Watch this after reading our Short history of the Russian Revolution here
Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov was born on 15th May 1891 (3rd May in the old calendar) in Kiev, which is now in Ukraine, but was then part of the Russian Empire. His father was a professor of theology and his grandfathers were both priests. He became interested in literature and drama at school.
Bulgakov started medical training and volunteered as a doctor with the Red Cross during the First World War. He was sent directly to the front line where he was badly injured – his war wounds were to dog him for the rest of his life. He returned to Kiev to recuperate, graduating in 1916 from the Medical Department of Kiev University. He and his brothers fought with the White Army, which ultimately conceded defeat in the Civil War after the Russian Revolution. When the Soviets came to power, most of his family escaped to Paris and he never saw them again.
Resolving to leave medicine for a career in literature, Bulgakov moved to Moscow in 1921. The area in which he lived would later become famous as the setting for parts of The Master and Margarita: No 10 Sadovaya street, by the Patriarch’s Ponds, close to Mayakovskaya metro station.
Bulgakov enjoyed modest success during the early 1920s, when he published a number of short articles and stories. Although the highly satirical Heart of a Dog failed to get past the censors, his novel White Guard was partially published in serialised form, but the magazine in which it appeared was shut down by the authorities. Bulgakov reworked the latter novel into a play, The Days of the Turbins, which was successful and even appeared to gain Stalin’s approval. Bulgakov’s sympathetic portrayal of a monarchist family in Kiev during the Russian Civil War was rather autobiographical and at odds with the prevailing Bolshevik view of the time. The Days of the Turbins was the work for which Bulgakov would best be known during his lifetime.
Other plays produced at this time included Zoya’s Apartment and Flight, but by 1929 Bulgakov’s career had begun to suffer. He was criticised as anti-Soviet, all of his work was censored and no more works were published. Frustrated and out of work, he burnt his manuscripts and wrote a letter to the Soviet government, requesting that he be allowed to leave the Soviet Union if he could not serve his country as a writer.
Bulgakov later wrote that the reply came in the form of a personal telephone call from Stalin, and it seems little coincidence that the writer was employed soon afterwards at a small theatre before moving on to work with Stanislavsky at the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre (MAT). His eight-year relationship with MAT was fraught with difficulties and only one further play, Molière, ever made it into production, although this too was withdrawn almost immediately, after a critical mauling. As a result Bulgakov parted company with the theatre. His artistic differences with Stanislavsky and MAT were bitterly satirised in Black Snow – a Theatrical Novel, which was never finished.
Bulgakov’s third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, whom he married in 1932, inspired the character Margarita in his most famous novel. During the last decade of his life he continued to work on The Master and Margarita, in which the Devil wreaks havoc in Moscow. His play Batum was an attempt to appease the authorities by glorifying Stalin’s early revolutionary activity but it, too, was swiftly banned by Stalin himself.
This final rejection took a toll on the writer’s failing health and on 10th March 1940 Bulgakov died of nephrosclerosis, an inherited kidney disorder, as his father had before him. He was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow.
In the years after his death, Bulgakov’s manuscripts were held by his wife, Yelena. They remained unpublished for many years, although some copies were available via samizdat – the underground circulation of censored publications that were painstakingly reproduced by hand. In the West, some major works (The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog and White Guard) were published in 1967, based on redacted versions of the manuscripts that had been published in the Soviet Union. Full versions of these and other works were not available in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s.
(by D. Hollander)