Mikhail Bulgakov Biography
Mikhail Bulgakov has the distinction of being one of a very few Russian writers who received telephones calls from Joseph Stalin. Even though he often made fun of the world’s first Communist government and wrote scathing satire against its leader, Bulgakov was actually one of Stalin’s favorite writers. That didn’t mean, however, Bulgakov was safe from the censor’s pen. He was so depressed by Stalin’s ban on all his earlier books that he burned the first and only copy of The Master and Margarita; he then changed his mind and had to rewrite the novel from memory. It was a good decision. Because of this novel, critics have praised Bulgakov as one of the best authors of the twentieth century. He died in 1940, dictating the final changes to his masterpiece to his wife.
Facts and Trivia
- Bulgakov was a doctor by training and practiced medicine before he became a writer. While he served as a doctor on the front line during the war between Russia and Germany, he became addicted to morphine.
- Stalin once asked Bulgakov to produce several classic literary pieces for the stage. Very few of those works, however, were allowed to be published.
- Bulgakov’s greatest novel, The Master and Margarita, was not published until twenty-seven years after the author’s death. He asked his wife to hide the manuscript, fearing that it might be confiscated or destroyed.
- One of the characters in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is Satan. For this reason, a group of Satanists occupied Bulgakov’s empty apartment after the author’s death and created lavish graffiti all over the walls.
- Despite his fears, Bulgakov used to say that “a manuscript cannot be burned.” This has become a popular phrase in Russia, meaning that once an author has written a book, it might be banned but it will never disappear.
The son of a theology professor, Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was born in Kiev on May 15, 1891, and was reared in a middle-to upper-middle-class family among the intelligentsia of that city. Characters like the ones he must have known as a child show up in his drama frequently and are usually portrayed sympathetically, indicating, perhaps, a comparatively happy childhood in an affluent milieu that was to be radically altered during the Revolution and the following civil war. From 1901 to 1909, Bulgakov attended Kiev’s Aleksandrovsky High School, where his main interest seemed to be theater. Nevertheless, though renowned in childhood as a storyteller and mimic, Bulgakov enrolled in the College of Medicine at Kiev University, from which he was graduated with distinction in 1916. Bulgakov declared a specialty in venereology and, taking his first wife, Tatiana Lappa, to whom he had been married in 1913, with him, practiced medicine in the rural villages of Nikolskoe and Vyazma, primarily curing infections and amputating limbs. Returning to Kiev, where he spent the Civil War residing in the formerly placid family apartment, he witnessed fourteen changes of government in Kiev. He later chronicled this instability and its effects on Kiev’s citizens in the novel The White Guard and in his first major play, Days of the Turbins.
In 1920, Bulgakov abandoned medicine for a career as a writer, penning several no longer remembered plays for the provincial theater in Vladikavkaz, where he also did some acting. While beginning work on The White Guard, which in 1927 would establish his reputation as a writer, Bulgakov moved in 1921 to Moscow, the city that would be his home until six months before his death. During the next few years, Bulgakov worked on his novel and made a living writing stories for Communist magazines and newspapers. These first stories, some clearly autobiographical, mainly depict the cruelty and violence of the Civil War and the low-life characters struggling to exist in the first years of the New Economic Policy, which went into effect in March, 1921. Among the best-known of these pieces are “Diavoliada” (“Diaboliad”) and “Rokovye yaytsa” (“The Fatal Eggs”), published in the periodical Nedra in 1924 and 1925, respectively. In 1924, Bulgakov’s marriage was dissolved, and he was married to Lyubov Belozersky. The following year marked a turning point in Bulgakov’s life, witnessing the completion of the novella The Heart of a Dog; the publication of his first collection of stories, Diavoliada (Diaboliad and Other Stories, 1972); the publication of the first installments of The White Guard; and a coveted invitation from the Moscow Art Theatre to convert The White Guard to a play.
The story surrounding the composition and performance history of Days of the Turbins (the title given to the play over Bulgakov’s objections) is legendary. Undergoing constant revision (by Bulgakov, Ilya Sudakov, Pavel Markov, and Stanislavsky himself) until its first public rehearsal in October, 1926, Days of the Turbins raised an immediate storm. As the first Soviet play to portray Whites in the Civil War sympathetically, the play caused Party members to walk out, and middle-class audiences, who may well have been thrilled to hear the old Imperial Anthem sung onstage, to line up for tickets. Despite condemnation from theater critics writing for the Communist Party presses, the play entered the repertory, becoming the Moscow Art Theatre’s biggest post-Revolutionary success, and Bulgakov emerged a celebrity.
The years immediately following this controversy were good ones for Bulgakov. He had begun what was to become The Master and Margarita , he was active in the theater life of...
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Moscow, and at one time, in 1928, he had three plays—Days of the Turbins, Zoya’s Apartment, and The Crimson Island—playing simultaneously. Yet Bulgakov’s next two plays, Flight and A Cabal of Hypocrites, were rejected by the party censors, and after March, 1929, all his plays were banned from the theaters. Despairing (Bulgakov burned several of his works, among them the early drafts of The Master and Margarita) and desperate, the playwright, on March 28, 1930, wrote a letter to Stalin, which has become famous. Bulgakov attacked the Central Repertory Committee responsible for state censorship and requested permission to leave the Soviet Union. Three weeks later, Stalin phoned Bulgakov to discuss his situation. Then, probably as a result of Stalin’s direct intervention, Bulgakov was offered a position as assistant director and literary consultant with the Moscow Art Theatre, where he worked primarily on adaptations. In 1932, Days of the Turbins was revived and reintroduced into the repertory of the Moscow Art Theatre. Receiving several hundred rubles a month, Bulgakov was once again financially secure and began a second creative phase that produced five new plays and the biography of Molière. He also separated from Lyubov Belozersky and was married to his third wife, Elena Shilovsky.
After a rift with Stanislavsky over the production of A Cabal of Hypocrites in 1936, Bulgakov left the Moscow Art Theatre for the Bolshoi Theatre. He wrote several librettos for that company and began the lampoon Black Snow. After discovering symptoms of neurosclerosis, Bulgakov worked frantically to complete The Master and Margarita and wrote his final play, Batum, about Stalin as a young revolutionary. In late 1939, Bulgakov, now blind, moved to Leningrad, where he at last finished The Master and Margarita, his masterpiece, shortly before his death on March 10, 1940. He is buried in Moscow’s Novodevichye Cemetery.