Bulgakov, Mikhail Afanasievich

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(18911940), twentieth-century novelist, journalist, short story writer, and playwright; author of internationally acclaimed novel Master and Margarita.

Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov was born in Kiev. He graduated from the Kiev University Medical School in 1916 and married Tatiana Lappa, his first of three wives. He practiced medicine in provincial villages, then in Kiev, where he witnessed the outbreak of the Russian Civil War and struggled with morphine addiction. In 1920 he abandoned medicine for a writing career and moved to Vladikavkaz, Caucasus, where he wrote feuilletons and studied theater.

Bulgakov moved to Moscow in 1921. There his troubles with censorship began. His satirical (patently science fiction) novel Heart of a Dog (Sobache serdtse ) was deemed unpublishable. His play Days of the Turbins (Dni Turbinykh ), based on his autobiographical novel White Guardu (Belaya Gvardiya ), premiered in 1926 and was banned after its 289th performance (although it supposedly numbered among Josef Stalin's favorite plays). Subsequent plays were banned much earlier in the production process. His short story "Morphine" (1927) was his last publication in his lifetime. In 1930 he wrote a long letter (his second) to the Soviet government requesting permission to emigrate. He received in response a telephone call from Stalin, who offered him an assignment as assistant producer at the Moscow Art Theater. Although not subjected to forced labor or confinement, Bulgakov hardly enjoyed privilege. His work remained unpublished and unperformed. His attempts to appease the censors by tackling relatively safe subjects (historical fiction and adaptations) proved futile.

Bulgakov's novel Master and Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940. Resonant with the influence of Nikolai Gogol, it concerns the Devil, who, disguised as a professor, travels to Moscow to wreak havoc. This exuberantly irreverent work swirls with fierce wit, narrative inventiveness, and a myriad of historical, literary, and religious references.

Bulgakov's last play, Batum (1939), written in honor of Stalin's sixtieth jubilee, was banned. Bulgakov died of kidney disease in 1940.

See also: gogol, nikolai vasilievich; moscow art theater; theater


Bulgakov, Mikhail. (1987). Heart of a Dog, reprint ed., tr. Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Grove.

Bulgakov, Mikhail. (1996). The Master and Margarita, reprint ed., tr. Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor. New York: Vintage.

Milne, Lesley. (1990). Bulgakov: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Proffer, Ellendea. (1984). Bulgakov: Life and Work. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.

Diana Senechal

Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov

views updated May 23 2018

Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov

The Soviet novelist and playwright Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov (1891-1940) was a satirist with an outstanding talent for depicting the grotesque, the comic, and the fantastic.

Mikhail Bulgakov was born on May 2, 1891, in Kiev of a middle-class intellectual family. He graduated in medicine from the University of Kiev but soon abandoned his medical career for journalism. His first literary efforts were short stories, such as "The Fatal Eggs" and "Devilry," in which the real world is mixed with science fantasy for the purpose of social and moral satire.

The realistic novel The White Guard (1924) was Bulgakov's first major triumph and is notable as one of the few works published in the Soviet Union which sympathetically portray the supporters of the White cause during the civil war. This outstanding novel was never reprinted in Russia, but Bulgakov's dramatic adaptation of it, The Days of the Turbins (1926), became a fixture on the Soviet stage. From 1926 until his death Bulgakov was closely associated with the Moscow Art Theater, for which he wrote over 30 plays, only 8 of which were performed in his lifetime.

During the 1930s Bulgakov's partiality for satire and his independence as a writer kept him under a political cloud. At one time the pressure on him became so great that he asked Stalin for permission to leave the Soviet Union permanently, but Stalin refused. He also suffered from poor health and became blind the year before his death in 1940.

It was not until the 1960s that Bulgakov was fully rehabilitated by the Soviet authorities. At that time the manuscripts of numerous stories and plays and of three novels were discovered and published; these works established him as one of the finest 20th-century Russian writers. The first of the novels to appear was Black Snow (written in the late 1930s), a satire on the Soviet theatrical world. The second, The Heart of a Dog (written in 1925), is a science fantasy in which human organs are transplanted into a dog, giving it the most disgusting qualities of mankind.

The third novel, The Master and Margarita, was written in his last years and is Bulgakov's greatest work. It is a complex, grotesque, and fantastic satire, combining a unique interpretation of the story of Jesus with descriptions of the literary and theatrical circles of Moscow and with weird adventures caused by the mischief of the devil. The novel has many symbolic elements, which can be interpreted in a great variety of ways. A number of Bulgakov's manuscripts remain unpublished.

Further Reading

There is no full-length study of Bulgakov in English. Most of the English-language editions of his works, however, contain valuable introductory material. Shorter treatments of Bulgakov are in Gleb Struve, Soviet Russian Literature, 1917-50 (1951); Marc Lvovich Slonim, Modern Russian Literature from Chekhov to the Present (1953); Viacheslav Zavalishin, Early Soviet Writers (1958); and Edward J. Brown, Russian Literature since the Revolution (1969).

Additional Sources

My life with Mikhail Bulgakov, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1983.

Milne, Lesley, Mikhail Bulgakov: a critical biography, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

A pictorial biography of Mikhail Bulgakov, Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1984. □

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