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Although Mikhail Bulgakov is regarded in the Soviet Union primarily as a dramatist, especially for the plays of the mid-to late 1920’s, he is best known in the West for his novels Master i Margarita (1966-1967; The Master and Margarita, 1967) and Sobache serdtse (1968-1969; The Heart of a Dog, 1968). The fact is, however, that once Bulgakov abandoned his career as a doctor in 1920 to devote himself fully to writing, he composed works in almost all literary forms. Beginning as a hack writer, Bulgakov published more than 160 stories and feuilletons in periodicals, most of them appearing between 1922 and 1927, when the first part of the largely autobiographical novel Belaya gvardiya (1927, 1929; The White Guard, 1971) was published. Bulgakov’s dramatic career was launched when the Moscow Art Theatre asked him to adapt the novel into a play (Days of the Turbins). In addition to the periodical pieces and the plays, Bulgakov wrote several novels; a number of libretti; a stage adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s novel Myortvye dushi (1842, 1845; Dead Souls, 1887); film adaptations of Dead Souls, Gogol’s play Revizor (1836; The Inspector General, 1890) and Leo Tolstoy’s novels Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886) and Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886); and a biography of Molière. Late in his life, Bulgakov also wrote his Teatralny roman (1965; Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel, 1967), a satire on Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre.


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An intellectual with a flair for showy dress and an uncompromising integrity with regard to his art, Mikhail Bulgakov clashed head-on with every form of authority with which he came into contact—the brilliant, but dictatorial director Konstantin Stanislavsky ; theater critics in the Soviet press; government censors; and Joseph Stalin himself. Seemingly obsessed with the seventeenth century French playwright Molière, Bulgakov wrote both a play about and a biography of his precursor and clearly identified with him. Like Molière, Bulgakov perceived himself as a gifted writer constantly plagued and harassed by ignorant, self-serving officials who thought nothing of sacrificing art to curry favor. Like Molière, Bulgakov, despite a strong satiric bent for social criticism, alternately enjoyed the preferment and suffered the displeasure of his ruler. Bulgakov has been hailed by his American editor and biographer Ellendea Proffer as the “best Russian playwright of the Soviet period,” and his plays provide an interesting and complex portrait of the Russian people in the turbulent times of the Revolution and early years of the Soviet Republic.

During the first ten or fifteen years of the Soviet period, humor flourished in several genres, and Bulgakov’s early periodical stories, with their sharp wit and offbeat characters, are representative of this trend. The theater of the period was dominated by revivals of classics and an almost endless stream of revolutionary plays with the conventional plot of heroic Reds triumphing over villainous Whites. No Party writer, Bulgakov composed his revolutionary (and best-known) play, Days of the Turbins, along different lines and thereby gained notoriety. Drawing on the realism that characterizes the plays of Anton Chekhov, Bulgakov mixes comic and tragic modes in his play and portrays his White characters ambiguously—humans caught in turmoil, confused, silly, noble, disillusioned. Dealing with the sordid life of crime, corruption, drugs, and sex that characterized post-Revolution Moscow, Bulgakov’s next play, titled Zoya’s Apartment, is another attempt at contemporary realism, though it is much more socially critical of existing conditions. Zoya’s Apartment also draws attention to the government’s failure to eradicate these social problems despite its cruel repression, and even to its contribution to them.

When his realistic plays were reviewed negatively, Bulgakov turned to more experimental dramatic forms. With its self-conscious theatricality and play-within-a-play structure, The Crimson Island resembles Luigi Pirandello’s Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (pr., pb. 1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922). Flight, composed as a series of eight dreams, recalls the work of August Strindberg. In his later work, Bulgakov offers social criticism by providing parallels to the past, in plays about Molière and Alexander Pushkin, or to an envisioned future in a series of science fiction satires.

If the greatest virtue of these plays is the insight provided into the people, politics, and repression of the Revolution and the Stalin regime, their greatest defect stems from their absorption in this material. Whereas Chekhov’s and Molière’s drama seems timeless art, Bulgakov’s plays are time-bound. There are few memorable characters, and the dramatic experiments are often flawed in design or execution. Even the conflict of ideas and values that should be the very heart of these plays falls subordinate to historical setting. Because of the scanty performance history and the delayed publication of most of his plays, Bulgakov’s influence as a playwright, especially outside the Soviet Union, is negligible.

Other literary forms

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Mikhail Bulgakov (bewl-GAH-kuhf) wrote some thirty-six plays, of which eleven were published and eight performed during his lifetime. His writings for theater and film include adaptations from Miguel de Cervantes, Molière, Charles Dickens, Nikolai Gogol, and Leo Tolstoy. Only one of the opera libretti Bulgakov composed for the Bolshoi Theater, Rachel (wr. 1938, pr. 1947), based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, was ever produced. Among his more notable plays made available in English during the 1960’s and 1970’s are Adam i Eva (pb. 1971; Adam and Eve, 1971), Dni Turbinykh (pr. 1926; Days of the Turbins, 1934), Beg (pr. 1957; Flight, 1969), Zoykina kvartira (pr. 1926; Zoya’s Apartment, 1970), Ivan Vasilievich (pb. 1965; English translation, 1974), and Posledniye dni (Pushkin) (pr. 1943; The Last Days, 1976). Bulgakov also wrote numerous short stories, many of them collected in the volumes titled Diavoliada (1925; Diaboliad, and Other Stories, 1972), Zapiski iunogo vracha (1963; A Country Doctor’s Notebook, 1975), and Traktat o zhilishche (1926; A Treatise on Housing, 1972). He also published miscellaneous journalism. Bulgakov’s close identification with the life of Molière produced one of his most interesting plays, Kabala svyatosh (pr. 1936; A Cabal of Hypocrites, 1972; also known as Molière), as well as a novelistic biography, Zhizn gospodina de Molyera (1962; The Life of Monsieur de Molière, 1970).


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Some twenty-five years after his death, Mikhail Bulgakov began to receive increasing recognition—both in the Soviet Union and abroad—as a major figure in modern Russian literature. The Master and Margarita is a complex, ambitious masterpiece that has won an intensely loyal readership and much critical scrutiny since its first serialized publication in 1966-1967. This novel’s posthumous success in turn began to direct attention to Bulgakov’s other neglected works.

The hazards of cultural life under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin frustrated Bulgakov’s aspirations in prose fiction, where he did his finest work, and channeled him into the theater, where, though productive, he was probably temperamentally out of place. Bulgakov’s narratives combine acute, if perforce oblique, social analysis with a strain of playful fantasy. Beyond the deprivation, hypocrisy, and cruelty of contemporary Soviet life, his Horatian satires suggest a transcendent spiritual force. In The Master and Margarita and The White Guard, it is tender devotion to a beautiful, mysterious woman that represents the apocalyptic possibility of overcoming an oppressive present existence. Black Snow offers the advice that “you have to love your characters. If you don’t, I don’t advise anybody to try writing; the result is bound to be unfortunate.” This sentimental belief in the liberating power of love—of characters for one another, of author for reader—is tempered by terminal melancholia. In the imperfect world portrayed by Bulgakov, those in power are never graced with imagination, though they must be humored, but it is the power of imagination and of humor that lifts the reader beyond the tyranny of the quotidian.

There is at least an allusion to Faust in almost all of Bulgakov’s books, where the quest for an elusive truth becomes an explicit and central theme. Bulgakov’s work frequently foregrounds itself, calling attention to its own formal inventions in the service of a sense of values against which the elaborate structures of society and art seem petty and transient indeed.

Discussion Topics

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What were some of the ways in which Mikhail Bulgakov’s own life served as a basis for fiction in his novels and plays?

Name some of the ways in which Bulgakov defied the conventions of fiction and discuss why he chose to do so.

Religion occupies an important place in Bulgakov’s writing, but he does not express conventional Christian views. How does Bulgakov offer an unorthodox approach to religion?

How did Soviet communism affect Bulgakov’s life and writings?

What characteristics of Bulgakov’s writings led the Soviet authorities to ban them?

In works such as The Heart of a Dog and The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov made use of many of the themes found in works of fantasy and science fiction. What are some of these themes, and in what books and stories can they be found?


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Barratt, Andrew. Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to “The Master and Margarita.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Puts forth an imaginative approach to understanding Bulgakov’s most important work.

Curtis, J. A. E. Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov, a Life in Letters and Diaries. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1992. Presents and discusses his correspondence and journals.

Drawicz, Andrzej. The Master and the Devil: A Study of Mikhail Bulgakov. Translated by Kevin Windle. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Haber, Edythe C. Mikhail Bulgakov: The Early Years. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Discusses the beginnings of Bulgakov’s career.

Milne, Lesley. Mikhail Bulgakov: A Critical Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A good full-length source.

Natov, Nadine. Mikhail Bulgakov. Boston: Twayne, 1985. A concise and fairly complete literary biography.

Proffer, Carl, and Ellendea Proffer, eds. Russian Literature Triquarterly 15 (1978). Samples of Bulgakov’s prose and dramatic output, as well as critical articles, are found in this special Bulgakov issue.

Proffer, Ellendea. Bulgakov: Life and Work. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1984. A comprehensive treatment of Bulgakov’s career.

Smelianskii, A. M. Is Comrade Bulgakov Dead?: Mikhail Bulgakov at the Moscow Art Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1993. An examination of Bulgakov’s dramatic works, including their performance history. Bibliography.

Terry, Garth M., comp. Mikhail Bulgakov in English: A Bibliography, 1891-1991. Cotgrave, Nottingham, England: Astra, 1991. Includes an index.

Wright, A. Colin. Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978. A thorough critical biography.


Critical Essays