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How do you understand the sentence "Князь Долгорукий стал было во главе обороны" taken from the novel Белая Гвардия by Bulgakov (about 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 feel in trouble with the phrasing стал было. Usually, as far as I know, the use of было after a verb (хотел было, стал было...) suggests the action has been imagined/wanted, but not achieved, or started but not finished. Here I would rather attribute the use of было to the free indirect speech (given that Dolgoruki lived in Middle Age and could not really lead the White Army in 1919). Or should it be understood as "Yuri Dolgoruki was about to take the head of the defense"? Also, I tend to understand this sentence as expressing a confidence in Yuri Dologoruki's protection, more than in the fact he would lead the army.

All of this might look like 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 had been heading 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) – Marie Starynkevitch Jul 11 '19 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 '19 at 8:33
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In this particular case "было" is not a verb but rather a grammatical particle, or, more precise, clitic, that is, a morpheme that as 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 enclitic, since usually it appears after it host. As a clitic "было" always appears in conjunction with a verb in paste tense or a perfective participle. Let's call that verb "the action".

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

  1. The action was supposed to happen but nevertheless haven't 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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