Mikhail Bulgakov *


Background information, Questions for Reading, and further resources

Mikhail Afanas'evich Bulgakov was born on May 15 (May 3, Old Style), 1891, and died on March 10, 1940. He was educated as a doctor of medicine and only began to write seriously during the Russian Civil War, which followed the October Revolution of 1917. In his lifetime Bulgakov was best known as a playwright, but since his death (in his own bed!) his reputation as an author of fiction, science fiction ("Heart of a Dog" and "The Fatal Eggs") and a literary biographer (The Life of Monsieur de Molière) has only grown. His novel The Master and Margarita, generally considered his masterpiece, was written during the last few years of his life, as his health was failing, and was never really completed to the author's satisfaction. His widow Elena Sergeevna preserved the manuscript of this very heterodox novel, which could have meant her own arrest and disappearance into the Stalinist camps, until a phase of relative liberalization made it possible to publish it in two installments in the journal Moskva in 1966 and 1967. After its publication, in an apporpriately Bulgakovian reversal of genre, the novel was adapted as a play and had a very successful and influential production at the Taganka Theater in Moscow.

There are several translations of M and M competing for the reader's attention. Mirra Ginzburg's faithful 1967 version is hampered by having been made from a censored publication of the book. If you are willing to spend the money for a new edition, rather than picking up whichever of the four available translations you find used, I recommend the complete version translated by Diana Lewis Burgin and Catherine Tiernan O'Connor -- who happen to be alumnae of (respectively) Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges! -- edited by renowned Bulgakov specialist Ellendea Proffer (Dana Point, CA: Ardis 1995).

Bulgakov was the first of seven children of Afanasii Mikhailovich Bulgakov and Varvara Mikhailovna Pokrovskaia. Both sides of his family were from the "estate" of Russian Orthodox clergy (and his namesake Sergei Bulgakov became a prominent émigré Orthodox theologian, which can't have helped Bulagkov's position in the Soviet Union), but by his parents' generation they had entered the technical and academic intelligentsia. The family lived in Kiev (Kyiv, now capital of Ukraine) and aside from the tragedy and impoverishment of his father's early death Bulgako';s upbringing seems to have been markedly warm and loving. Bulgakov entered the medical school of Kiev University in 1909; in 1913, somewhat against his family's judgment, he married Tat'iana Lappa. In 1916 Bulgakov received his medical degree with honors and began to work as a Red Cross volunteer in military hospitals on the South-Western Ukrainian front. In September of 1916 he was summoned to Moscow and assigned as a zemstvo doctor to the village of Nilkol'skoe, in the Smolensk guberniia. His experiences there over the next year formed the basis for his Stories of a Young Doctor (translated by Michael Glenny as A Country Doctor's Notebook). After spending several less provincial months at the Viaz'ma municipal hospital, he managed to get himself demobilized for health reasons and returned with his wife in February of 1918 to Kiev. Over the next several months the city experienced several violent reversals of power as opposing armies invaded or retreated, and Bulgakov was mobilized as a doctor several times, becoming an involuntary witness to atrocities. During his service in the White Army (the forces opposed to the Bolsheviks) he wound up in the Caucasus (Piatigorsk and Vladikavkaz), where in 1919- 1920 he began writing journalistic and dramatic pieces. After seeing his first plays on stage he decided to abandon medicine for a career in literature. In 1921 he had a chance to emigrate to Western Europe, but illness and financial difficulties forced him to remain -- marked forever by his service in the White Army, which lost its fight and finally withdrew. He moved with his wife to Moscow, and in 1922 (about when that marriage began to come apart?) began to publish his first serious work, the storites that would make up Notes on the Cuff.

Somewhat more secure after the difficult first years in Moscow, Bulgakov married his second wife, Liubov' Evgen'evna Belozerskaia, in 1924. After considerable success publishing fiction (the long story "Diaboliad" and parts of a novel, The White Guard) and an offer from the Moscow Art Theater to produce a play based on The White Guard Bulgakov began to encounter difficulties with the censorship. The surprising success of his play Days of the Turbins, the story of a family very much like his (in other words, not a proper "red" Soviet family!) in Kiev during the Civil War, initiated a brief period of fame as a dramatist, but this came to an end when the play was shut down in 1927. By appealing to authorities or to Stalin directly, the author or his associates managed to prolong some productions, and in 1932 (oddly!) Days of the Turbins was allowed to open again, but from 1930 onward Bulgakov worked in secondary positions in various Moscow theaters (his satirical Theatrical Novel details his experiences), had difficulties in publishing or staging any of his work at all, and in the general armosphere of fear and repression turned increasingly to an inner life, with support from his third wife, Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaia, whom he married in 1932.

Bulgakov's prose works include Notes on the Cuff, The Diaboliad and Other Stories, The White Guard (also as Days of the Turbins), Notes of a Young Doctor, Heart of a Dog, and Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel, and the Life of Monsieur de Molière; his most successful plays are Days of the Turbins, Zoyka's Apartment, The Crimson Island, A Cabal of Hypocrites, The Last Days (Pushkin), and Flight.

Bulgakov began writing Master and Margarita in 1928, and the novel still shows some traces of its earliest drafts (for example, Pilate's dog Banga bears the nickname of Bulgakov's second wife, Liubov' or Liubanga). He burned the manuscript along with all his other works in progress in a Gogolian fit of despair in 1930, but had resumed work on it by 1933, and was devoting most of his attention to it by 1938. Bulgakov's kidney condition did not attract attention until he fell seriously ill in September of 1939. He died of the same ailment, and at almost exactly the same age, that caused his father's death (at 48) in 1907. Like Chekhov, another doctor of medicine who watched himself die (in his case, of TB), Bulgakov knew the implications of his failing health and focused the last months of his life on the novel, though he only managed to complete revisions on the first part.

Questions for Reading:

1. Master and Margarita is arguably the most fun novel of the twentieth century. How do the humorous elements work for you as a reader, and what is their relationship to the many dark aspects of the story? -- some of which we are likely to miss, particularly if reading a translation made from the censored editions, because the hints of arrest and persecution by the secret police are subtle enough to pass us by.

2. How do the two main story threads of the novel -- Yershalaim around 33 A. D., and Moscow at some unspecified date that most resembles the late 1920s -- interact? If you have read the novel before, does your experience of each plot line differ this time? What is the effect of the Yershalaim plot's resemblance, and lack of resemblance, to the familiar Gospel story, and of the resulting religious unorthodoxy?

3. One important subtext for this novel is Goethe's Faust (parts I and II) -- even the tragic heroine, remember, is Gretchen, the German nickname for Margarita. What kind of Devil does Bulgakov portray, and what kind of worldview does this choice suggest?

4. How does Bulgakov's depiction of writers and theater workers impact your reading of the book?

5. What is the role of poetry, and of Russian literature as a whole, in this book? (I know I asked exactly the same question of Ginzburg's Whirlwind, but it applied well here too!) The more you know about Russian literature and culture, the more tidbits there are to savor. Besides Goethe, scholars have found important connections to Pushkin, Gogol', Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Chekhov.

6. What kind of fate do the Master and Margarita inhabit at the end of the book, and does this ending satisfy your readerly thirst for justice?

7. How does the final chapter impact your experience of earlier events and characters?

8. For fun: if you were adapting this book as a play, a movie, or maybe best of all a graphic novel (= a comic book for grown-ups), which scenes would be crucial and which could be skipped or summarized in a few abbreviated pieces of physical "business"?

If you enjoyed this book and you're interested in more information about Bulgakov check the womderful web site created by Kevin Moss at Middlebury College:


A select bibliography on Bulgakov in English:

  • A Pictorial Biography of Mikhail Bulgakov -- Bulgakov: Fotobiografiia, ed. Ellendea Proffer (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984) -- bilingual text and lots of marvelous pictures!
  • Julie A. E. Curtis, Bulgakov's Last Decade : The Writer as Hero (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  • Julie A. E. Curtis, Manuscripts Don't Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov, a Life in Letters and Diaries (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1992).
  • (A treat for those of you who were at Swat before 1994!) George Krugovoy, The Gnostic Novel of Mikhail Bulgakov: Sources and Exegesis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991).
  • Lesley Milne, Mikhail Bulgakov: A Critical Biography (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  • Lesley Milne (and others), "Mikhail Afanas'evich Bulgakov 1981-1940," in Neil Cornwell, ed., Reference Guide to Russian Literature (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998), pp. 197-204.
  • Nadine Natov, "Bulgakov, Mikhail Afanasievich," in Victor Terras, ed., Handbook of Russian Literature "New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 62-63.

    * This image is from Ellendea Proffer's A Pictorial Biography of Bulgakov, p. 116.

    Return to The Great Russian Novel of Conscience.

    Home page of Swarthmore College.

    Sibelan Forrester's Home Page