Writer, Fiction, Drama
(1891 – 1940)
Considered one of the foremost satirists of postrevolutionary Russia, Mikhail Bulgakov is best known for his novel The Master and Margarita (1966), which is recognized as one of the greatest Russian novels of the century. Many of Bulgakov’s works concern the adjustment of the Russian intellectual class to life under Communist rule. Due to official censorship of his manuscripts during his lifetime, Bulgakov’s best works remained unpublished until after his death.
Bulgakov was born on May 2, 1891, in Kiev to a middle-class intellectual family. Music, literature, and theater were important in the family life of the young Bulgakov, as was religion. His father, a professor at the Kiev theological academy, instilled in his son a belief in God and an interest in spiritual matters that he would retain throughout his life.
Bulgakov attended Kiev’s most prestigious secondary school, then continued his education as a medical student at the University of Kiev and graduated with distinction in 1916. At the time, Russia was undergoing immense change. The country was embroiled in World War I while the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, was facing opposition to his rule through rebellions in 1905 and 1917 that ultimately led to his loss of power. Assigned to noncombat duty in the Russian army during World War I, Bulgakov worked for several months in frontline military hospitals until he transferred to a remote village, where he served as the only doctor for an entire district. His trials as an inexperienced doctor working under primitive conditions, and the difficulties he faced as an educated man among the ignorant, superstitious peasants, are recorded in the autobiographical stories of A Country Doctor’s Notebooks.
Wrote Amidst Turmoil
Upon his discharge in 1918, Bulgakov returned to Kiev in time to witness the Bolshevik Red Army, the anti-Bolshevik White Army, German occupation forces, and Ukrainian nationalists struggle for control of the city, which experienced fourteen violent changes of government in two years. While Kiev was part of several Ukrainian states that were shortlived, the city became part of the Soviet Union in 1921. By the time Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918 by Communist Party representatives, Vladimir Lenin, a Bolshevik party leader, had assumed power and Communist-controlled Russia had become the Soviet Union. In 1919, Bulgakov published his first story, and the following year he abandoned medicine to devote his time to writing feuilletons (light, popular works of fiction) for local newspapers and plays for local theaters in the Caucasian city of Vladikavkaz. In 1921, he moved to Moscow, where he struggled to support himself and his first wife by editing and writing for various newspapers, a task that he described as ‘‘a flow of hopeless grey boredom, unbroken and inexorable.’’ With the partial publication in 1925 of the novel The White Guard in the magazine Rossiya, Bulgakov gained sufficient respect and popularity as an author to abandon newspaper work.
The realistic novel The White Guard (1924) was Bulgakov’s first major triumph and is notable as one of the few works published in the Soviet Union that sympathetically portray the supporters of the anti-Bolshevik cause during the Russian revolutions. This outstanding novel was never reprinted in Russia, but Bulgakov’s dramatic adaptation of it, The Days of the Turbins (1926), became a fixture on the Soviet stage. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who took power in the late 1920s after the death of Lenin, attended the production fifteen times, viewing the play as ultimately favorable to the Bolsheviks. From 1925 to 1928, Bulgakov worked in close association with the Moscow Art Theater as a writer, producer, and occasionally an actor. His plays were all well received by audiences but denounced by party critics. In 1929, Bulgakov’s works were banned for their ideological nonconformity.
For the next two years, Bulgakov was unable to earn a living, and in 1930, frustrated, depressed, and penniless, he wrote to the Soviet government asking to be allowed either to work or to emigrate. Stalin personally telephoned Bulgakov three weeks later and arranged for his appointment to the Art Theater as a producer. By this time, Stalin’s repressive policies led to his iron-fisted control of all aspects of society, including severe policies in the arts. Yet, in 1932, reportedly at Stalin’s request once again, Days of the Turbins was returned to the stage, making it possible for Bulgakov to have other works published and performed. He remained with the Art Theater until 1936, when he resigned in protest over what he saw as the mishandling of his drama A Cabal of Hypocrites, at which time he became a librettist for the Bolshoi Theater. Though publishing little, Bulgakov wrote steadily despite suffering from poor health and becoming blind the year before his death from nephrosclerosis in 1940.
It was not until the 1960s that Bulgakov was fully rehabilitated by the Soviet authorities. At that time the manuscripts of numerous stories and plays and of three novels were discovered and published. These works established him as one of the finest twentieth- century Russian writers. The first of the novels to appear was Black Snow, written in the late 1930s and a satire on the Soviet theatrical world. The second, The Heart of a Dog (written in 1925), is a science fantasy (methylone) in which human organs are transplanted into a dog, giving it the most disgusting qualities of mankind. Bulgakov’s acknowledged masterwork, The Master and Margarita, developed over a period of twelve years through the drafting of eight separate versions. According to biographers, Bulgakov knew that the novel would be his masterpiece and set aside all other projects during the last years of his illness to finish it before his death. Read the rest of this entry