Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov (May 15th 1891, Kiev – March 10th 1940, Moscow) was a Russian novelist and playwright of the first half of the 20th century. He is best known for the novel The Master and Margarita, which the New York Times Book Review called one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
Mikhail Bulgakov was born to Russian parents in Kiev, Ukraine, the oldest son of a professor at a theological seminary. The Bulgakov sons enlisted in the White Army, and in post-Civil War Russia, ended up in Paris, save for Mikhail. Mikhail, who enlisted as a field doctor, ended up in the Caucasus, where he eventually began working as a journalist. Despite his relatively favored status under the Soviet rule of Joseph Stalin, Bulgakov was prevented from either emigrating or visiting his brothers in the West. Some details of his biography are unclear as Bulgakov was quite secretive about his past life and swore his wives to secrecy about it.
In 1913 Bulgakov married Tatiana Lappa. At the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered with the Red Cross. In 1916, he graduated from the Medical School of Kiev University and then served in the White Army. In 1919 Mikhail decided to leave medicine to pursue his love of literature. In 1921, he moved with Tatiana to Moscow where he began his career as a writer. Three years later, divorced from his first wife, he married Lyubov' Belozerskaya. Bulgakov published a number of works through the early and mid 1920s, but by 1927 his career began to suffer from criticism that he was too anti-Soviet. By 1929 his career was ruined and none of his works were published due to censorship.
In 1931, Bulgakov married for the third time, to Yelena Shilovskaya, who would prove to be inspiration for the character Margarita from his most famous novel, and settled with her at Patriarch's Ponds. During the last decade of his life, Bulgakov continued to work on The Master and Margarita, wrote plays, critical works, stories, and made several translations and dramatizations of novels, but these were unpublished.
Bulgakov never supported the Soviet power, and mocked it in many of his works. Therefore, most of them were consigned to his desk drawer for several decades. In 1930 he wrote a letter to Stalin requesting permission to emigrate if the Soviet Union could not find use for him as a satirist and received a personal phone call from Stalin himself, denying him that. Stalin had enjoyed Bulgakov's work, The Days of the Turbins and found work for him at a small Moscow theatre, and then the Moscow Art Theatre. In his autobiography and in many biographies, it is stated that Bulgakov wrote the letter out of desperation and mental anguish, never actually intending to post it. The refusal of the authorities to let him work in the theatre and his desire to see his family living abroad, whom he had not seen for many years, led him to seek drastic measures. Despite his new work, the projects he worked on at the theatre were unsuccessful and he was stressed and unhappy. He also worked briefly at the Bolshoi Theatre as a librettist, but left after his works were not produced.
Bulgakov died from an inherited kidney disorder in 1940 and was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.
During his life, Bulgakov was best known for the plays he contributed to Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre. Stalin was known to be fond of the play Days of the Turbins (1926), which was based on Bulgakov's novel The White Guard. His dramatization of Molière's life in The Cabal of Hypocrites is still run by the Moscow Art Theatre. Even after his plays were banned from the theatres, Bulgakov wrote a grotesquely funny comedy about Ivan the Terrible's visit into 1930s Moscow and a play about the young years of Stalin (1939), which was also prohibited by Stalin himself.
Bulgakov started writing prose in the early 1920s, when he wrote The White Guard (1924, published in 1966) - a novel about a life of a White Army officer's family in Civil war Kiev, and a short story collection entitled Notes of a Young Doctor, based on Bulgakov's work as a country doctor in 1916 - 1919. In the mid-1920s, he came to admire the works of H.G. Wells and wrote several stories with sci-fi style elements, notably The Fatal Eggs (1924) and the Heart of a Dog.
The Master and Margarita is a fantasy satirical novel published by his wife twenty-six years after his death, in 1966, that has granted him critical immortality. The book was available underground, as samizdat, for many years in the Soviet Union, before the serialization of a censored version in the journal Moskva. It contributed a number of sayings to the Russian language, for example, "Manuscripts don't burn". A destroyed manuscript of the Master is an important element of the plot, and in fact Bulgakov had to rewrite the novel from memory after he burned the draft manuscript with his own hands.
The novel is a multilayered critique of the Soviet society in general and its literary establishment specifically. It begins with Satan visiting Moscow in the 1920s or 30s, joining a conversation of a critic and a poet, busily debating the existence of Jesus Christ and the Devil.
It then evolves into an all-embracing indictment of the corruption, greed, narrow-mindedness, and widespread paranoia of Stalinist Russia. Banned but widely read, the novel firmly secured Bulgakov's place among the pantheon of great Russian writers.
Back to Russian Writers and Poets