Mikhail Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters, translated by Roger Cockrell
Reviewed by Orlando Figes
Diaries and Selected Letters
Mikhail Bulgakov, Roger Cockrell
He asked to be allowed to emigrate with his wife Liubov Evgenevna or, failing that, to be given work in the theatre as a director, or as an actor or extra, or, “if I cannot be an extra, then I request to be given a job as a stage-hand”.
On April 14th Bulgakov received a phone call from Stalin, who gave him the impression that his request would be granted. The exit papers were never issued. No bureaucrat would take responsibility for letting Stalin’s favourite writer go abroad. But thanks to Stalin’s patronage Bulgakov was appointed an assistant director at Moscow Art Theatre. The Days of the Turbins was revived in 1932 and ran without interruption until 1941. Stalin went to see it 15 times. What intrigued him most was the way Bulgakov had endowed the Turbins with romantic and heroic qualities while demonstrating the historical necessity of their submission to the Soviet regime. Victory was sweeter when the enemy was strong.
The play’s success protected Bulgakov from the arrests of the 1930s. Yet he had a growing list of unperformed, unpublished and unpublishable works. He was Stalin’s prisoner. In an attempt to save himself he wrote a hagiographic play about Stalin’s youth in Georgia which Moscow Art Theatre later commissioned to celebrate Stalin’s 60th birthday in 1939 (the starting point of John Hodge’s Collaborators, the recent runaway success at the National Theatre in London).
But Stalin was too clever and suspicious for such flattery. He ordered that the play be neither published nor performed. Bulgakov was devastated by the news, which he received on his way to Georgia to research the staging of the play on August 14th, 1939. He feared arrest. On his way back to Moscow he complained of a blinding pain behind his eyes – an advanced symptom of the nephrosclerosis from which he died, on March 10th, 1940.
From his diaries and letters Bulgakov comes across as a tragic figure, disappointed with his lot, sometimes bitter, often in despair. There is little in these pages to suggest the great humourist and satirist. “My fate has been chaotic and terrible,” he had written to his brother in 1930. “Now I am being reduced to silence; for a writer, this is equivalent to death.”
But his works survived and continue to be read by millions in Russia, where Bulgakov is the most-read writer of the 20th century. Manuscripts don’t burn.