia? Be sure that the Russians will gladly take the writer away, especially in that phantasmagoric, finger-sucking «anti-Ukrainian» interpretation, the idea of which the Ukrainians themselves suggested.

Putin’s words that «Russia’s border does not end anywhere» refer not only to territories but also to the space of culture. This is not just about the Conrad monument in Vologda. For Russian expansionism, not only «Crimea is ours,» but also «Kant is ours». And I don’t care that the great «Kaliningrad» philosopher wrote in German about «eternal peace», i.e., about things that are in clear contradiction with the aggressive Russian policy.

By the way, they also have «Shevchenko is ours» because he wrote in Russian, and lived in St. Petersburg, and was ransomed from captivity by Russian people. That is why no one is in a hurry to demolish Shevchenko’s monument in the center of Moscow. Meanwhile, we are losing not only territories in the southeast of the country but also entire cultural continents.

A country is a language, territory, culture, history, and people. And all of these are complexly interconnected. You can’t give up one thing without losing everything else. It is possible to part with empires in different ways. An excellent example was set by the ancient Jews: on their way to the Promised Land, they took from the Egyptians all the material and cultural values they could carry with them. Without recognizing whether it was their own or someone else’s.

The «Russian world» can only be contrasted with another, competitive «Ukrainian world». The world is a non-linearly organized, much more complex entity than a farm or a ghetto. To win, we need to change the paradigm of cultural behavior: not to prohibit but to appropriate; not to refuse but to return.

Victory means returning to Ukraine not only Crimea and Donbas but also Gogol, Bulgakov, and Babel. Whether they should be opponents or allies in the fight against Russian aggression depends only on us. It would be fair for the humanistic pathos of these great writers to denounce the cruelty, barbarity, and inhumanity of the enemy rather than our own wrongdoing.




Obviously, the search for an «ideal Ukrainian» in Ukrainian culture is a completely dead-end idea. It is roughly like trying to discover the skull of an «ideal Aryan».

Not so long ago, President Volodymyr Zelensky called Mikhail Bulgakov «our Ukrainian writer». Anton Drobovych, who became head of the Institute of National Memory after Volodymyr Viatrovych, echoed him. What has changed? Does the state cultural policy no longer have any tools left, except for the «cancel culture»?

After all, in the time of war, it was necessary to show much more intelligence, creativity, and adequacy. If the criteria of «anti-Ukrainianism» that are now being applied to Bulgakov are applied to other figures of culture, science, and art, we risk not finding a single «knight without fear and reproach» in our history.

One of the main denouncers of «wrong» compatriots, Volodymyr Viatrovych, has already stated that the famous helicopter inventor Igor Sikorsky cannot be considered a real Ukrainian — he was a monarchist, spoke Russian, fled to America, perceived Ukraine as a part of the empire something like the state of Texas in the United States.

So, it is urgent to remove the prefix «Igor Sikorsky» from the name of Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. But not so long ago, the whole country was proud of Sikorsky, and he quite deserved it! Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who objectively threw Ukraine into the imperial embrace of Muscovy at the Pereyaslav Rada, should follow him.

According to these criteria, even the father of integral nationalism, Dmytro Dontsov, looks rather ambiguous. He is ethnic Russian, and all his brothers and sisters are Bolsheviks. His father is embedded in the system of zemstvo power of the imperial era, and Lenin himself defended him from criticism.

According to the Ukrainian nationalist Vyacheslav Lipinsky, «Dontsov made a fool of himself «enlightened» St. Petersburg Social-democrats; criticized the «Khokhols» for being minor bourgeois, self-styled citizens, nationalists, not Marxists. Then he decided to speculate on nationalism and scolds them now for being Marxists, Muscovites, Provençals and not nationalists.

As a Muscophiles socialist, he fought against the rotten West, gentry Poland, and the bourgeois prejudices of Catholicism. But when he saw that he could not make a great career out of it, he suddenly changed into a «Westernized» suit and began to curse the Asian Moscow and Orthodoxy».

If Dontsov’s ideological attitudes changed dramatically throughout his life, when and to what extent was he sincere in his beliefs — «at first» or «later»? Because it turns out that of the two, someone is lying — Dontsov or Lipinsky? And then, following Bulgakov, Gogol, Sikorsky, and Dontsov from the pantheon of outstanding Ukrainians should be excluded: Sergiy Korolev, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Pavlo Tychyna, Dmytro Pavlychko, and others.

All of them were inscribed in the imperial and Soviet system, received Stalinist prizes, and praised the Soviet leaders. Vernadsky and Hrushevsky turned out to be culturally «unsterile». In addition to them, tsarist officer Ivan Kotlyarevsky, Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka, and Taras Shevchenko, who occasionally wrote in Russian, were infected with collaboration with Russians and the Russian language! But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

According to the Institute of National Memory’s criteria, dozens of names that Ukraine can and should be proud of should be erased from Ukrainian culture. Meanwhile, these are brilliant, great names! You can be convinced of this by reading the regular column of our publication, «Roots and Wings».

Once again, reread their biographies, remember their discoveries, tragedies, and upsurges, and ask yourself a question: Are you ready to give up such a bright, paradoxical, unique history and culture? What truly makes Ukraine great is not only within the state border but also in the boundless and eternal space of world culture.


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