Mikhail Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters, translated by Roger Cockrell
Reviewed by Orlando Figes
Diaries and Selected Letters
Mikhail Bulgakov, Roger Cockrell
Diaries were dangerous in Stalin’s Soviet Union. They could be used by the police as damning evidence, written confessions of “counter-revolutionary” thoughts.
The great writer Mikhail Bulgakov had every reason to be careful what he wrote in his diary.
Although his novel The White Guard had made him one of Stalin’s favourite writers, he nonetheless remained a persecuted figure in the 1930s, when many of his plays were banned from the Soviet theatre repertoire, his stories unpublished or severely criticised, and when he wrote his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a Faustian satire in which the devil visits Moscow in the person of a magician, knowing it could not be published as long as Stalin was alive.
In that book Bulgakov coined the term “manuscripts don’t burn”. Russians often quoted the phrase to express their hope that literature, however dangerous it might be, could not be destroyed by the regime. Hidden by his wife, the manuscript of The Master and Margarita was eventually published in the Soviet Union in 1966, 26 years after the writer’s death, with only minor cuts by the censors.
By another miracle of literary preservation Bulgakov’s diaries and letters have survived. Superbly well translated in this collection by Roger Cockrell, they give a revealing insight into the writer’s thoughts and feelings as he struggled to survive in the unforgiving proletarian culture of the Soviet Union.
Born in Kiev in 1891, Bulgakov belonged by blood and temperament to the prerevolutionary intelligentsia. His father was a lecturer at Kiev Theological Academy, his mother a teacher, and both his uncles on his mother’s side doctors, a profession he would join on his graduation from Kiev University, in 1916. By the time Bulgakov turned his hand to writing, in the early 1920s, his world had been abolished by the Soviet regime. But he remained defiant, refusing to renounce his old-world “bourgeois” habits and sensibilities. His white starched collar, bow tie and monocle were a provocation to his critics, who denounced his work as counter-revolutionary.
Many of Bulgakov’s letters in the early 1920s describe his struggle to find work and food and adjust to the new Soviet conditions. “I’m trying to get myself a position in the linen industry. And, what’s more, yesterday I was offered a job as a journalist for an industrial newspaper that has just started up,” he wrote to his mother in November 1921. “I have just one dream: to get through the winter.” In his diary for 1923 he confessed to “bouts of depression and nostalgia for the past”. There were moments when he “bitterly regretted” giving up on medicine, “thereby condemning myself to an uncertain existence . . . With my views, expressed as they are voluntarily or involuntarily in my works, it is difficult to get published and earn a living.”