Mikhail Bulgakov Bulgakov, Mikhail - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

*Short Fiction

D'iavoliada [Diaboliad, and Other Stories] 1925

Zapiski iunogo vracha [Notes of a Young Doctor; also translated as A Country Doctor's Notebooks] 1963

Sobach'e serdtse [The Heart of a Dog] 1969 Sobrante sochinenii (short stories, novels, and dramas) 1982-

Notes on the Cuff, and Other Stories 1991

Other Major Works

Dni Turbinykh [Days of the Turbins] (drama) 1926

Zoikina kvartira [Zoya's Apartment] (drama) 1926

Belala gvardiia: Dni Turbinykh [The White Guard] (novel) 1927

Bagrovyi ostrov [The Crimson Island] (drama) 1928

Kabala sviatosh [A Cabal of Hypocrites] (drama) 1936

Posledniye dni (drama) 1943

Beg [Flight] (drama) 1957

Zhizn' gospodina de Mol'era [The Life of Monsieur de Molière] (biography) 1962

Ivan Vasil'evich (drama) 1964

Tetral'nyi roman [Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel] 1965

Blazhenstvo [Bliss] (drama) 1966

Master i Margarita [The Master and Margarita] (novel) 1966-67

The Early Plays of Mikhail Bulgakov (dramas) 1972

*Many of Bulgakov's short stories and sketches appeared in Russian periodicals and other foreign journals but have not been published in collections.

†Comprised of stories published in Russian periodicals between 1925 and 1927.

‡Written in 1925; translated and published in English in 1968—prior to publication in Russian.

Helen Muchnic (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Laughter in the Dark," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XI, No. 1, July 11, 1968, pp. 26-8.

[Muchnic is a Russian-born American critic and author. In the following review, she offers a positive assessment of The Heart of a Dog, considering it not only a parable about the Russian revolution but also a denunciation of the concepts underlying the revolution.]

The Heart of a Dog is a variation on [one] of Bulgakov's recurrent themes. In one of his best known, and most uncanny, tales, "The Fatal Eggs," a scientist's discovery of and experiment with a life-giving ray results in the hatching of monstrous reptiles that multiply in uncontrollable profusion and lay waste the land. In The Heart of a Dog, a renowned surgeon, Professor Preobrazhensky (the name suggests "transfiguration"), who specializes in rejuvenating men and women, tries something new. He operates on a stray dog, replacing its testicles by human testes and its pituitary gland by a human one; and the result, a scientific triumph, is a moral and social disaster: out of a pathetic, lovable mutt there emerges an insolent monstrosity that walks like a man and behaves like a cur. Its language is obscene and its manners intolerable. It demands its rights as a citizen, changes its pet dog's name, Sharik, to the human Sharikov, and gets itself a job with the Moscow City Sanitation Department, which entrusts it with the congenial task of eliminating vagrant cats. It steals, attempts rape, slanders and denounces the Professor himself, and tries to shoot his assistant. At the end, the Professor, recognizing his experiment as a lamentable blunder, turns this "man with the heart of a dog" back to its original state.

[In his preface to The Heart of a Dog, Michael Glenny] suggests that the story is a parable of the Bolshevik revolution, that "the 'dog' of the story is the Russian people, brutalized and exploited for centuries," the surgeon "the embodiment of the Communist Party—perhaps Lenin himself—and the drastic transplant operation . . . the revolution itself." To my mind, this is only partially true. The parallels cannot be so explicitly drawn. After all, the dog grew up in the Soviet State and was maltreated by Soviet citizens; and if the surgeon returns his homunculus to his original form, does this mean that Lenin wilfully returns the Russian people to their brutalized and exploited pre-revolutionary condition? But the story is indeed a cautionary fable on the menace of crude, illiterate, and unprincipled creatures suddenly exposed to learning and given status and a modicum of power. Sharikov is a kind of Caliban or a grotesque incarnation of Dostoevsky's Smerdyakov. "What have you been reading?" Professor Preobrazhensky asks him, expecting to hear something like Robinson Crusoe, and getting instead:

"That guy . . . What's his name . . . Engel's...

(The entire section is 1214 words.)

Peter Sourian (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bureaucratic Brute," in The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1968, pp. 5, 16.

[Sourian is an American critic and novelist. Below, he discusses the political implications of The Heart of a Dog and lauds the story's humor, claiming: "implicit always is a passionate and severe humanity. "]

In 1923, Lenin, the tired and ailing wizard of the Revolution, foresaw monstrous possibilities in what he had wrought. In one of his last letters he said, "I am horrified by the bureaucratic procedure of Stalin and Ordjonikidze." In his final letter, written to Stalin himself, he declared, "I must appeal to the Party as a whole and demand your expulsion. You are not...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Ellendea Proffer and Carl R. Proffer (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Diaboliad, and Other Stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, edited by Ellendea Proffer and Carl R. Proffer, translated by Carl R. Proffer, Indiana University Press, 1972, pp. vii-xx.

[Ellendea and Carl Proffer are translators, critics, and editors of Russian literature, with a special interest in the writings of Mikhail Bulgakov. In the following excerpt from an essay written in 1971, they provide an overview of the short fiction collected in Diaboliad, and Other Stories.]

The Irish filid, or poet, frequently used his magic talent for satirical purposes, and ancient Irish laws suggest that the authorities came to regard these poetic satirists as...

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V. S. Pritehett (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Surgical Spirit," in New Statesman, Vol. 89, No. 2309, June 20, 1975, p. 807.

[Pritehett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story and for what critics describe as his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. Below, he provides a positive assessment of the collection Notes of a Young Doctor.]

Early experience as practising doctors has more than once given a headstart to a number of novelists and it is easy to see why. They are not bemused by literary tradition; their discipline makes them objective. Their material is waiting for them every day in the surgery; they see society without its clothes, naked and...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Sigrid McLaughlin (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Structure and Meaning in Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs,'" in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 15, 1978, pp. 263-79.

[In the following essay, McLaughlin explores the "narrative mechanism" that Bulgakov uses to relate the events of "The Fatal Eggs, " thereby demonstrating that the story is not only a social satire but also a commentary on moral and philosophical issues.]

The critics—irrespective of their political stand—characterize "The Fatal Eggs" inevitably and not incorrectly as a social satire. But to view the story exclusively as a social satire is to ignore a number of textual features which strongly suggest that Bulgakov's concerns were...

(The entire section is 5714 words.)

Helena Goscilo (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Points of View in Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog" in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 15, 1978, pp. 281-91.

[Goscilo is a Scottish-born American critic, editor, and translator who specializes in Russian literature. In the following essay, she discusses the shifts of narrative voice in The Heart of a Dog.]

Four narrative voices may be distinguished in Heart of a Dog: those of Sharik, Bormenthal, Professor Preobrazhensky, and an "impartial" commentator. Whereas the first three offer limited points of view, the fourth (with a few minor exceptions) is omniscient. Structure and point of view furnish mutual reinforcement, for Bulgakov allows the...

(The entire section is 3484 words.)

A. Colin Wright (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Development of a Writer, 1891-1921" and "Moscow and Journalism, 1921-24," in Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations, University of Toronto Press, 1978, pp. 3-31, 32-44.

[Wright is an English educator, author, and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses Notes of a Young Doctor and the short fiction of Bulgakov that appeared in various Russian journals in the early 1920s.]

The publication of Bulgakov's medical stories dates from a later period, but he probably made notes for some of them while he was still in Nikolskoe [in the Sychyovka district of Smolensk province in 1916-17], and certainly he made drafts before he left Kiev .. . in 1919....

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Ellendea Proffer (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Diaboliad Collection," in Bulgakov: Life and Work, Ardis Publishers, 1984, pp. 105-22.

[In the following excerpt, Proffer provides an overview of the five stories that comprise the 1925 Russian collection D'iavoliada (Diaboliad, and Other Stories).]

The editor Angarsky accepted the long story "Diaboliad" for his Nedra anthology in the hopes that it would find favor with readers tired of literary experiments which neglected plot. One reader who did regard it as the most important work in Nedra No. 4 (1924) was Evgeny Zamyatin, the famous author of the anti-utopian novel We. Zamyatin was an influential critic who was still on the board...

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Teo Foreht Dagi (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Medical Ethics and the Problem of Role Ambiguity in Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Murderer' and Pear S. Buck's 'The Enemy,'" in Literature and Medicine, Vol. 7, 1988, pp. 107-22.

[In the following excerpt, Dagi discusses the moral ambiguity embodied in the physician, Dr. Yashvin, in "The Murderer. "]

Several years after the October revolution, Dr. Yashvin, an urbane man and excellent surgeon, appears unusually preoccupied during a soirée. The conversation turns to the way in which the public fails to appreciate the moral probity of physicians. If a patient dies, for example, the physician is called a murderer. This appellation, the host argues, is absurd: "'A...

(The entire section is 1530 words.)

Susanne Fusso (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Failures of Transformation in Sobac̆'e serdce" in Slavic and East-European Journal, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 386-99.

[In the following essay, Fusso analyzes the scope of political allegory in The Heart of a Dog (Sobac̆'e serdcej, concluding that the allegorical level extends beyond "the level of social and political themes, which lie relatively close to the surface..., [to] the level of language, where Bulgakov's critique of radical transformation finds perhaps its deepest expression. "]

Bulgakov's Sobac̆'e serdce is the tale of a transformation: a meddling professor turns a perfectly nice dog into an obnoxious man. As recently as 1984,...

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Edythe C. Haber (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Social and Political Context of Bulgakov's 'The Fatal Eggs'," in Slavic Review, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 497-510.

[In the essay below, Haber discusses the satirical parallels between the events following the Bolshevik Revolution and the characters and circumstances in the story "The Fatal Eggs. "]

"The Fatal Eggs," written in 1924 and published in early 1925, was the first of Bulgakov's works to attract widespread attention—and a storm of controversy. Recipient of a few positive reviews as well as uniformly enthusiastic praise—privately expressed—from writers and editors, the novella was also the object of virulent attack from a number of...

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Ronald D. LeBlanc (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Feeding a Poor Dog a Bone: The Quest for Nourishment in Bulgakov's Sobach'e serdtse," in The Russian Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 58-78.

[Below, LeBlanc analyzes The Heart of a Dog (Sobach'e serdtse) as a tale about the need for physical and spiritual sustenance, asserting that Bulgakov's focus on language and imagery pertaining to eating signifies the "deleterious effects that the Bolshevik Revolution and the concomitant victory of the proletariat were having upon the level of culture in Soviet Russia. "]

Mikhail Bulgakov's Sobach'e serdtse (1925), most critics would agree, is essentially the tale of a transformation gone...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Proffer, Ellendea. An International Bibliography of Works by and about Mikhail Bulgakov. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1976, 133 p.

Primary and secondary bibliography listing publications in several languages including Russian, English, Dutch, French, German, and Italian.

Terry, Garth M. Mikhail Bulgakov in English: A Bibliography 1891-1991. Nottingham, England: Astra Press, 1991, 30 p.

Index of works by and about Bulgakov in English.


Belozerskaya-Bolgakova, Lyubov. My Life with Mikhail Bulgakov. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1983, 136 p.


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