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Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940)


Russian journalist, playwright, novelist, and short story writer, whose major work was the Gogolesque fantasy The Master and Margarita. In the story the Devil visits Stalinist Moscow to see if he can do some good. The book is considered a major Russian novel of the 20th century. It first appeared in a censored form in the Soviet journal Moskva in 1966-67. Bulgakov used satire and fantasy also in his other works, among them the short story collection Diaboliad (1925).

It was hard to say exactly what had made Bezdomny write as he had--whether it was his great talent for graphic description or complete ignorance of the subject he was writing on, but his Jesus had come out, well, completely alive, a Jesus who had really existed, although admittedly a Jesus who had every possible fault." (from The Master and Margarita)

Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kiev, Ukraine, the eldest son Varvara Mikhaylovna (née Pokrovskaya), a teacher, and Afanasy Ivanovich Bulgakov, a lecturer at the Kiev Theological Academy. Both of his grandfathers were priests of the Russian Orthodox Church. Bulgakov's father died of a kidney ailment in 1907 and his mother married again. Her second husband, Ivan Pavlovich Voskresensky, was a doctor, who viewed religion with indifference. Though Bulgakov rejected his father's spiritual world,  supernatural and occult attracted him. Later in his stories he used sudden cuts into the fantastic and in the late 1920s he studied the Gospels and collected religious works.

After attending First Kiev High School (1900-09), Bulgakov studied medicine at the Kiev University (1909-16).  With his first wife,  Tatiana Nikolaevna Lappa, who was a  good pianist, he frequently went to the Kiev Opera, where he heard Goudod's Faust at least ten times. The role of Mephistopheles was played by the famous Russian opera singer Fedor Shalyapin. Bulgakov himself had a fine, soft baritone, and he played piano. "The need to listen to music is very characteristic of me," he once remarked. "One might say that I worship good music. It aids creativity."  

From 1916 to 1918 Bulgakov served as a doctor in front-line and district hospitals. "Fate decreed that I should employ my first-class degree only for a short time," he later wrote in an autographical piece. While in Viazma he was employed at the city hospital as the head of the department of infectious and veneral diseases. His experiences Bulgakov described in notes of a young doctor, 'Zapiski yunogo vracha' (1925-26).

During the war years  Bulgakov used morphine, but with the help of his wife, he managed to win the addiction. He worked in 1918-19 as a doctor in Kiev,  witnessing there the German occupation and then the occupation by the Red Army. In 1920 Bulgakov abandoned medicine in favor of a career as a writer. He organized in Vladikavkaz, Caucasus, a 'sub-department of the arts', and contributed stories to newspapers. One of his tales, 'Morphine,' tells of a young country doctor, Sergey Polyakov, who turns to morphine to escape his pain of unrequited love, and eventually commits suicide. The last entry in his diary is made on February 13, 1918 – noteworthy, on the following day the Soviet government decreed the abolition of the Old Style calendar and its replacement by the New Style Gregorian calendar. In his own life, Bulgakov left Viazma for Kiev with his wife in February 1918.

Bulgakov moved in 1921 to Moscow, where he worked for the literary department of the People's Commissariat of Education, and wrote as a journalist for various groups and papers. His largely autobiographical novel Belaya gvardiya (1925, full text 1973, The White Guard) was an account of the turbulent years between 1914 and 1921 as reflected in the lives of a White family in the Ukraine. Two parts of the book was published in the journal Rossiya, which was closed before the third part could appear. Bulgakov abandoned his plans for a trilogy; the proofs of the new ending surfaced in 1987, but the final pages were missing.

With the Moscow Arts Theatre Bulgakov was associated from 1925. He wrote and staged many plays, which enjoyed great popularity. Bulgakov's criticism of the Soviet system was not swallowed by the authorities. The Heart of the Dog (written in 1925), a satire on Soviet life in the guise of science fiction, was condemned unpublishable. In the story 'Pokhozhdenia Chichikova' the protaginist of Gogol's Dead Souls was dropped in the middle of the Soviet Russia's New Economic Policy period of 1921-27. 'Diaboliad'  (1925) portrayed a poor clerk in a gigantic bureaucracy, where he loses his identity and life.

In 1928 Bulgakov had three plays running in three Moscow theatres, Zoya's Apartment, The Crimson Island, and The Days of the Turbins, dramatized from his novel The White Guard. It brought the author overnight success and became 'a new Seagull' for the new generation, although it also received hostile reviews for the sympathetic portrayal of White officers. Paradoxically, The White Guard was one of Stalin's favorite plays. It was banned in 1929, reinstated in 1932 but not published until 1955.

From the beginning of 1930s Bulgakov's works were published rarely or not at all – Zoya's Apartment (1926), a play set in an atelier-bordello, was banned, as the farce Bagrovy ostrov (1928, The Crimson Island), a play-within-a-play. One of its characters asks: "And who are the judges? They're so ancient that their hostility to freedom is implacable. They cull their opinions from forgotten newspapers of the Kolchak era and the time of the subjunction of the Crimea." The German press stated that the play was "the first call in the USSR for freedom of the press."  Flight (1928), dealing with White fugitives leaving Russia, was banned before its premiere. In 1929, a watershed in his writing career, he said in a letter to Maxim Gorky: "All my plays have been banned; not a line of mine is being printed anywhere; I have no work ready, and not a kopeck of royalties is coming in from any source; not a single institution, not a single individual will reply to my applications..."

After sending a letter to Soviet government, requesting permission to emigrate, Bulgakov received a personal telephone call from Stalin, who apparently offered him the opportunity. As a result, Bulgakov gave up these plans and for a period he was employed as an assistant producer with the Moscow Arts Theatre, where he worked until his resignation in 1936. During the late 1930s he was librettist and consultant at Bolshoi Theatre. Bulgakov's stage version of Gogol's Dead Souls premiered in 1932 and had a modest success, but his play about Pushkin, The Last Days, was first performed in 1943. Although  Bulgakov was subjected to a number of restrictions during his career, he survived attacks from the officials, when other intellectuals were imprisoned and perished in the 'Gulag Archipelago.' Bulgakov himself once joked about his relationship with the General Secretary of the Communist  Party that he wrote him every day long letters, signing them "Tarzan."  However, Stalin's favour protected Bulgakov only from being arrested, but his fiction remained unpublished. 

The translation of Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, finished in November 1932, was not accepted for production.  Zhizn' Gospodina de Mol'era, Bulgakov's prose biography of Molière, which he wrote the Lives of the Great series, was turned down by the series editor A.A. Tikhonov and Gorky, who said that "its 'playful' style will have to be changed. As it stands now it is not a serious piece of work. . . ." Bulgakov refused to make any alterations. The manuscript lay untouched for thirty years until the series published it in 1962 with an introduction by G. Boyadzhiyev.  

With Black Snow, a Theatrical Novel, Bulgakov took a revenge on Stanislavsky for the failure of his play A Cabal of Hypocrites, produced under the title Molière. In one scene Louis XIV, the Sun King, says: "Then hear this: my author is oppressed. He is frightened. I will show kindness to anyone who forewarns me of whatever danger imperils him... The ban is lifted. You may stage Tartuffe." Stanislavsky had made changes to the play, and Bulgakov felt that they utterly destroy his artistic conception.

Bulgakov's most important novel was The Master and Margarita, a fantasy about the Devil, disguised as a professor, who causes havoc in the city. The book was suppressed because Bulgakov refused to make the changes reguired by the authorities. Although Bulgakov worked still on the text on his death bed, the novel was completed. Probably if Stalin had know of the novel it would have been destroyed. The first Soviet edition was published in 1966-67, a fuller text appeared in 1973 and the revised full text in 1989.

The Master and Margarita (1928-40). Published in installments in 1966 and 1967 in the journal Moskva. The story takes place on three levels, each of which provides a commentary on the others. Historical narrative is set in Jerusalem, where Pontius Pilate condemns to death a man, Jeshua, whom he knows to be innocent. Contemporary narrative is set in Moscow, in the 1930s, where the Master and Margarita live and where the Master has written a novel about Pilate. The third, fantastic level introduces the devil, who steps out of Goethe's Faust. He appears in Moscow with a retinue that includes an enormous black cat. The devil, Woland, is unconventionally seen as a relatively sympathetic figure, Righteous Man in Sodom. Moreover, the character of Jesus, called Yeshua, in not very Biblical. The philosophical and religious themes and examination of the freedom of art circulate around the intrusion of the devil into the life of modern Moscow and the crucifixion of Christ. Interacting and competing discourses from the realms of science, religion, literature, history, and politics, complicate further the narrative. Master burns his manuscript and retires to a madhouse. Margarita's love for the master drives her to a pact with Satan. However, "manuscripts don't burn" and Woland defends the existence of Jeshua.
Bulgakov composed two versions of the work. One was written at home and another, when he did not have the original available, was born while he was living with a mistress. Much of the the satire is aimed at greed, vanity, and pettiness, but is possible to read the book as a tribute to Stalin's policy to cut the bourgeois elements of Soviet society. After the publication Bulgakov was seen as a link between such writers as Vasilii Aksenov, Andrei Siniavskii, and the Strugatskii brothers, and the great past tradition of Gogol and Dostoevskii.

Bulgakov was married three times: with Tatiana Nikolaevna Lappa (1913), Liubov Evgenevna Belozerskaia (1924), whose first husband was the feuilletonist Vasil'evsky ('Ne-Bukva'), and Yelena Sergeyevna Shilovskaya (1932), who gave invaluable support to the author when he worked on The Master and Margarita and had his fits of paranoia. Bulgakov died of a hereditary disease in Moscow on March 10, 1940. After his death he was considered for decades an outsider and the most "un-Soviet" author. Yelena kept the existence of The Master and Margarita a close secret and eventually fulfilled her vow to have it published, but it was not until the 1980s, when all of  Bulgakov's stories could be printed in his own home country.

For further reading: Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita' by Elena M. Mahlow (1974); The Master and Margarita by Lesley Milne (1977); Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations by A. Colin Wright (1978); Bulgakov. Life and Work by Ellendea Proffer (1984); Mihail Bulgakov by Nadine Natov (1985); Between Two Worlds by Andrew Barratt (1987); Mikhail Bulgakov and His Times by V.G. Vozkvizhenskii (1990); Mihail Bulgakov. A Critical Biography by Lesley Milne (1990); The Gnostiv Novel of Mikhail Bulgakov by Gerorge Krugovoy (1991); Manuscripts Don't Burn by J.A.E. Curtis (1992); Bulgakov: The Novelist-Playwright, edited by Lesley Milne (1995); Mikhail Bulgakov - Khudozhnik by V.V. Novikov (1996); The Master and Margarita, ed. by Laura Weeks (1996); Entsiklopediia Bulgakovskaia ed. by Boris Sokolov (1996); Mikhail Bulgakov: The Early Years by Edythe C. Haber (1998); Mikhail Bulgakov: A Critical Biography by Lesley Milne (2009); Bulgakov's Last Decade: The Writer as Hero  by J. A. E. Curtis (2009)   - See also: Arkady Strugatski

Selected works:

  • Zapiski na manzhetakh, 1922-23 [Notes on the Cuff and Other Stories]
  • Rokovyje jaitsa, 1924 [The Fatal Eggs]
    - Kohtalokkaat munat (suom. Esa Adrian, 1975)
    - TV film: Le uova fatali (1977), prod. Radiotelevisione Italiana, dir. Ugo Gregoretti, starring Gastone Moschin, Santo Versace, Alessandro Haber, Wilma D'Eusebio
  • Diavoliada: Rasskazy, 1925
    - Diaboliad and Other Stories (ed. by Ellendea and Carl Proffer, 1972)
  • Belaya gvardiya, 1925 (serialized in 1925, published in book form in 1973)
    - White Guard (translated by Marian Schwartz, 2008)
    - Valkokaarti (suom. Esa Adrian, 1972)
    - films: The White Guard, TV film in Twentieth Century Theatre (1960), dir. Rudolph Cartier, adaptation by Rodney Ackland ; The White Guard, TV film in BBC Play of the Month (1982), dir. Don Taylor, adaptation by Michael Glenny
  • Rasskazy, 1926 [Stories]
  • Dni Turbinykh, 1926 (play, from the novel)
    - The Days of the Turbins (translated by Eugene Lyons, 1935; ed. by Ellendea Proffer, in The Early Plays, 1972) / The White Guard (translated by Michael Glenny, 1973)
  • Zoikina kvartira, 1926 (play, prod. 1926)
    - Zoia's Apartment (published in The Early Plays, 1972)
  • Morfii, 1927 (serialized in Meditsinskii Rabotnik, publ. in Sobranie sochinenii v 5 tomakh, 1989-1990)
    - 'Morphine' (translated by Michael Glenny, in A Country Doctor's Notebook, 1975)
    - Morfiini ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Mika Rassi, 2011)
    - film: Morfiy (2008), dir. Aleksey Balabanov, screenplay Sergey Bodrov Jr., starring Leonid Bichevin, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Andrey Panin, Svetlana Pismichenko, Katarina Radivojevic
  • Dni Turbinykh (Belaya gvardiya), 1927-29 (2 vols.)
    - The Day of Turbins (tr. 1935) / The White Guard (translated by  Michael Glenny, 1973; Marian Schwartz, 2008)
    - Valkokaarti (suom. Esa Adrian, 1972)
    - film: Dni Turbinykh (1976), prod. Mosfilm, Gosteleradio, dir. Vladimir Basov, starring Andrey Myagkov, Andrei Rostotsky, Vasili Lanovoy, Vladimir Basov 
  • Bagrovyi ostrov, 1928 (play, prod., in P'esy, 1971)
    - The Crimson Island (in The Early Plays, ed. by Ellendea Proffer, 1972)
  • Mertvye dushi, 1932 (play, from the novel The Dead Souls by Gogol, prod. 1932)
  • Ivan Vasilievich, 1935 (play)
    - film: Ivan Vasilevich menyaet professiyu (1973), prod. Mosfilm, dir. Leonid Gaidai, starring Aleksandr Demyanenko, Yuriy Yakovlev and Leonid Kuravlyov
  • Kabala svyatosh, 1936 (play, as Mol'er, prod. 1936; publ. 1970)
    - A Cabal of Hypocrites (in The Early Plays, ed. by Ellendea Proffer, 1972) / Molière, or, The Union od Hypocrites (in a new version by Dusty Hughes from a literal translation by Helen Rappaport)
    - Molijer (1978), TV film, prod. Radiotelevizija Beograd, dir. Arsenije Jovanovic
  • Skupoy, 1939 (play, from L'Avare by Molière, in Polnoye sobraniye 4, by Molière)
  • Pushkin, 1940
  • Don Kikhot, 1940 (play, from the novel by Cervantes, in P'esy, 1962)
    - TV film: Don Kihot i Sanco Pansa (1971), prod. Radiotelevizija Beograd, dir. Zdravko Sotra, starring Vladimir Popovic, Predrag Lakovic and Tamara Miletic
  • Poslednie dni (Pushkin), 1943 (play, performed under the title Pushkin)
    - The Last Days (Pushkin) (in Russian Literature Triquarterly 15, 1976)
  • Rashel', 1943 (play, edited by Margarita Aliger, music by R.M. Glier, broadcast 1943, prod. 1947)
  • Beg, 1957 (play, written 1928, in P'esy, 1962, filmed in 1971)
    - Flight (translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1969) / On the Run: A Play in Eight Dreams (translated by Avril Pyman, 1972)
    - films: Bekstvo, TV movie (1968), prod. Radiotelevizija Beograd, dir. Zdravko Sotra, starring Neda Spasojevic, Stevo Zigon and Ratko Saric;  La fuite, TV movie (1971), dir.  Philippe Joulia, starring Alfred Adam, Daniel Gélin and Martine Sarcey; Beg (1972), prod. Mosfilm, dir. Aleksandr Alov, Vladimir Naumov, starring Lyudmila Savelyeva, Aleksey Batalov and Mikhail Ulyanov; Bekstvo, TV film (1998), dir. Branislav Kicic, starring Nenad Stojanovski, Tihomir Stanic and Ljiljana Dragutinovic  
  • Sbornik rasskazov, 1952
  • P'esy, 1962 (rev. ed. Dramy i komedii, 1965)
  • Zhizn' gospodina de Mol'era, 1962 (introduction by G. Boyadzhiyev)
    - The Life of Monsieur de Molière (translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1970)
    - Herra Molière (suom. Tuomo-Pekka Kalliomäki, 1990)
  • Zapiski iunogo vracha, 1963
    - A Country Doctor's Notebook (translated by Michael Glenny, 1975)
  • Dramy i komedii, 1965
  • Teatralny i roman, 1966 (written in the 1930s, published in Izbrannaya proza)
    - Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel (translated by Michael Glenny, 1967)
    - Teatteriromaani (suom. Esa Adrian, 1971)
    - TV film (2003), dir. Oleg Babitsky, Yuri Goldin, starring Igor Larin, Maksim Sukhanov, Nikolay Chindyaykin, Valeriy Zolotukhin
  • Izbrannaya proza, 1966
  • Ivan Vasilievich, 1966 (play, prod., with Myortvye dushi, 1964)
  • Master i Margarita, 1966-67 (complete version, 1969)
    - The Master and Margarita (translators: Mirra Ginsburg, 1967; Michael Glenny, 1967; Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, 1996; Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997)
    - Saatana saapuu Moskovaan (suom. Ulla-Liisa Heino, 1969)
    - films: Il maestro e Margherita / The Master and Margaret (1972), prod. Dunav Film, Euro International Film (EIA), dir. Aleksandar Petrovic, starring Ugo Tognazzi, Mimsy Farmer and Alain Cuny; Pilatus und andere - Ein Film für Karfreitag (1972), TV film, dir. Andrzej Wajda, starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Jan Kreczmar and Daniel Olbrychski; TV series: Mistrz i Malgorzata (1990) , prod. Centralna Wytwórnia Programów i Filmów Telewizyjnych  Poltel, dir. Maciej Wojtyszko; TV film: Pilát Pontský, onoho dne (1991), prod. CST Praha, Ceskoslovenská Televize, dir. Oldrich Danek, starring Ludek Munzar, Ondrej Vetchý and Jan Fulín; Master i Margarita (1994) dir. Yuri Kara, starring Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Viktor Rakov and Mikhail Ulyanov
    ; TV series (2005), prod. Honeymood Films, dir. Vladimir Bortko, starring Anna Kovalchuk, Aleksandr Galibin, Oleg Basilashvili, Vladislav Galkin
  • Sobachye serdtse, 1969 (written 1925, published officially in 1987 in the Soviet Union)
    - The Heart of a Dog (translated by Michael Glenny, 1968)
    - film: Cuore di cane (1976), prod. Corona Filmproduktion, Filmalpha, dir. Alberto Lattuada, starring Max von Sydow, Eleonora Giorgi, Mario Adorf, Gina Rovere 
  • P'esy, 1971
  • Adam i Eva, 1971 (play, in P'esy)
    - Adam and Eve (in Russian Literature Triquarterly 1, Fall, 1971; Michael Glenny, in Six Plays, 1991)
  • Poloumnyi zhurden, 1972 (play, prod., from Les Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Molière, in Dramy i komedii, 1965)
    - Lainahöyhenet (suom. Katja Losowitch)
  • The Early Plays, 1972 (ed. by Ellendea Proffer)
  • Diaboliad and Other Stories, 1972 (ed. by Ellendea and Carl Proffer)
  • Romany, 1973
  • Minin i Pozharsky, 1976 (play, ed. by A. Colin Wright, in Russian Literature Triquarterly 15, 1976)
  • Rannyaya nesobrannaya proza, 1978
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1982-90 (ed. by Elleanda Proffer, translated by Carl R. Proffer and Ellendea Proffer)
  • Voina i mir, 1981 (play, from the novel by Tolstoy, ed. by A. Colin Wright, in Canadian-American Slavic Studies 15, Summer-Fall 1981)
  • Chernoye More, 1988 [The Black Sea]
  • Petr Velikii, 1988 [Peter the Great]
  • P'esy 1920-kh godov, 1989
  • Izbrannye proizvedeniia v dvukh tomakh, 1989 (Vol. 1, ed. by Lidiia Ianovskaia, includes Belaia gvardiia)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1989-90 (5 vols.)
  • Pod piatoi: moi dnevnik, 1990
    - Manuscripts Don't Burn: A Life in Letters and Diaries (edited by J.A.E. Curtis, 1991)
  • Six Plays, 1991 (translated by Michael Glenny, William Powell and Michael Earley)
  • Manuscripts Don't Burn, 1991  (edited by J.A.E. Curtis)
  • P'esy 1930-kh godov, 1994

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