Mikhail Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters, translated by Roger Cockrell
Reviewed by Orlando Figes
Diaries and Selected Letters
Mikhail Bulgakov, Roger Cockrell
Bulgakov at last came to fame with The White Guard (1925), a sympathetic portrait of a White intelligentsia family, the Turbins, living through the civil war in Kiev, which he adapted as a play, The Days of the Turbins, for Moscow Art Theatre. In the mid 1920s, when Soviet literary policy was lax enough to encourage satirists, Bulgakov wrote Heart of a Dog (not published in the Soviet Union until 1987), an allegory on the experimental nature of the Revolution in which a doctor transplants the organs of a dead man into a dog, with comic and catastrophic consequences. After a reading of the manuscript to friends, Bulgakov’s apartment was searched by the political police, who confiscated the story along with the writer’s diaries. Under interrogation Bulgakov wrote a curious statement for the authorities – published without commentary in this collection – in which he admitted that his satire had “turned out to be much darker and angrier than I had envisaged it, and I can understand why it has been banned”. Had he been forced to write this?
From 1928, when censorship began to bite, Bulgakov published nothing in the Soviet Union. His three plays in production (The Days of the Turbins, Zoika’s Apartment and Crimson Island) were all banned following a vicious press campaign against his work. He dared not try to publish what he really thought, even burning in the stove of his apartment the manuscript of an article he had been asked to write on the Soviet theatre. “It’s good I came to my senses in time,” he wrote to his fellow satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin. “There can be no talk at all about sending a work such as this for publication while those close to me are still alive.”
In desperate financial straits and at the end of his tether, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin on March 28th, 1930. He knew that the Soviet leader liked his work and hoped that he would come to his rescue – at least that was the intention of his “secret friend” and future wife (from 1932) Yelena Sergeevna, who had connections to the Moscow political elite. (According to her, Bulgakov had decided to kill himself if he did not get a favourable reply from the Soviet leader.) In a long and plaintive letter, bitter and at times hysterical in tone, Bulgakov gave a full account of the persecution and harassment he had suffered under the regime:
“On looking through my collection of newspaper cuttings I have discovered that, during the 10 years of my career as a writer, there have been 301 reviews of my work in the Soviet press. Three of these reviews were complimentary, and 298 hostile and abusive.”