Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
Information on the Writer | Questions for Reading | If you liked this book...
photo of Bulgakov, signed with regards to his stepson

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) is one of the most important twentieth-century Russian authors, and Master and Margarita is his masterwork, though it was unfinished at the time he died (the notes in the back of our edition call attention to a few of the inconsistencies that remained). Bulgakov also wrote journalism, short stories, other novels, and was a very successful playwright - until Stalinist censorship put an end to that success.

photo of Bulgakov as a young, dandyish man and an elegant signature *** photo of an older Bulgakov, with a cigarette *** photo of Bulgakov looking spiffy in a hat

Bulgakov was born in Kiev (Kyiv) in 1891. (The city is now capital of Ukraine, but in 1891 Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire; Bulgakov's family was Russian, not Ukrainian. [Note Berlioz's uncle from Kiev, who visits in hopes of snagging the apartment for himself.}) Mikhail was the oldest son of a professor of theology, both his grandsfathers were priests, and there were prominent theologians in the extended family in his generation as well. The family was a happy one, and the accord and mutual support among the siblings is reflected in Bulgakov's play Days of the Turbin and the novel White Guard, whose plots largely overlap (see other works by Bulgakov," below). Bulgakov developed an early interest in literature, and the photographs of him that survive from the 1910s show quite a dandy (with a long cigarette; wearing a monocle), but after the FIrst World War began he volunteered for army medical service, and graduated with a medical degree in 1916. His two years of work as a doctor are reflected in the collection of stories Notes of a Young Doctor (Zapiski iunogo vracha, 1925-6). He and his brothers served in the White Army (see "Wars of the World" for detailed information about the war, the many military formations and political repercussions); his brothers emigrated to Paris after the Civil War ended. Bulgakov and his family and acquaintances in Kiev/Kyiv had horrible experiences during the CIvil War, and many of those details appeared later in White Guard and Days of the Turbins, see below.

In 1919, Bulgakov decided to leave the Army and devote himself to a life in literature. He worked on the satirical paper Gudok (like Ilf and Petrov!), then in 1921 moved to Moscow with his first wife, where he eventually wrote plays as well as stories, science fiction works, and novels. He divorced his first wife and in 1924 married Liubov' Belozerskaya. He published a great deal in the early and mid-1920s, but he never supported the Bolshevik adn then Soviet regime, and by 1927 his success was blocked by criticism like what the Master faces in the novel. Stalin had loved the play "Days of the Turbins," and he gave instructions that Bulgakov should be allowed to work at a small Moscow theater, then at the Moscow Art Theater (where Anton Chekhov's plays had made such a splash; familiar figures from MKhAT show up in Bulkgakov;'s Theatrical Novel) - at this time Bulgakov asserted that he didn't want to emigrate, since a Russian writer could write only in Russia. In 1931 he divorced again and married Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaia, the model for Margarita in the novel. For the last decade or so of his life, Bulgakov wrote and translated numerous works, but hardly any of it was performed or published. This was also the period of his intense work on Master and Margarita. He wrote to Stalin repeatedly, asking permission to leave the Soviet Union, but to these later letters Stalin never replied. Bulgakov died on March 10,1940. His father had died of the same disease (nephrosclerosis), and as a trained doctor Bulgakov was aware of his condition and did his best to finish Master and Margarita before his death - but as the notes in this edition describe, there are still unreconciled variant details between different sections.

Bulgakov and his third wife, Elena Bulgakov with his third wife, Elena (on whom Margarita is based)

All three of Bulgakov's wives - Tatiana Lappa, Liubov' Belozerskaia, and Elena Shilovskaia - wrote memoirs of him, though the first and second waited until the third had seen Master and Margarita into print, published her memoirs, and died.

For more information on the novel and on Bulgakov's life, see Professor Kevin Moss's site on M + M at http://cr.middlebury.edu/public/russian/Bulgakov/public_html/index.html at Middlebury College.
If you love pictures of authors, you'll really enjoy A Pictorial Biography of Bulgakov, compiled and edited by Ellendea Proffer (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984).
(If you can't find this book, let me know and I'll bring my copy when I visit y'all in May of 2009.)

At last, an edition where I don't have to make excuses to you about the quality of the translation! Master and Margarita offers a wonderful combination of wry intellectual humor and slapstick antics.

Interesting facts: One of the translators of the edition I recommend, Dr. Diana Burgin, is a Swarthmore alumna (class of 1966), and the other, Dr. Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, is an alumna of Bryn Mawr. Both of them have published a great deal of interesting scholarship about Russian literature, especially 20th-century poets and poetry. Anyone who took courses with Professor George Krugovoy, back in the day, might be interested to learn that he wrote a whole book on apocalyptic imagery in Bulgakov: the Bulgakov seminar in our listing of Russian courses was first taught by him. See George Krugovoy, The Gnostic Novel of Mikhail Bulgakov: Sources and Exegesis (Lanham, NY: University Press of America, 1991).

Questions for Reading

The Master and Margarita has become one of the most translated of Russian novels - especially of 20th-century novels. (The New York Times calls it one of the most important 20th-century novels.) I recommend the Ardis version (copyright 1995), translated by Burgin and O'Connor, which restores important sections that were cut by Soviet censors when the novel was first published in the USSR the 1960s. There are several other versions:

the famous black cat, Begemot

The novel also served as the source text for an overwhelmingly popular play, "The Master and Margarita," which showed at the Taganka Theater in Moscow for years in the 1980s. (Foreign students studying in Moscow could obtain a scarce ticket to the performances in exchange for a copy of the novel from one of the hard currency stores where Soviet citizens were (still!) not allowed to enter - even the censored edition was hard to come by and thus a very valuable commodity). FIlm and TV versions; adaptation last year at the Mum Puppettheater in Philadelphia, where the show was performed by two actors and a lot of puppets - it was a striking effect to see Margarita or the Master speaking from the hands of the actor playing Woland.

If you liked this book...

Other works by Mikhail Bulgakov, almost all available in English translation:

Note that for works that were not published until after Bulgakov's death the titles are not entirely stable. Is it Moliere or Gospodin de Molier ('Monsieur de Moliere)?

Bulgakov links Woland and his suite with art, and similar concerns appear in writings from the 1930s by the wonderful Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (one of whose grandfathers was a Russian Orthodox priest, and a couple of her uncles too; she did emigrate in 1922 and lived in Berlin, Prague, and Paris before returning to the USSR in 1939, against her own better judgment). See the collection of Tsvetaeva's critical and theoretical articles, Art in the Light of Conscience, translated by Angela Livingstone (Harvard UP, 1992).

There is also, of course, Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), the grand-daddy of them all when it comes to the Russian satirical novel. Bulgakov loved Gogol - though born and raised in Ukraine, Gogol vigorously assimilated himself to the Russian literary scene in the 1830s and 1840s and wrote almost exclusively in Russian, though many have argued that some of his unusual vocabulary or stylistic features are actually Ukrainianisms. Like Bulgakov, Gogol wrote plays (the absurd and dreadfully funny Government Inspector in particular), and his short stories are influential classics in Russian literature (see "The Nose"), but his best-known worok is the novel Dead Souls (Mertvye dushi, 1842), the many editions available include: trans. Clifford Odets (NY: Modern Library, 1923); Bernard Guilbert Guerney (NY: Modern Library, 1965)l trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Pantheon Books, 1996).

A number of important writers appeared at the same time as Bulgakov and were variously repressed or silenced, so that most for one reason or another didn't outlive Stalin:

Evgenii Zamiatin or Zamyatin (1884-1937) is older than the rest of these guys, but very much worth reading. His best-known novel in the west is the dystopian We (My, 1921, trans. Gregory Zilboorg, NY, Dutton, 1924; Mirra Ginzburg, NY: Dutton, 1952 and NY: Viking, 1972; Clarence Brown, NY: Penguin Books, 1993; Natasha Randall, NY: Modern Library, 2006); it wasn't published in the Soviet Union until 198?, but in the climate of freer travel in the early 1920s it was very quickly published in Italian translation and then "retranslated" (actually, intentionally marred with a few "translators' mistakes" in what may be the first case of emigre publishers trying to make it look as if the Soviet author never intended the manuscript to be published abroad, in order not to get the author in trouble) into Russian for publication abroad. We influenced Orwell's 1984 and many subsequent dystopias. For the most part, though, Zamiatin was not a science fiction author, and his stories cover a wide range of styles and topics. See his essays in A Soviet Heretic, ed. and trans. Mirra Ginzburg (U of Chicago Press, 1970 and Northwestern UP, 1992).

Boris Pilnyak or Pilniak (born Boris Andreevich Vogau, 1894-1938), author of The Naked Year (Golyi god, trans. Alexander Tulloch, Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1975), Mahogany and Other Stories (Krasnoe derevo, trans. Vera T. Reck and Michael Green, Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1988, 1993), The Volga Flows into the Caspian Sea (Volga techet v kaspijskoe more, trans. as The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea by Charles Malamuth, NY: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1931 and NY: AMS Press, 1970), and a critical depiction of the United States after he visited, OK. Several collections of his stories are available in English.

Isaac Babel (1894-1941), a Jew from Odessa whose career began before the Revolution with a series of Odessa Tales that alternately present humor (especially those that treat the larger-than-life Jewish ganster Benya Krik) and tragedy (such as "The Story of My Dovecote," which includes a pogrom in which the narrator's grandfather is killed). Several collections of his stories are available in English, as well as a number of other significant publications.

Yuri Olesha (1899-1960) - another Odessa writer. See his story "The Cherry Seed" (VIshnevaja kostochka), his revolutionary fairy-tale novel for childeren Three Fat Men (Tri tolstyaka), and his most famous novel, Envy (Zavist'), 1927 (translated by Marian Schwartz, New York Review Books, 2004, and also by Andrew MacAndrew, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967).

Andrei Platonov, (born Andrei Platonovich Klimentov, 1899-1951), a skeptical communist, author of many stories and two dystopian novels, Chevengur (trans. Anthony Alcott, Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1978) and The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan, trans. Robert Chandler and Geoffrey Smith, London, Harvill, 1996; Mirra Ginzburg, NY: Dutton, 1975, reprinted by Northwestern UP, 1994; and Thomas P. Whitney, Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1973, with a preface by Joseph Brodsky). See too the thoughtful and scrupulous and thoughtful translations of his stories by Robert Chandler (working with a variety of others).

Daniil Kharms (born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev, 1905-1942) is younger than the rest of these guys, but he was a very funny man and a founding member of OBERIU ("Union of Real Art"), an organization doomed to be repressed not many years after it began in 1928, as the literary scene in the Soviet Union became ever more tightly and paranoidly controlled through teh 1930s. Kharms had great success as a children's writer, but he is best known for his absurdist plays and vignettes. He is represented in a number of anthologies of Russian absurdist and avant-garde literature, and in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Wriring of Daniil Kharms, trans. Matvei Yankelevich (London: Duckworth, 2007).