Bulgakov, Mikhail 1891-1940
(Born Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov. Wrote under the pseudonyms Emma B., F. S-ov, Em. Be., Ivan Bezdomny, M. Ol-Rait, and Neznakomets) Russian novelist, novella and short story writer, dramatist, biographer, and essayist.
Considered one of the foremost satirists of post-revolutionary Russia, Bulgakov is best known for his novel Master i Margarita (The Master and Margarita), which is recognized as one of the greatest Russian novels of the century. His short stories and fictional sketches, like his other works, often present the adjustment of the Russian intellectual class to life under communist rule. Heavily influenced by Nikolai Gogol, Bulgakov combined fantasy, realism, and satire to ridicule modern progressive society in general and the Soviet system in particular.
Bulgakov was born in 1891 into a Russian family of the intellectual class in the Ukrainian city of Kiev. Music, literature, and theater were important in the family life of the young Bulgakov, as was religion. His father, a professor at the Kiev theological academy, instilled in his son a belief in God and an interest in spiritual matters that he would retain throughout his life. Bulgakov attended Kiev's most prestigious secondary school, where he earned a reputation for playing practical jokes and inventing stories. He continued his education as a medical student at the University of Kiev and graduated with distinction in 1916. Assigned to noncombat duty in the Russian army during World War I, Bulgakov worked for several months in frontline military hospitals until he transferred to a remote village, where he served as the only doctor for an entire district; his experiences in this position served as the basis for the stories of Zapiski iunogo vracha (Notes of a Young Doctor).Bulgakov was discharged in 1918 and abandoned medicine two years later to devote his time to writing pieces for newspapers and magazines. In 1921 he moved to Moscow, where he struggled to support himself and his first wife by editing and writing for various newspapers, but gradually became established as an author. From 1925 to 1928 Bulgakov worked in close association with the Moscow Art Theater as a writer, producer, and occasionally as an actor. His plays were all well received by audiences but denounced by Communist Party critics, and in 1929 his works were banned for their ideological nonconformity. At Bulgakov's request, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin intervened to enable some of his works to be published and performed. Bulgakov resigned form the Art Theater in 1936, at which time he became a librettist for the Bolshoi Theater. Though publishing little, he wrote steadily until his death from nephrosclerosis in 1940.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Bulgakov's first published collection of short stories, D'iavoliada (Diaboliad, and Other Stories), was strongly influenced by Gogol: realism dissolves into fantasy and absurdity, and light comic satire erupts into sudden brutality. Included is his best-known story, "Rokovye iaitsa" ("The Fatal Eggs"), in which a well-meaning scientist discovers a red ray that stimulates growth. The ray is appropriated by a bureaucrat to increase the country's chicken population, but through a mix-up produces instead a crop of giant reptiles that ravage the countryside. "The Fatal Eggs" introduces one of Bulgakov's favorite themes: the consequences of power in the hands of the ignorant. Although written during the same period as Diaboliad, Bulgakov's Notes of a Young Doctor differs radically in its strict realism and exclusion of the fantastic and grotesque. This collection of autobiographical fiction records his trials as an inexperienced doctor working under primitive conditions, and the difficulties he faced as an educated man among the ignorant, superstitious peasants. Another literary achievement, Sobach'e serdtse (The Heart of a Dog), portrays a scientist's transformation of a dog into a man. The creature develops reprehensible human qualities, and the scientist changes him back into the goodnatured dog he once was.
Most of Bulgakov's short fiction was written early in his career, in the middle of the 1920s. Due to official censorship of his manuscript during his lifetime, Bulgakov's greatest works remained unpublished until after his death. The Heart of a Dog, which is ranked among Soviet Russia's best satirical fiction, has never been published in the Soviet Union because of its counterrevolutionary cast. This story has obvious thematic parallels to "The Fatal Eggs" and the two works have elicited similar critical readings. Some critics consider The Heart of a Dog a blatant political satire, equating the operation with the Revolution, while others stress a moral and philosophical interpretation of the conflict between the intellectual scientist and the uneducated masses, and of the disastrous results of interfering with a natural process. Commentators have read "The Fatal Eggs" as a satirical treatment of the Russian Revolution, or, less specifically, as a commentary on progress and a rejection of revolution in favor of evolution. Reviewers generally praise the stories of Notes of a Young Doctor, especially those evincing attention to dramatic tension, but speculate as to whether the collection might more correctly be considered autobiography than fiction.