When honour is betrayed

It is 1918, the Bolsheviks have taken over in Russia and sued for peace,  Germany has annexed Ukraine and installed a pro-tsarist puppet government under Skoropadsky, the Hetman, but Tsa Nikolai  II and his family have been murdered in Ekaterinberg.   The remnants of the old White Guard have migrated to Kiev and mobilised to defend the old regime.   But when Germany  sign the armistice with the western allies,  they abandon the Ukraine, leaving a power vacuum, to be fought over by The White Guard, the Nationalists under their commander in chief Petalyura and the Bolsheviks.  

Alexei is an officer in the White Guard, so is his brother Nikolei.  Their sister Elena is married to Tolberg, who is The Hetman’s Minister of War.  So far the war and the revolution have hardly touched them. They and their brother officers continue to live in the style they did under the Tsar.     

But things are about to change.  The Nationalists bombard the city.  The Hetman flees to Berlin, abandoning the White Guard.  It’s a case of every man (and every woman) for himself.   Tolberg escapes with the Hetman to Berlin, abandoning Elena.  ‘Of course I don’t want to go, my darling, but it is my duty.  Besides I am too well known.  If I stay I will be captured, tortured and executed by the Nationalists.’   Elena is bitter but not devastated.  Within days she has encouraged the attentions of  Leonid, who is rich and well established.  

Encircled by the Nationalists, Alexei explains to his brother officers the futility of resistance.  They must throw away their insignia, put on peasant clothes and escape into the city.  His brother officers resist, threaten to seize command, to fight on, but Alexei’s voice of reason prevails, though he is killed by a shell as he burns the roster of The White Guard.               

The family survive under the Nationalist government, but then the fighting stats all over again; the Bolsheviks attack the city.  Tolberg returns only to depart immediately; he has an important post with the Bolsheviks in Moscow.   The previous officers of the White Guard resolve to call themselves comrade and learn to become good Bolsheviks.  Ukraine becomes a founder member of the USSR.

Only Larion, a student and the Turbin’s cousin, remains loyal to his principles, but that is because he is not fighting for anybody else, he is a poet, just out for himself.

Bulgakov’s is more than a historical drama; it is an investigation of the meaning of honour.  The White Guard had a proud tradition as the pre-eminent corps in the Russian army.  Their honour is based on their loyalty; they would fight to the death to preserve the motherland and the Tsar.  But the Tsar and his whole dynasty are dead (though some officers refuse to believe it) and his representative in The Ukraine has collaborated with the Germans and fled to Berlin.  For soldiers, honour must have a focus.  It is futile to sacrifice your life for nothing.   But, as Alexei explains, ‘We can still preserve our honour as men,  by surviving and caring for our families.  No doubt, Elena too, feels that her honour as a wife means nothing in the face of her husband’s betrayal.   But others; Tolberg, The Hetman, perhaps Leonid too, are opportunists, politicians for whom honour means little.  Larion just avoids the issue.   

So what is honour?   Why is it important?   Well I think the nearest we can get to a definition is ‘being true to oneself’.    This means living life according to the principles we would want to be acknowedged for.  For some this might encompass a belief in God,  loyalty to one’s country , adherence to a particular set of ideas and beliefs,  but for most it is the normal social values like truth,  consistency, reliability, and loyalty to family and friends.   These values are inculcated in us from childhood, modified and reinforced by experience.  They represent who we are.  If we betray those then we betray ourselves and we are shamed.  So we try to live our lives with honour so that we preserve the essential meaning of our lives.  It is a truly terrible thing to lose one’s soul, not because of any religious mythology, but because we can no longer live with ourselves.  And then life becomes meaningless. 

But honour is constantly under threat ; by ambition, greed, desire and fear.  Politicians, for all their bombast, are masters of expediency and deception.   They may not mean to be, but the political environment makes it necessary.  How can they promise so much to so many different groups without compromise and deception?   It’s quite impossible, but I wish they could come clean about it.  ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I’m trying my best to deal with an impossible situation.’   A hundred years ago, the only honourable way for the European powers through the web of promises and alliances was to embark on the war to end all wars.   No wonder we are cynical, but it’s all part of the game.  Only when there is a clearly identified enemy can a politician show true conviction and honour.  Churchill’s speeches stiffened the backbone of a whole nation and made people proud to be British.  At that time, he was truly a man of honour.  It was what he was born for. 

And how many of us can act with honour when our life is threatened or when they stand to lose everything they hold most dear, the whole meaning of their lives?  We like to think we would act honourably, we might even condemn those who don’t, but how many of us have been tested?  Simon Yates cut the rope linking him to his climbing buddy, Joe Simpson, in order to save his own life.  Even twenty years on, I wonder how easy it is for him to live with himself within the comradeship of climbers.   To err is human;  the best thing we can do is to acknowledge our sin, to let go and resolve to be stronger next time.  To forgive, divine.  Redemption needs external reinforcement and is won only with pain.           

Honour, desire and fear are the forces of personality, each pulling against each other as they attempt a precarious balance.  But if honour is based on wisdom and understanding instead of blind dogma, it can contain the forces of desire and fear and provide the stability to consider the risk of change.  But it all depends on the quality of our upbringing.   Those brought up with principles that are too rigid, cannot face change with impunity and remain stuck.  Those brought up without clear notions of right and wrong risk chaos and shame.  Those brought up with an overblown sense of entitlement will all too ready sacrifice any principles they might have for power and excitement.  Power corrupts, desire corrupts, fear corrupts because they infect and soften principles of honour.    


The White Guard, based on a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, is currently showing at The National Theatre in a new version by Andrew Upton.  I didn’t think it was a good play and some of the casting was impossible.  Who ever thought of casting the deliciously camp, Conleth Hill as Leonid, the great seducer and aide de camp to The Hetman?  He would have been much better in The Producers.  Mind you, there was more than a touch of the Hermann Goering in his performance.

Stalin apparently loved the play; he saw it 15 times.  Once was enough for me.