The man with the monocle

As Russia celebrates the 125th anniversary of Bulgakov’s birth this year, his work continues to shine a light on the role of the artist in a closed society.

This article appears as the cover story of the May/June 2016 issue of Russian Life magazine.

In January of 1930, Mikhail Bulgakov was a great writer with only one published novel to his name, a situation that was driving him to despair over his literary career.

“All my literary works have perished, as have my literary plans,” he wrote to his brother Nikolai in Paris. “I am condemned to silence and, quite possibly, to complete starvation.”

Bulgakov’s fortunes had turned the previous year when his new play Flight, depicting the exodus of the Russian intelligentsia after the Bolshevik Revolution, was dismissed by Josef Stalin as an “anti-Soviet phenomenon.” The remark was made in private but reverberated throughout the literary community. Overnight Bulgakov became an outcast from the world where he had only recently been a star. His five running plays, including the wildly successful Days of the Turbins (which Stalin himself had attended no fewer than 15 times), were dropped by the theaters, while his new works, most notably a biographical play about the French playwright Molière, were denied authorization for performance. He became unemployable and his work effectively untouchable. Though he continued to hold out hope that things would change, Bulgakov would not publish another work for the rest of his life.

Several months after writing to his brother, Bulgakov composed another letter – this time, to the Soviet government. In a lengthy treatise that decried his vilification in the Soviet press and affirmed his right to free speech, Bulgakov presented the government with an ultimatum: either allow him to emigrate from the Soviet Union, or secure his employment at home. The now-infamous response was a personal phone call from Stalin. Did the writer really want to leave the country? the Soviet leader asked. Bulgakov, caught in a moment of uncertainty, changed his mind: “I have thought a great deal recently about the question of whether a Russian writer can live outside his homeland,” he recounted his answer later. “And it seems to me he cannot.”

The decision to remain at home proved fateful for the writer, who was unaware at the time that he had signed his own sentence to “lifelong silence” in his country. But it would also be a fateful decision for Stalin and the monolithic system he oversaw. We can only guess how Bulgakov’s legacy would have unfolded if he had succeeded in moving abroad. But by remaining in the Soviet Union, surrounded by his audience yet unable to speak to them, Bulgakov was forced into creating works of such stunning clarity of vision that, with their sheer truthfulness, would eventually break through the silence and illuminate the cracks in the Soviet system. As Russia celebrates the 125th anniversary of the writer’s birth this year, the body of work he left behind continues to shine a light on the role of the artist in a controlled society. If there is one lesson it seems to impart, it is to transmit the reality of what you see, and to never look away.


Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891 to a middle-class family of intellectuals. His father was a professor of religion at the Kiev Theological Academy, his mother the daughter of an Orthodox priest. The young Bulgakov and his six siblings received an excellent education steeped in literature and the theater. In 1916 he graduated with honors from Kiev University Medical School, just before the outbreak of the Russian Civil War. After being declared unfit for combat, he was mobilized as a military doctor and sent to work in a provincial hospital in Ukraine.

Doctors were in short supply during the war and therefore in great demand by each warring side as it temporarily seized power. According to the literary scholar Ellendea Proffer, Bulgakov was alternately mobilized by the Ukrainian nationalist forces as well as the monarchist Whites, and witnessed atrocities committed by both sides (Bulgakov later wrote that there were fourteen power changes in Kiev between 1917 and 1920, and that he personally lived through ten of them). He was eventually sent to the North Caucasus, where he contracted a near-fatal bout of typhus that would lead to a brief but intense morphine addiction. As the Whites retreated and fled to emigration, Bulgakov, still unwell, stayed behind. In 1921 he abandoned the Caucasus along with his medical career and moved to Moscow, where he would spend the rest of his life as a writer.

View of Saint Andrew’s Church and the Andreevsky Descent in Kiev (undated). Bulgakov lived in a house on the street sloping down from the cathedral.

The Revolution and Civil War were a turning point in Bulgakov’s relationship with his native city that fundamentally altered his view of where he belonged. As he wrote in his 1923 essay Kiev-gorod (“The City of Kiev”), the war shattered a former idyllic existence in the once “happy city:”

Those were legendary times, those times when in the gardens of our country’s most beautiful city there lived a carefree, young generation. In the hearts of this generation there was born a certainty that the whole of life would pass in white blossom, quietly, calmly, dawns, sunsets, the Dnieper, the Kreshchatik, sunlit streets in summer, and in winter the snow, not cold, not harsh, but large-flaked and caressing…

… But it turned out quite the opposite.

The legendary times broke off, and suddenly, and threateningly, history stepped in.

Following a common historical pattern, the dissolution of the Russian Empire awakened aspirations of nationhood among its resident ethnic minorities. In Ukraine in particular, the revolution adopted a strongly nationalistic character that Bulgakov, as an ethnic Russian, found difficult to support. Indeed, these aspirations seemed demographically unjustified for a resident of Kiev at the time: in 1917 more than half of the city’s population was Russian, while 20 percent was Jewish and only 16 percent Ukrainian. The real Ukraine began in the countryside, and to the city-dwelling Bulgakov, the countryside did not a civilization make. As the cultural historian Evgeny Dobrenko writes in his introduction to The White Guard, Bulgakov saw Kiev first and foremost as a Russian city — the “mother of Russian cities,” as he called it in his essay — and effectively rejected the idea of Ukrainian statehood. The Revolution and its aftermath played a significant role in Bulgakov’s eventual relocation to Moscow.

This conflicting experience of the Revolution was captured in The White Guard (1925), Bulgakov’s first novel and the only substantial work that he published during his lifetime. Dobrenko notes that Bulgakov loved The White Guard more than any of his other works, and the novel itself is his most thoroughly autobiographical, with the fictional Turbin family drawn largely upon Bulgakov’s own. Beginning in 1918 Ukraine, the narrative follows the fate of the Turbins as they watch various armies – the Whites, the Bolshevik Reds, the imperial Germans and the Ukrainian nationalists – battle over control of Kiev. “There was a very special threshold of truth, a very special nerve, and a very special pain, in The White Guard,” writes Dobrenko. “Revolution singed Bulgakov once and for all. It made him a writer.” The novel also reflected Bulgakov’s skepticism toward the Ukrainian national movement to a degree that angered its supporters. After the novel was turned into the popular play Days of the Turbins, the Ukrainian elites demanded that it be banned, arguing that the play portrayed the attempt to create a Ukrainian state as a “bloody operetta.”


Bulgakov arrived in Moscow in 1921, at a time of rapid transformation. That year, the Communist Party under Vladimir Lenin had announced the start of the New Economic Policy (NEP), an experiment with limited capitalism that replaced the policy of complete nationalization that had crippled the Soviet economy during the Russian Civil War. The NEP period saw the revival of small-scale private trade, the rapid electrification and modernization of cities, a blossoming of publications, particularly humorous ones, and the rise of the so-called “Nepmen” — a class of newly-rich swindlers and entrepreneurs. Bulgakov’s initial letters and articles from Moscow (notably a feuilleton titled “The Shopping Renaissance,” the first piece he wrote upon his arrival) contain a note of bewilderment at his new surroundings, but they soon give way to a sense of having come to the right place at the right time. “Moscow is an immense city, a unique civilization, and it is the only place to live,” he concluded in a sketch in 1923.

View from Metropole hotel - 1925
Bulgakov arrived in Moscow at a time of rapid transformation. (Photo: Moscow, view from the Metropol Hotel, 1925)

During the early 1920s Bulgakov wrote a variety of humorous miniatures about Moscow life for the newspapers Nakanune and Gudok (“The Hooter”), the official mouthpiece of the Railway Workers’ Union, which published such writers as Isaac Babel, Yuri Olesha, and the satirist duo Ilf and Petrov. His work for Nakanune (“On the Eve”) is particularly interesting, for the paper was essentially a form of mild propaganda: published in Berlin by Russian emigres but subsidized by the Soviet government, Nakanune sought to report to Russians abroad on the exciting changes happening under NEP, thereby calming their fears about Communism and encouraging them to return home. The paper employed writers who, like Bulgakov, were skeptical of the Soviet regime but loved Russian culture and regarded Moscow as its center. Bulgakov eventually left the paper due to its Soviet bent, but a selection of his writings from this time were published in the collection Notes on the Cuff (1923). The man who would later plead for emigration dedicated this work to all “the floating, travelling, and suffering writers of Russia.”

From the beginning Bulgakov’s works toed the line of subversion by implying that pre-Revolutionary vices lived on in the new Soviet society.

From his earliest writings Bulgakov began to develop the themes that would come to a crescendo in his sunset masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. His first works written in Moscow reflect the uncertainty of the years immediately after the Civil War (he was “a nervous man writing in a nervous time,” as Proffer put it), and Bulgakov’s own playful skepticism toward the NEP experiment and the Soviet project more broadly. From the beginning his works toed the line of subversion by subtly implying that the old, pre-Revolutionary vices lived on in the new Soviet society. This critique became most overt in his science-fiction novella The Fatal Eggs (1924), a satire on the Bolshevik’s belief in science, and Heart of a Dog (1925), an allegory of the Revolution and its attempt to create a new breed of man. Bulgakov managed to publish The Fatal Eggs but was strongly criticized for it in the Soviet press, after which his house was searched by the secret police and his diary, along with the manuscript of Heart of a Dog, were confiscated. The latter work would not be published in the Soviet Union until 1987, more than 60 years after its writing.

Bulgakov wrote Heart of a Dog at the height of the NEP period, a time when he considered himself the most artistically free. The response of the authorities disabused him of this notion. The end of 1925 marked the onset of a sustained tightening of the artistic sphere, leading up to Stalin’s complete abolishment of the NEP in 1928. Unhappily for Bulgakov, this period also coincided with the writer’s foray into the theater. Following two simultaneous successes with Days of the Turbins at the Moscow Art Theater and the salon-comedy Zoyka’s Apartment at the Vakhtangov Studio, Stalin’s offhand comment about the play Flight effectively put an end to Bulgakov’s theatrical career. From that point on Bulgakov’s running plays were cancelled and he was taunted, as though on purpose, with offers for new projects that were invariably shut down just before reaching the stage. His 1929 play The Cabal of Hypocrites¸ which drew a parallel between the persecution of the French playwright Molière by the Catholic Church and the censorship by the current Soviet regime, was initially banned by the Repertory Committee censors, then premiered six years later to resounding success, only to be cancelled again following a smear campaign in the Soviet press. Bulgakov resigned from his position at the Moscow Art Theater soon after, saying the theater had become “a graveyard of my plays.”

The year 1929 was a turning point in another way: it was when Bulgakov met Elena Shilovskaya, his future wife and the inspiration for the female muse in The Master and Margarita, the novel on which Bulgakov would work, in secret, for the rest of his life. The couple met when they were both in their mid-thirties and in the middle of their second marriages (Bulgakov had left his first wife rather unceremoniously, as he would soon do to his second). The affair began just as Bulgakov started work on The Master and Margarita, and became interwoven with its narrative. Elena recalled how, during one of their first outings, Bulgakov convinced her to meet him at three in the morning at Patriarch’s Ponds — the location where the Devil first touches down in Moscow in the novel’s opening chapter. Pointing to a bench, he exclaimed: “here they saw him for the first time!” Like Margarita, Elena eventually left her husband, a high-ranking military officer, to join the persecuted writer.


Why was The Master and Margarita so subversive for its time? Much attention has been drawn to the novel’s realistic portrayal of Biblical events, which directly contradicted their historical denial by the militantly atheistic Soviet Union. But the main reason may have lain closer to home. Having exhausted any hopes of appeasing the Soviet censors and achieving publication in his country, Bulgakov set out in his final novel to disrobe the hypocrisy and horror of the Soviet regime itself. To that end, he trained his eye on two pillars of the Stalin system. The first was the swarming anthill of cultural bureaucrats tasked with enforcing the doctrine of “Socialist Realism,” a model for art and literature adopted by the state that largely stifled true talent in favor of political loyalty.

In his final novel Bulgakov set out to take down two main pillars of the Stalin system.

Officially proclaimed in 1934 with the blessing of the father of Soviet literature, Maxim Gorky, this new doctrine called upon artists, writers and directors to create works celebrating the triumphant achievements of Soviet rule. In the literary community it effectively transformed the independent artist into an organized employee of the Soviet state, who, having exchanged the Muse for MASSOLIT (to use the example of the debauched writer’s union in Bulgakov’s novel), went on to churn out unflinchingly exuberant works in return for political and material benefits. This required turning a conscious blind eye to the system’s shortfalls. As W. Bruce Lincoln observed in his overview of artistic life in Russia, “The art of Socialist Realism was selective and optimistic. It overlooked massive failures, inflated small accomplishments, and gave substance to the unfounded claim that Stalin, the mean-spirited and tyrannical revolutionary from Georgia, possessed the insight and brilliance to give shape to Lenin’s vision.” The great irony of Socialist Realism was that it was anything but realistic. At a time of enormous hardships brought on by the aftermath of the Civil War, the First World War, a massive industrialization campaign and the spread of labor camps throughout the Soviet Union, the purveyors of Socialist Realism placated the citizenry with visions of a coming utopia, knowing all the while that it was far from true.

The Master and Margarita teems with characters who become aware of the discrepancy between what they write and what they see, from the minor poet Ryukhin (“But why are my poems bad?…I don’t believe in anything I’ve ever written!”) to the leading proletarian poet Ivan Bezdomny, who swears to the Master that he will never again write his “horrible” verse. But greater still is the community of literati who continue to bask in the deception while enjoying the lavish gifts bestowed upon them by the state, as illustrated by the fancy dinners and vacation retreats served up at the writer’s union headquarters. At the top of this system sits Berlioz, the quintessential literary bureaucrat, whom Bulgakov gleefully decapitates in the opening chapters.

The real “deal with the Devil” in Master and Margarita is the selling out of the literary establishment to the Soviet regime.

If one is to read between the lines, the underlying “deal with the Devil” that shapes the novel is not the one made by Margarita; it is the selling out of the entire literary establishment to the Soviet regime. And it is Bulgakov’s takedown of this literary establishment, his glaring exposure of its pettiness and mediocrity, that precluded any chance of the novel’s publication. Indeed, it is the reason why Bulgakov didn’t even try. Writing to his wife in 1938, when the manuscript was nearly finished, Bulgakov lamented the novel’s fate: “Possibly, you will store the manuscript in one of the drawers, next to my ‘killed’ plays…My own judgement of the book is already made and I think it truly deserves to be hidden away in the darkness of some chest.”

Although Bulgakov worked on The Master and Margarita for twelve years, between 1928 and his death in 1940, the novel reached its mature stage during the height of Stalin’s political terror, in 1937. During that year alone some two million people were arrested, close to 700,000 were executed, and almost 1.3 million were deported to camps and labor colonies. People began to vanish without a trace; Elena’s diary entries from this period read like a register of arrests and disappearances in the circle around them, drawn from newspaper reports, phone calls, and word-of-mouth.

The disappearances took place in the open but were not openly discussed. “There is no question but what a major operation is going on here,” wrote Joseph E. Davies, the American ambassador at the time, who had occasion to interact with the Bulgakovs. “On the face of things everything is quiet. There is nothing unusual in the streets or among the crowds you see, but there are constant rumors, both unverified and authenticated, of prominent people in all sections of life being in prison or liquidated.”

Bulgakov alludes to these events in his description of the site where the Devil named Woland eventually takes up residence – the Evil Apartment at No. 50 Sadovaya Street (or, in a translation closer to the Russian, the “bad little flat”):

Inexplicable things began happening in the apartment: people started disappearing without a trace. Once, on a day off, a policeman appeared , summoned the second lodger (whose name has been lost) into the front hall, and said that he had been asked to come down to the police station for a minute in order to sign something…Not only did he not return in ten minutes, he never returned at all. And the most astonishing thing was that the policeman evidently disappeared along with him.

Well, as everyone knows, once witchcraft gets started, there’s no stopping it. The second lodger disappeared, I recall, on a Monday, and on Wednesday Belomut vanished as if he had fallen through the earth, albeit in different circumstances. In the morning a car came to take him to work as usual, and the car did leave with him, but it did not bring anyone back, and never returned again.

These astonishingly overt allusions to Stalin’s repressions – the second pillar of the regime that Bulgakov submits to scrutiny in The Master and Margarita – are made more potent by their evocation of black magic. Not only is the regime corrupt, but it is supernatural, unhuman; a dark force that has descended upon Russia and wreaked havoc everywhere it touched.

The parallel, though cloaked in comedy, between Woland’s retinue and the Soviet regime began to take on greater meaning as the terror intensified. For years the Bulgakovs had watched and consoled their friends as they experienced one tragedy after another. The first shock came with the suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the prominent revolutionary poet, in 1930. Then followed the arrests and deportations of fellow writers. Anna Akhmatova came to the Bulgakov house in 1935, shaken by the simultaneous arrest of her husband and son. Nadezhda Mandelstam turned to them for help after the Mandelstams returned, destitute, from their exile in Voronezh. Yuri Olesha phoned Bulgakov for advice after his stepson committed suicide by jumping from a window. The year 1937 brought the arrest of Vladimir Mutnykh, the director of the Bolshoi Theater, where Bulgakov had briefly worked as a librettist. Finally, in 1939, Elena received the news that the actress Zinaida Reich had been brutally murdered in her home, just weeks after the arrest of her husband, the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold. The Bulgakovs were left untouched, but the price seemed almost too high to pay.


Bulgakov was a living barometer of the social atmosphere in the Soviet Union. As the arrests and political paranoia of the 1930s continued, the writer’s physical and mental health declined. He developed intense anxiety and a fear of open spaces, and had to be accompanied by Elena each time he left the house. Writing projects were not forthcoming, and money was tight.

Then, in 1938, Bulgakov received an unexpected offer: the Moscow Art Theater wanted him to write a play about Stalin on the occasion of the leader’s sixtieth birthday the following year. According to Elena’s diary entries, Bulgakov grappled with the moral dilemma of writing a celebratory piece about his greatest tormentor. But in the end he took the project, hoping to establish good relations between himself and Stalin and, in so doing, to gain a chance of reviving his career. Work on the play lasted five months, from January to June 1939; out of 15 potential titles, one was The Master. It was finally completed under the name Batum, after the Georgian city where the young Stalin launched his revolutionary career. But the project turned out to be Stalin’s final, calculated insult to the writer. After passing through every organ of state censorship, the play was rejected by its final reader, the Soviet leader himself.

This devastation, according to Bulgakov’s biographers, contributed to the onset of terminal sclerosis of the kidneys that would end his life a year later. And something else was extinguished: in the last year of his life, the artist who so piercingly saw the world around him went blind.


In Russia, as in other countries with a history of suppression by the state, the people hold a special respect for writers who choose to fight their battle at home – even if that deprives them of the chance to publish. As Boris Pasternak said in 1935, other writers were officially recognized, whereas Bulgakov was “an unlawful phenomenon.”

In his final days, Bulgakov predicted that “When I die, they’ll soon start to print me, theaters will snatch my plays from each other…” His rediscovery took more time than Bulgakov predicted, but when it happened, the effect was greater than anything he could have thought. Due in large part to Elena’s tireless work, the plays first began to reappear, in publication and on stage, beginning in the late 1950s. An abridged version of The Master and Margarita was finally published in the journal Moscow in 1966-67, followed by the release of the complete version in New York and Paris, along with the theatrical novel Black Snow. The perestroika years of the late 1980s brought the greatest surge of publications and the discovery of Bulgakov’s diaries, confiscated more than half a century earlier. For the first time Russians learned about Bulgakov’s rich literary legacy, and they were not prepared for what they found. “After decades of isolation from the European cultural continuum,” wrote the scholar Leslie Milne, “Soviet readers… encountered an old culture as a new intellectual continent.”

Today Bulgakov and his phantasmagorical works tower among the giants of twentieth century literature. In a recent poll, every tenth respondent in Russia named him first among the country’s greatest writers. Redemption, it seems, does come to the artist in due time. More than two decades after his death, Bulgakov’s wife Elena wrote a letter to his brother Nikolai, who had emigrated to Paris shortly after the Civil War. In it, she described her husband’s last day. After slipping in and out of consciousness, she wrote, “Misha began to breathe faster and faster, then suddenly he opened his eyes very wide and sighed. There was astonishment in his eyes, and they were filled with an unusual light.”


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