Mikhail Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters, translated by Roger Cockrell

Reviewed by Orlando Figes

Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
Diaries and Selected Letters


Mikhail Bulgakov, Roger Cockrell

Alma Classics

Guideline Price:

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a persecuted figure in the 1930s, when many of his plays were banned from the Soviet theatre repertoire, his stories unpublished or severely criticised, and when he wrote his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a Faustian satire in which the devil visits Moscow in the person of a magician, knowing it could not be published as long as Stalin was alive.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.”

White intelligentsia
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.”

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.