Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940)

Mikhail Afanas'evich Bulgakov is considered one of the foremost satirists of post-revolutionary Russia, Bulgakov is best known for his novel Master i Margarita ( The Master and Margarita), 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. Heavily influenced by Nikolai Gogol, he combined fantasy, realism, and satire to ridicule modern progressive society in general and the Soviet system in particular. His works celebrate the nonconformist, and often portray an artist or scientist in conflict with society. Due to official censorship of his manuscripts during his lifetime, Bulgakov's best works remained unpublished until after his death.


Bulgakov was born in 1891 into a Russian family of the intellectual class in the Ukrainian city of Kiev. 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, where he earned a reputation for playing practical jokes and inventing stories. He continued his education as a medical student at the University of Kiev and graduated with distinction in 1916. 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 Zapiski iunogo vracha ( A Country Doctor's Notebooks). 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 struggling for control of the city, which experienced fourteen violent changes of government in two years. Bulgakov's first novel, Belaia gvardiia ( The White Guard), deals with the life of a family in Kiev during this period.

In 1919 Bulgakov published his first story, and the following year he abandoned medicine to devote his time to writing feuilletons 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 which he described as "a flow of hopeless grey boredom, unbroken and inexorable." With the partial publication in 1925 of The White Guard in the magazine Rossiya, Bulgakov gained sufficient respect and popularity as an author to abandon newspaper work. Although his subsequent dramatization of the novel as Dni Turbinykh ( Days of the Turbins) was severely criticized by orthodox communists for sympathetically portraying the officer class of the White Army, it was immediately popular with audiences and became one of Soviet Russia's best-loved plays. Joseph Stalin himself attended the production fifteen times, viewing the play as ultimately favorable to the Bolsheviks. In a letter of 1929 he wrote: "If even such people as the Turbins are compelled to lay down their arms and submit to the will of the people because they realize that their cause is definitely lost, then the Bolsheviks must be invincible and there is nothing to be done about it." From 1925 to 1928 Bulgakov worked in close association with the Moscow Art Theater as a writer, producer, and occasionally as an actor. His plays were all well received by audiences but denounced by party critics, and in 1929 his 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. 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 Kabala sviatosh (A Cabal of Hypocrites), at which time he became a librettist for the Bolshoi Theater. Though publishing little, Bulgakov wrote steadily until his death from nephrosclerosis in 1940.

Bulgakov is believed to have written thirty-six plays, eleven of which survive. Unlike his major prose works, Bulgakov's dramas tend toward the realistic, and are often based on historical events or figures. In direct opposition to Soviet conventions, Bulgakov refused to portray his characters as either wholly positive or negative; rather, they are drawn as individuals with human strengths and frailties. The theme of adjustment to the new Soviet way of life dominates his plays of the 1920s. His best-known drama, Days of the Turbins, has been viewed as Moscow's most important theatrical event of the decade and served as the focus for the debate then being waged over the place of art in post-revolutionary society. The play, which deals with the life of a family of Russian intellectuals in Kiev during the Civil War, was the first Soviet play to portray the White intelligentsia as sympathetic figures, rather than the malicious characters common to socialist realist productions. Critical opposition was violent; party critics immediately accused Bulgakov of glorifying the class enemy and denounced the play as counterrevolutionary. Nevertheless, playgoers who had lost relatives in the Civil War identified with the Turbin family and flocked to performances. According to one account, "The women were hysterical; there were tears in the eyes of the men." Bulgakov's next play, Zoikina kvartira ( Zoya's Apartment), concerns the goings-on at a brothel disguised as a sewing shop in Moscow of the 1920s. A comic melodrama, the play satirizes communist institutions and life under Stalin's New Economic Policy. Popular with audiences, it was condemned by Soviet critics for being "pornographic" as well as for failing to convey the proper ideological viewpoint. His next play, Bagrovyi ostrov ( The Crimson Island), a comic attack on censorship, prompted counterattacks on Bulgakov's reputation and was taken out of the Art Theater repertory after only four performances.

Beg ( Flight), the play considered by some critics to be Bulgakov's best, was not allowed to be staged in the Soviet Union until 1957. In Flight, Bulgakov blended comic and tragic situations in eight acts he labelled "dreams" to depict the plight of a group of defeated White generals and a few civilians who elect to emigrate rather than live under communism. Critics have praised Flight 's careful construction, character development, and language, as well as its masterful use of stage effects. In A Cabal of Hypocrites, based on the life of Moliere, Bulgakov addressed the problem of the artist in a repressive society, a theme that he was to return to in later works. The play is based on one of Bulgakov's literary heroes (Bulgakov once told his wife that Moliere was the first person he would go to see in the afterlife), but is as much fiction as fact, its emphasis being the creator and the creative act rather than historical accuracy. A Cabal of Hypocrites was accepted by the Moscow Art Theater in 1931 but was not performed until 1936, after five years of delays and disagreements between Bulgakov and the renowned founder and director of the Art Theater, Konstantin Stanislavsky, over the staging of the play. Bulgakov refused to rewrite crucial scenes and Stanislavsky attempted to make significant changes in the character of Moliere over Bulgakov's protests. A Cabal of Hypocrites finally reached the stage after nearly three hundred rehearsals, but closed after seven performances because of hostile critical reception. Pravda criticized Bulgakov's "incorrect" interpretation of history and denounced his "reactionary view of artistic creativity as `pure' art." Angry and frustrated, Bulgakov resigned from the Art Theater in protest. As his next play, Ivan Vasilevich, was officially proscribed before its premiere, A Cabal of Hypocrites was the last of Bulgakov's dramas to be performed in his lifetime.

In addition to his dramas, Bulgakov wrote numerous short stories and novels. His first published collection of stories, Diavoliada ( Diaboliad, and Other Stories), was strongly influenced by Gogol: realism dissolves into fantasy and absurdity, and light comic satire erupts into sudden brutality. Included is his best-known story, "Rokovye iaitsa" ("The Fatal Eggs"), in which a well-meaning scientist discovers a red ray that stimulates growth. The ray is appropriated by a bureaucrat to increase the country's chicken population, but through a mix-up produces instead a crop of giant reptiles that ravage the countryside. Critics have read the story as a satirical treatment of the Russian Revolution, or, less specifically, as a commentary on progress and a rejection of revolution in favor of evolution. "The Fatal Eggs" also introduces another of Bulgakov's favorite themes: the consequences of power in the hands of the ignorant. Although written during the same period as Diaboliad, Bulgakov's A Country Doctor's Notebooks differs radically from these stories as well as from most of his longer fiction in its strict realism and exclusion of the fantastic and grotesque. Another early work, Sobache serdtse ( The Heart of a Dog), is included among Bulgakov's most important. Considered one of Soviet Russia's best satirical novellas, the work portrays a scientist's transformation of a dog into a man. The creature develops reprehensible human qualities, and the scientist changes him back into the good-natured dog he once was. The story, which has obvious thematic parallels to "The Fatal Eggs," has never been published in the Soviet Union because of its counterrevolutionary cast. Critical readings have been similar to those of "The Fatal Eggs": some critics consider it a blatant political satire, equating the operation with the Revolution, while others stress a moral and philosophical interpretation of the conflict between the intellectual scientist and the uneducated masses, and of the disastrous results of interfering with a natural process. Bulgakov's relationship with the Moscow Art Theater, in particular the clashes over the staging of A Cabal of Hypocrites, served as the source for his novel Teatral nyi roman ( Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel). In this humorous roman a clef of Moscow's theatrical world, Bulgakov portrayed the revered Stanislavsky as a petty tyrant and the Art Theater actors as a group of feuding, scheming egomaniacs. An excellent example of Bulgakov's mature prose, Black Snow was unfortunately left unfinished at his death.

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 in order to finish it before his death, dictating final corrections to his wife after he became blind, and adding the epilogue after the manuscript was bound. He gave copies to his wife and to a friend for safekeeping, and they remained a closely guarded secret until Bulgakov's rehabilitation during Nikita Khrushchev's cultural thaw of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period in which the cult of Stalin was repudiated and the Soviets began to confront some of the excesses of his reign. The Master and Margarita was finally published in a heavily censored form in two installments in the journal Moskva in 1966 and 1967. It caused an immediate sensation and has received an extraordinary amount of critical attention ever since. A blend of satire, realism, and fantasy, the novel is not easily classified or reduced to a single interpretation. Most critics agree that The Master and Margarita is composed of three narrative strands. The first concerns the devil (named Woland) and his associates, who visit modern Moscow and create havoc in the lives of the stupid, the scheming, and the avaricious. The second deals with a persecuted novelist (The Master) and his mistress (Margarita), who bargains with Woland for the sake of her beloved. The third level of the book is the Master's novel, a retelling of the story of Pilate and Christ which involved a tremendous amount of research into the history of Jerusalem and early Christian thought. What little negative criticism that has been written on The Master and Margarita has focused on the lack of cohesion among these three levels of narrative. The nature of good and evil constitutes a basic philosophical problem in the novel, and much critical attention has been devoted to the nature of Bulgakov's devil, who appears less an evil being in opposition to God than as God's counterpart, whose task it is to punish the corrupt. His relationship with the Master has been seen as a Faustian pact; indeed, references to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust permeate the novel. Like Bulgakov's characterization of the devil, the portrait of Jesus in The Master and Margarita is equally unorthodox; although his character asserts the fundamental beliefs of orthodox Christianity, he complains that everything written about him by his only disciple, Matthew, is inaccurate. With the story of the Master, Bulgakov returns to the theme of the artist in society. He writes that "manuscripts don't burn," asserting his belief that art will endure the vicissitudes of political repression because of its eternal nature, existing as it does apart from the transitory world of political power. Similarly, an important parallel theme to the conflict between the artist and society is developed in the conflict between the spiritual and material worlds, a conflict that in Bulgakov's view ultimately results in the triumph of the spiritual.

As in Bulgakov's other major works, the heroes of The Master and Margarita are independent spirits who exist outside their society, with Bulgakov's sharpest satire reserved for those ruled by self-interest. Two English versions of the novel exist, one by Mirra Ginsburg based on the censored edition printed in Moskva, which eliminates much of the anti-Soviet satire in Bulgakov's work, and one by Michael Glenny based on the complete text. While there has been some controversy regarding their relative merits as translations, both are considered valuable to an English-language reader's understanding of Bulgakov's masterpiece, which is now considered one of the greatest works of twentieth-century Russian literature.


From: "Mikhail Afanas'evich Bulgakov." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2006.


  • Further Reading


    • Haber, Edythe C.,Mikhail Bulgakov: The Early Years, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1998.
    • Hunns, Derek J., Bulgakov's Apocalyptic Critique of Literature, E. Mellen Press (Lewiston, NY), 1996.
    • Milne, Lesley, editor, Bulgakov: The Novelist-Playwright, Harwood (Luxembourg), 1995.
    • Milne, Lesley, Mikhail Bulgakov: A Critical Biography, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
    • Natov, Nadine, Mikhail Bulgakov, Twayne, 1985
    • Reference Guide to World Literature, second edition, St. James Press, 1995.
    • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 2, Gale, 1979, Volume 16, Gale, 1985.
    • Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, third edition, St. James Press, 1991.
    • Vozdvizhensky, Vyacheslav, compiler, Mikhail Bulgakov and His Times: Memoirs, Letters, translated by Liv Tudge, Progress Publishers (Moscow, Russia), 1990.
    • Weeks, Laura D., The Master and Margarita: A Critical Companion, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1996.
    • Wright, Anthony Colin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Life and Interpretations, University of Toronto Press (Toronto, ON), 1978.



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