IT WAS SUBMITTED TO THE KREMLIN FOR APPROVAL AND PASSED TO THE DICTATOR HIMSELF
was a turning point in Bulgakov’s life. An odd status enveloped him. He became both pariah and favourite. That same year, the official line on arts and culture shifted. The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers oversaw an increasingly strict emphasis on literary work in tune with Soviet ideology. The gates of the Gulag soon opened for the cultural elite and, for Bulgakov, a time of persecutions began.
He calculated that his work received 301 reviews in the decade to 1930, 298 of them negative. He began writing heartfelt appeals to the authorities: to the Writers Union, to the secretary of the Central Committee (‘‘In view of the fact that my works have clearly become totally unacceptable to Soviet society . . .’’), to the secret police, to the government.
He felt he had a realistic plan to bargain with. Only let him travel, or maybe even deport him. Then he would be able to see at last the Berlin and Paris of his dreams, where pirate copies of his works had made him a wellknown name. His vague tie to Stalin seemed like a lifeline, or a shadow sentence. He decided to write to the dictator: Persecuted, knowing that it is no longer possible for my stories to be published or my plays to be staged in the USSR, and driven to a state of nervous breakdown, I am turning to you and asking you to intercede on my behalf.
Silence — for almost a year until, bizarrely, on Good Friday 1930, Stalin telephoned Bulgakov and promised to grant him permission to travel, and even to meet him in person. Was this a cat and mouse game? Stalin liked placing such calls and tormenting his victims. Nothing happened.
Bulgakov wrote again, in mid-1931, pleading: ‘‘ My dream as a writer is that you yourself invite me to see you in person.’’ The meeting never came about. But literary work, of a kind, began once more to flow Bulgakov’s way.
The times were harsh: there were early signs his health was failing, turmoil had come into his marital life. After completing a series of unperformed plays devoted to figures of the literary past, Bulgakov hit on the expedient of writing a dramatic piece commemorating Stalin’s early years. He approached the Moscow Arts Theatre and secured its support. He wrote the first draft, titled Batum for its Georgian setting. It was submitted to the Kremlin for approval and passed to the dictator himself. Talk about performance review!
The translator and editor of this volume, Roger Cockrell, seeks to provide some context. Stalin, he feels, broadly disapproved of Bulgakov’s works but found them somehow interesting. Perhaps Stalin had appreciated the evenhanded presentation of provincial life in the author’s early sketches and stage plays; perhaps he actually admired Bulgakov’s reckless bravery in defying the official line.
‘‘ It is odd,’’ Cockrell writes, ‘‘ that this ruthless dictator and Bulgakov — who was certainly not a supporter of the regime and whose patrician views seemed to date from a previous era — should have been locked in such a relationship of mutual fascination.’’
Batum presents its hero in the Caucasus, organising strikes and protest marches. Stalin is exiled to Siberia, escapes and resumes his revolutionary agitation at Lenin’s side. The work ends with the 1917 uprisings close at hand. The treatment is cool throughout, and disengaged. The piece is far from simple heroworship. Stalin was shown the script in July 1939: he blocked its production and with that ruling Bulgakov’s faint hopes of further favour seemed to die.
He now suffered a swift and ‘‘ massive deterioration’’ in his health. His eyesight began to fail, he was plagued by crippling headaches, daylight tormented him: for weeks on end he was unable to leave his apartment. These were telltale symptoms. Kidney sclerosis had set in. If he still dreamed of some kind of rescue from the dictator, no sign of preferment or attention came.
Bulgakov gave himself over to work on The Master and Margarita but could correct no more than the manuscript’s first part: the text thus exists in six variants and the final draft is replete with little mysteries.
It is clear the novel always held a special status in Bulgakov’s inmost thoughts: at the height of his despairing theatrical endeavours in the mid-30s he was already dreaming its chapters into life: ‘‘ My Margarita is wandering around inside my head, together with the cat, and the flights over the city.’’
The inspirations for the tale were complex and drawn from different sources. Bulgakov mingled his bent for satire with his intensive studies of Christology, modern music and ancient Jerusalem. Above all, he used the raw material of Soviet life.
The key scene in the book, the Spring Ball of the Full Moon — perhaps the finest party scene in all literature — was borrowed from US ambassador William Bullitt’s grandly conceived Spring Festival of April 1935, held at his Moscow residence, Spaso House, and attended by the Soviet political and cultural elite, and by Bulgakov.
This was conscious method: Bulgakov knew what he was about, confecting fantasy, the better to diagnose a distorted, fantastical reality. He also knew his was a dark time, a time for stricken prophecy as much as for mere history. Thus his early civil war novel The White Guard ends not in battles or resolution but in a cascade of apocalyptic dreams.
The denouement of Bulgakov’s own story came in protracted, emblematic fashion. He was confined to his bed; he wasted away. He could look back on his life’s arc and see his time: a time reflected in fine detail in these letters, the writings of a man under pressure, constantly struggling against unseen, heavyweighing forces, constantly alert and tense. They were written in the years when the greatest Soviet-era poet, Osip Mandelstam, the greatest short-story writer of the age, Isaac Babel, and many others of their kind were vanishing into the camps of the secret police.
For Bulgakov, things were slightly different: he died in March 1940. The next morning, a call came through from Stalin’s office. Was it true Mikhail Afanasyevich had met his end? On hearing the answer, the caller hung up without another word. Bulgakov was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, in the literary section, close by the graves of Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol.
Decades passed before The Master and Margarita was issued in a full edition by Moscow publishers. Today, in a new Russia with strong echoes of the Soviet time of personality cult and omnipotent state security services, complete editions of Bulgakov’s writings abound. He is at last much read, much admired and much loved.