On 26th October 1932, a chosen elite of fifty writers was mysteriously invited to the art deco mansion of Russia’s greatest living novelist, Maxim Gorky. The tall haggard writer with the grizzled moustache, now sixty-four, met the guests on the stairway. The dining room was filled with tables covered in smart white cloths. They waited in excited anticipation. Then Stalin arrived with Molotov, Voroshilov and Kaganovich. The Party took literature so seriously that the magnates personally edited the work of prominent writers. After some small talk, Stalin and his comrades sat down at the end table near Gorky himself. Stalin stopped smiling and started to talk about the creation of a new literature.
…. Playing with a pearl handled knife and now suddenly ‘stern’, with a ‘taste of iron’ in his voice, Stalin proposed: ‘The artist ought to show life truthfully. And if he shows our life truthfully he cannot fail to show it moving to socialism. This is, and will be, Socialist Realism.’ In other words, the writers had to describe what life should be, a panegyric to the Utopian future, not what life was.
…. ‘You produce the goods that we need,’ said Stalin. ‘Even more than machines, tanks, aeroplanes, we need human souls.’
…. The writers, Stalin declared, were ‘engineers of human souls’.
- from Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Simon Sebag-Montefiore
Without a doubt, in the Bulgakov ménage of the 1930s we see the functioning of an authentic salon, externally altered by the difference in eras. In the evenings, with a frequency and regularity that can only astonish those who know from his archive just how much Bulgakov accomplished, the Bulgakovs entertained guests: friends, musicians, composers, artists, actors, or simply acquaintances who were interested in literature. A mere recital of the names gives an indication of the wit and intellect on display at those gathering: actors from the Moscow Art Theatre and Vakhtangov Theatre; film stars; foreign actors who were performing the host’s plays abroad; among the artists were Dmitriev, Vil’yams, Boris Erdman; among the musicians, conductors and composers were Golovanov, Asafiev, Melik-Pashaev, Samosud, Shebalin, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Dunaevsky, Shaporin… Akhmatova and Zamyatin called in when visiting Moscow from Leningrad; Nikolai Erdman was a welcome guest. … What is important is the gathering of artistic talent in the broadest sense, people of different creative professions, a living current of ideas, images, thoughts and plans.
Verses, improvisations, epigrams… just as in the drawing rooms of the previous century. And albums too, only no longer the albums of young ladies or society lionesses. Bulgakov had his own albums: reviews and newspaper articles collected and stuck in scrap-books as a record of his literary reception. They are preserved in his archive and were for a long time not released to researchers, so explosive and eloquent are they as documents of their epoch. Many shrill voices merge here into a ragged but aggressive choir.
Fragments of the old-fashioned salon, squeezed by the new times and cramped for space, persisted stubbornly, seizing every opportunity to appear. The large town houses that accommodated operas, masquerades and balls gave way to 47 square feet in which four people lived (The Bulgakovs, Elena Bulgakova’s younger son by her previous marriage and the housemaid). The luxury of the salons in Pushkin’s day had shrivelled in the new socio-economic conditions. Now the domestic “salon” was for Bulgakov first and foremost a means of forming and sustaining a circle of personal contacts that were an essential part of his life as a writer. In order to continue working he needed to sense a reader who did, despite everything, exist. Literature turned away from open, outward-directed forms – journals, almanacs, editorial offices, literary clubs and evenings – and took refuge in privacy. The domestic replaced the public space.
from Bulgakov: the novelist-playwright by Lesley Milne
28 March 1930. Moscow.
After the banning of all my works, I began to hear voices among many citizens of my acquaintance, all giving me one and the same piece of advice: that I should write a ‘Communist play’ (I am quoting them in inverted commas)…The aim: to escape persecution, destitution, and death as the inevitable finale. I did not follow that advice.
…When I carried out an analysis of my albums of cuttings, I discovered that there had been 301 references to me in the Soviet press during my ten years of work in the field of literature. Of these, three were complimentary, and 298 were hostile and abusive…I was referred to as a ‘literary SCAVENGER’ picking over scraps after ‘a good dozen guests HAVE THROWN UP’….I can prove with documents in my hands that the entire press of the USSR has unanimously and with EXTRAORDINARY FURY demonstrated that the works of Mikhail Bulgakov cannot exist in the USSR. And I declare that the Soviet press is ABSOLUTELY CORRECT.
…To struggle against censorship, whatever its nature, and whatever the power under which it exists, is my duty as a writer, as are calls for freedom of the press. I am a passionate supporter of that freedom, and I consider that if any writer were to imagine that he could prove he didn’t need that freedom, then he would be like a fish affirming in public that it didn’t need water…ANYONE WHO WRITES SATIRE IN THE USSR IS QUESTIONING THE SOVIET SYSTEM. Am I thinkable in the USSR?
…All my own endeavours to find work in the only field in which I can be useful to the USSR as an exceptionally well-qualified specialist have resulted in a complete fiasco. My name has been rendered so odious that proposals on my part that I should apply for a job have been met with ALARM…I would like to offer the USSR the services of an entirely honourable specialist director and actor, without a trace of the saboteur, who will undertake conscientiously to stage any play, beginning with Shakespeare and coming right up to the plays of the present day.
If I am not to be appointed a director, then I request that I be appointed a regular extra. And if I cannot be an extra, then I request to be given a job as a stage-hand. And if even that is impossible, then I request the Soviet Government to take whatever action concerning me it considers necessary, but at least to take some sort of action, because at the moment what is staring me in the face, as the author of five plays and as someone who is famous both in the USSR and abroad, is destitution, the street, and death.
- from Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov – A Life in Letters and Diaries, Dr. Julie Curtis
East German samizdat newsletters
Photo of an exhibition taken by Rob Weir, 2010
The ancient city of Kiev is situated high above a river, on a hilly mound riddled with catacombs and crowned with onion-domed churches which celebrate its role as the cradle of Orthodoxy in Russia, when at the end of the 10th century Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity and compelled the citizens to follow suit. The capital city of Ukraine, it was also one of the major cities of the Russian Empire before the 20th century, and many of its wealthier citizens were Russians.
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) was the oldest son of a liberal Professor at the Kiev Theological Academy. In the play, The White Guard, the seven Bulgakov children become the three Turbins: Alexei, Elena and Nikolai
By the early 1920s, when Ukraine had been finally incorporated into the Soviet state, Bulgakov’s family was scattered; his mother died in 1922 (his father had died earlier), and his two younger brothers had fled into exile with the remnants of the White Army, eventually ending up, like so many of their compatriots, in Paris. Bulgakov, who heard no news of them for three years, never saw them again. Emigration was an option he himself nearly pursued in 1921, but in the end he decided to stay in Russia and move to Moscow, abandoning his former career as a doctor to try to establish himself as a writer. Why didn’t he leave? Perhaps because the reconstruction programme announced by Lenin in 1921 (the New Economic Policy or NEP) seemed to betoken that the worst was over, and that peace would genuinely replace the years of violence. And, of course, a Russian writer needs a Russian readership for his works.
in a journal during 1924-25, before it had even reached its conclusion.
It was as though there was a box, and in between the lines of writing I could see that the lights were on and those same small figures who were described in the novel were moving around there. […] Do I enjoy this? Exceedingly. And so I wrote: scene one. I can see the evening, and the lamp burning. The fringe on the lampshade. The music on the piano is open. They’re playing Gounod’s Faust. […] I spent three nights playing around with the first scene, and towards the end of the third night I understood that I was writing a play.
from Bulgakov’s Black Snow
a new play by John Hodge
Moscow, 1938. A dangerous place to have a sense of humour; even more so a sense of freedom. Mikhail Bulgakov, living among dissidents, stalked by secret police, has both. And then he’s offered a poisoned chalice: a commission to write a play about Stalin to celebrate his sixtieth birthday.
Inspired by historical fact, Collaborators embarks on a surreal journey into the fevered imagination of the writer as he loses himself in a macabre and disturbingly funny relationship with the omnipotent subject of his drama.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Alex Jennings plays Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale, Stalin.