A master writer at his peak

In the hungry and chilly Moscow autumn of 1921, a poorly dressed young man knocked on the door of the daughter of a former tsarist general-turned-communist. The stranger asked the young woman, a typist, whether she would work for him on credit, promising to pay as soon as his book was published. It was called Notes on the Cuffs, and the author dictated it from scraps of paper and notebooks.

The book was a semi-biographical story of the author’s life in the North Caucasus in the months following the revolution. Amid lawlessness, hunger and typhus, the protagonist was appointed head of an arts department with a focus on literature. Everything goes well until he invokes the ire of his Soviet fellows by defending Alexander Pushkin. When one of the “destroyers of the old world”, a gun at his waist, threatened to throw the books into the stove as useless waste, our hero stopped him. He was immediately proclaimed a “yes-man of the bourgeoisie” and expelled from the world of Soviet art. Starving, he was forced to sell his hat to buy food. In his poverty he forgot his principles and wrote a revolutionary play, which pleased the locals and gave the author an opportunity to leave the wild Caucasus for a civilised Moscow.

Today, given Mikhail Bulgakov’s (1891-1940) popularity, we can only guess why that book was not published: all the horrors are described in such a bright and witty manner that they look delicious, as befits a true work of art. It was not until 1922, however, that the abridged version of the book was published by the pro-Soviet Berlin newspaper Nakanune.

Notes was followed by the phantasmagoric The Diaboliad, about a timid Soviet official overpowered by a diabolical boss named Kalsoner. Exposing the ugliness and absurdity of Soviet reality in the early Twenties, the author made no attempts at generalisation or categorisation. That would come later, in his novellas The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog.

In The Fatal Eggs, professor Persikov discovers a red ray, which accelerates growth in living organisms, producing bigger and better examples of any species. Communist scientists decide to use the invention to restore the chicken population, but are mistakenly provided with snake and crocodile eggs, due to the chaos inherent in the Soviet system.

In the Heart of a Dog, a surgeon turns a dog into a man. The mutant with the heart of a street dog represents the worst example of the Soviet proletariat, which run the show in post-revolutionary Russia. But this novel was never published in Soviet Russia. Bulgakov’s most poetic work, White Army, devoted to the agony of Russia’s intelligentsia, found itself between the Scylla of Bolshevism and the Charybdis of the national Ukrainian movement.

The general’s daughter moved out of her flat in 1924, before the novel was completed, but a few years later she received tickets from the author to the performance of the play under the name The Days of the Turbins. It was a success, she recalled almost 50 years later. But Bulgakov was not left to rest on his laurels, being accused of praising White Army principles. To everyone’s surprise, Stalin himself rose to his defence. “As for the play The Days of the Turbins, it is not that bad, it produces more benefit than harm. Don’t forget, the main impression from this play is in Bolsheviks’ favour: if even people like the Turbins had to lay down their arms and bow to the will of the people, admitting complete defeat, this means the Bolsheviks are invincible, that no measures can be taken against them,” was Stalin’s verdict.

However, the Soviet leader was not so happy with the 1928 play The Flight – one of the best Russian plays of the 20th century, which depicted the collapse of pre-revolutionary Russia and was set in the Bolshevik-besieged Crimea.

In his 1930 letter to Stalin, Bulgakov admitted that he regarded the intelligentsia as “the finest people in our country”, contrasting revolutionary progress with great evolution, and asked to be sent abroad if this was “unthinkable” in Russia. However, a few days later, Stalin himself called Bulgakov to say that a Russian writer could not live outside his motherland. Shortly after, Bulgakov received a job in the Moscow Art Theatre.

Over the remaining decade, Bulgakov wrote a number of plays, all of which were either rejected or staged for only a few performances. Despite his despair, the writer continued to work on his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. It was the publication of this book in 1967 that cemented Bulgakov’s fame throughout the world.

People who had lost their faith in God savoured this tale in which helpless Goodness is supported by seductive Evil: the dogged writer is freed from an asylum and granted eternal peace in a quiet and beautiful place – accompanied by his forever-young Margarita – by the Devil himself, in the guise of the foreigner Voland. None of the novel’s characters is punished by death, except a man who dared to sneer at Christ. On the other hand, Bulgakov paints Joshua as a naïve and sagacious prophet. For a believer, this downgrading of the mysterious and metaphysical to a mere myth might amount to sacrilege, but for many Soviet readers, removed from religion as they were, such interpretation was like a revelation, bringing them closer to Christianity.

Today, however, with orthodoxy returning to Russian schools, we can only guess about the further evolution of Joshua’s image. Yet, the images of two tired lovers, the Master and Margarita, are forever imprinted on Russian culture.

Alexander Melikhov, writer and columnist

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