Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov (bewl-GAH-kuhf) was born in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, then part of the Russian empire, in 1891. Although Kiev was an ancient seat of Russian civilization, Ukraine was a distinct province of the Russian empire with its own sense of identity. Bulgakov’s family was of Russian ethnicity, however, and solidly situated in Kiev’s middle-class intelligentsia. His father, A. I. Bulgakov, came from a line of theologians and was himself a professor at the Kiev Theological Academy. His mother was both religious and intellectual and played a large part in the education of Mikhail and his six brothers and sisters. At home, Bulgakov developed an interest in religion that lasted into the officially atheistic Communist years of his country, influencing his writings.
A. I. Bulgakov died in 1907, when Mikhail was only sixteen. His widowed mother supported the family, becoming a teacher and secretary at a society for the advancement of learning. At an early age, then, the future writer experienced the life of the struggling middle class.
Bulgakov’s literary tastes and understanding were formed in school, as well as at home. His teachers at the First Kiev Gymnasium, which he attended from 1901 to 1904, encouraged him to read the great writers of Russian literature, including Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Fyodor Dostoevski. After graduating from the gymnasium, he went on to study medicine at St. Vladimir University, completing his degree in 1916. While a student, he married his first wife, Tatiana Lappa, in 1913.
The young doctor finished his education to begin a professional life in the midst of war and revolution; Russia had been embroiled in World War I since 1914. Bulgakov practiced medicine for a time at the Kiev Military Hospital and then was transferred to be the only doctor in a small village in Smolensk province. His observations of peasant life became the basis for a short-story collection that he wrote in the 1920’s, Zapiski iunogo vracha (1963; A Country Doctor’s Notebook, 1975).
The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, took power in Petrograd (later Leningrad) in late 1917. They pulled the Russian empire, soon renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, out of World War I but waged a bloody civil war to unite the country under their government. Bulgakov returned to...
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