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How do I interpret the sentence "Князь Долгорукий стал было во главе обороны" from the novel Белая Гвардия by Bulgakov (about the revolution period in Kiev)?

"Когда гетмана спрашивали: что же дальше будет? – он успокаивал: „Отстоим, отстоим…“ Князь Долгорукий стал было во главе обороны. Тщетные усилия! Через два дня гетман с остатками немцев покинул Киев. Город был обречен. Всё притаилось… Наступила зловещая тишина… Потом послышалась издали музыка, замелькали на улицах петлюровские солдаты – Киев заняли новые властители..."

I understand this sentence as a form of free indirect speech (несобственно прямая речь), conveying the hetman's thought, i.e.: Yuri Dolgoruki is going to protect the hetman's army. But I'm having trouble with the phrase стал было. Usually, as far as I know, the use of было after a verb (хотел было, стал было...) suggests the action was imagined/desired but not achieved, or started but not finished. Here I'd sooner attribute the use of было to free indirect speech (given that Dolgoruki lived in the Middle Ages and couldn't really have led the White Army in 1919). Or should it be interpreted to mean that "Yuri Dolgoruki was about to assume his position as head of the defense"? Also, I tend to interpret this sentence as expressing a confidence in Yuri Dologoruki's protection more than in the fact that he would lead the army.

All these might look like trite details, but I need to understand this sentence quite subtly in order to translate it (into French) properly...

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This construct is a relic of old Slavic pluperfect tense.

кто-то делал / сделал было что-то is usually followed by some kind of a "but", and means "someone had been doing / had done something, but then something else happened, cancelling the effect".

Your sentence means:

Duke Dolgoruky (sic) had become in charge of the defense. All in vain!

This excerpt is not from Bulgakov's novel but from a memoir by Eulogius of Paris.

The person who he is talking about is not Yuri Dolgoruky but Duke Alexander Dolgorukov.

A couple more examples:

Я закричал, вскочил было на ноги, но тут же упал, запутавшись в мешке.
I screamed and had got back to my feet but fell down again right away, caught in the sack.

Он пошёл было из комнаты, но вдруг воротился
He started to head out of the room but suddenly went back.

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    Indeed this excerpt is from a memoir by Eulogius' of Paris. He probably refers to Duke Alexander Dolgorukov, though he wrote "Dolgoruky": (the text can be read here pravaya.ru/faith/471/1440) Jul 11, 2019 at 16:00
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"Started but not finished" is the closest option.

The next sentence says Тщетные усилия! (All in vain / Wasted effort). So, стал было во главе обороны means that he did become the head of city's defense, but couldn't really achieve anything.

Pay attention that стал is a homonym. Cтать may mean either "to begin": "стал защищать" or "to become": "стал гетманом". The expression стал было is most commonly used in the first sense: "tried to begin", but here the second sense is used.

Finally, Dolgorukiy is the family name; Yuri Dolgorukiy is its best-known representative, but there are many others. It even looks like Bulgakov made a common mistake and the real name was Dolgorukov:

Белый фронт генерала Юденича Рутыч Н Н

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    Nitpick: For Yuri Dolgorukiy it wasn't a family name, it was his personal nickname and then became family name for others (so it's something like latin cognomen).
    – user28434
    Jul 16, 2019 at 8:33
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In this particular case "было" is not a verb but rather a grammatical particle, or, more precisely, a clitic, i.e. a morpheme that has the syntactic characteristics of a word but depends phonologically on another word or phrase. Just for the sake of completeness, it's in the majority of cases an enclitic, since it usually appears after its host. As a clitic, "было" always appears in conjunction with a verb in the past tense or a perfective participle. Let's call that verb "the action".

Here's more or less a complete list of what the usage of this participle can stand for:

  1. The action was supposed to happen but has nevertheless not happened.
  2. The action started but was not finished.
  3. The action actually happened, but the result of the action was cancelled.

In your particular case, it looks like Dolgorukiy was the head of the defense for a miserably short period of time and that this attempt failed.

If you want to know more (and tolerate Russian linguistic academic language - I hate it by the way), here's a very nice overview of "было" usage.

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БЫЛО - частица употребляется при обозначении того, что действие началось или предполагалось, но в силу каких-л. причин, обстоятельств было прервано или не завершилось.

https://дословно.рф/значение/было

То есть, Князь Долгорукий по куску текста встал на защиту в момент нападения.

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