The Russian revolution as zombie story

Can a play depicting Bolsheviks as a menace and royalists as victims reveal any truths about the revolution?

Patrick Marmion

Topics Culture

It’s fascinating to think that Joseph Stalin’s favourite play – The Turbin Brothers, written by Mikhail Bulgakov and based on his early novel The White Guard – was a zombie-like drama. The play has now been revived at the National Theatre in London as The White Guard after being rewritten by Andrew Upton. It is the story of a middle-class royalist Ukrainian family in Kiev overrun by the tide of Bolshevik revolutionaries during the civil war of 1918-19 that followed the Russian Revolution.

It is said that Stalin liked the play for presenting the defeat of a formidable class enemy. But it may have been that what excited Stalin was that The Turbin Brothers was a tale of ideological possession. After all, the story bears all the hallmarks of a typical horror in which creatures like vampires, triffids or zombies stand poised to take over the world, just like international communism once promised. Such stories follow a simple pattern of rumoured invasion, desperate battle with forces of darkness and eventual capitulation to the dreaded possession. In this instance, the Bolshevik hordes are reminiscent of legions of zombies on an implacable mission to reduce everyone to their own suppurative state of bourgeois demystification.

At the start of the play, the nice, middle-class Turbin family are at home expressing their faith in their monarch, the Hetman. Kiev is in the hands of the Germans, who have appointed a puppet government, but the Ukrainian nationalists are storming the town and the Bolsheviks are on their way, too. The Turbin family are Tsarist supporters, opposed to both the nationalists and the Bolshevik Red Army. They are sure that the reported outbreaks of Bolshevism will soon be cleared up. Before long, however, they are locked in mortal combat against an implacable, unslayable and mostly invisible foe, represented largely by bombs exploding all around them. The hallmark of the zombie-like Bolsheviks, who are here parasitising Ukrainian nationalism, is that they are completely void of compassion and like nothing better than wanton orgies of blind destruction. Comrades and royalists alike are first toyed with and then absent-mindedly shot in the back.

There is evidence that Stalin’s naive censors thought Uncle Joe might consider such sceptical representation counter-revolutionary and even satirical. Indeed, most party loyalists derided the play, one castigating it as being ‘as much use as a brassiere on a dog’. But their supreme leader plainly disagreed and saw the play at least 15 times. The traditional explanation for this mystery is not simply that Stalin liked nothing better than to be unpredictable, but that the censors had secured an end to the play with the Turbin family embracing the revolution to the sound of ‘The International’. This just happens to be how possession stories often finish – with the once resistant now at peace and contentedly integrated, or ‘re-educated’ in Stalinist parlance.

Upton, however, rejects the Kremlin-approved ending and has sought to honour what he takes to be Bulgakov’s original intentions. Instead of having the family reconciled to historical inevitability, he has them continuing to live nervously among the Bolsheviks, who wear overcoats that one character calls the ‘essence of prole’. The family becomes like an enclave of early Christians crossing their fingers and hoping for a Second Coming.

In doing so, Upton makes too little of the sense in which the family members are themselves already ideologically possessed, not by Bolshevism, but by royalism. Their sometimes comic allegiance to the White Guard and quaint chivalric codes do go some way to suggesting this, and their faith is farcically undermined by the Hetman’s cowardly flight with his German allies. But more than that, Upton attempts to assert Bulgakov’s characters as a set of warmly humane, loveably eccentric, piano-playing individualists. The Bolsheviks meanwhile are merely sensational barbarians reduced to pure murderous pack instinct.

Among the Turbins’ friends, Conleth Hill plays a celebrated lothario and opera singer whose artistic ambitions are thwarted by the revolutionary philistines. Pip Carter plays a nervous young poet who composes odes to the living room blinds and is coveted as a gentle soul too vulnerable to be allowed near a vodka bottle, let alone on to the bullet-torn streets. Perhaps Paul Higgins, from the BBC’s lacerating, political satire, The Thick of It, plays the only non-sentimentalised character, a captain who strides on to stage, screaming ‘mother of fucking Satan!’ in a thick Scots accent. But Higgins’ earthy directness only serves to underline the family’s otherwise rose-tinted integrity, embodied in the beautiful sister and her noble brother who sacrifices himself in battle.

The trouble with Upton’s ending is not that he is letting the middle classes off the hook, but that he simply comes full circle and leaves them where they started – sadder, but essentially unchanged. In doing so he misses a trick that the Stalinist censors did not. Knowingly or otherwise, the censors ensured that the story underwent full dialectical transformation and became an allegory of the way new forms of social consciousness take hold in society. What at first sight appears to be merely a troublesome rumour (Bolshevism) becomes overwhelming and completely absorbs all new ways of thinking. So, political and social change is threatened, resisted and finally accepted. You have only to consider the effect of Mrs Thatcher’s economic legacy on New Labour to find a clear contemporary parallel of such a shameless volte-face.

Interestingly, though, despite Upton’s own attempt at historical revisionism masked as liberal-humanist honesty, there is a sense in which Howard Davies’ direction and Bunny Christie’s set design recognise the tectonic movement of history with seismic set changes. The huge Kiev apartment at the start rolls back to be replaced by a vast echoing palace, which is then usurped by a miserably claustrophobic trench from which the sociopath, crypto-Bolshevik Ukrainian nationalists spew out to seize control of a school gymnasium where the White Guard make their last stand. Of course, the play and production attempt to disavow these terrific shifts by returning us to the still elegant apartment, but the cat is already out of the bag and the return to the house with fantasies of resistance is merely wishful thinking.

Early on in the play, the noble elder brother (played by Daniel Flynn) who lays down his life tells the family that they must bury the future or it will bury them. What this production fails to realise fully is exactly this latter scenario of being buried by the future. It is this kind of fear of obliteration that drives any good zombie story. Zombie stories can therefore be considered a genre of sublimated dialectics which goes back all the way to Euripides’s Bacchae. In that play the new god, Dionysus, drives the city elders insane when they refuse to recognise him. Naturally, Dionysus’s triumph was always inevitable and that is what makes the play properly tragic. By the same token, Upton needn’t have interfered with the Politburo’s ending of Bulgakov’s drama. It seems that, for once, Joseph Stalin got something right.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent.

The White Guard, written by Andrew Upton and directed by Howard Davies, is playing at the National Theatre until 15 June 2010.

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