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UKRAINE: Chekhov, Bulgakov, the Old Guard, & Other Ghosts
Mikhail Bulgakov, Ukrainian satirist

 

            The scenes are flashing across the globe: the massive police and military reaction against the citizens who’ve dared raise their voices against the Ukrainian Old Guard.  Independence Square in the capital of Kiev has been transformed from the bustling center of a busy city that I saw in October to a potential battle zone.  For just over 21 years, Ukraine has struggled to get its arms around its new independence – the first time in its long history that it has been independent.

            Or is it independent?  That’s the question many Ukrainians are asking now.  Is the country a province of Russia – or is that where it is headed?  

            Talking with people around the country, I heard repeatedly about how former Communist Party leaders quickly dominated the new government and snatched control of major industries and utilities during the privatization process.  Ukraine embraced the future by using the tricks of the past – an irony that the great Ukrainian satirist Mikhail Bulgakov would have appreciated.

            Bulgakov struggled against Soviet censorship his entire adult life.  His greatest work, the novel The Master and Margarita, wasn’t published until 26 years after his death in 1940.  Another irony that he might appreciate is that this writer who found it so hard to have his plays produced and his books and stories published during his life now is revered by the Ukrainian people.

            When I visited his house, number 13 on a winding hillside street in upper Kiev, I saw a parade of young men and women not only visiting the rooms where he lived and wrote some of his best works but also taking photographs of the house, the plaque on its front wall, and of the life-sized statue of the writer in a small garden next door.  They took turns posing with Bulgakov, their arms around his shiny bronze shoulders.  This rebel from a bygone era speaks eloquently to young Ukrainians today.

            Bulgakov’s house also is famous for its ghosts, from both the author’s life and his works.  He wrote his famous play The White Guard here and it’s said that visitors sometimes meet its characters in these rooms – and sometimes glimpse the rebellious author, himself.  

Anton Chekhov's house, Yalta

            At the other end of the country, Yalta sprawls on wooded hills descending to the Black Sea coast.  There, in a small house surrounded by gardens, Anton Chekhov spent his last years, writing some of his most famous plays and stories.  Poking through the little rooms, still crowded with his furniture and clothing, his personal possessions everywhere, I almost could believe that his spirit lingered – that he might even pick up the pen still resting on the old blotter. 

            Across the garden, in a discreetly tucked away visitors’ center, a large room displayed scores of historic photographs of the playwright and his life in the theatre.  A group of women visitors sat on folding chairs amid this history while a plump middle-aged woman gave an impassioned presentation, shawl draped dramatically around her shoulders, sometimes obviously acting out scenes from the plays.  On a screen behind her, large letters declared: “Chekhov – the Tennessee Williams of Russia.”

            Chekhov, too, was a rebel, defying conventional tastes in drama, exposing attitudes that tied the ancient country to a stultifying past.  Most of all, Chekhov hated hypocrisy, a sin that weaves through his plays like veins of white fat in hunks of beef – and just as deadly. 

            Hypocrisy at the highest levels may have poisoned the birth of the new Ukraine, but it looks as if the true nature of the Old Guard in power is being revealed at last.  When they had the opportunity to move toward the more liberal policies of Western Europe, they turned east to their old friends in Russia.  Now, the world waits to see the next act in this ongoing drama.  Unfortunately, neither Bulgakov nor Chekhov is here to script it. 

               Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press. 

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