One night in 1930, the telephone rang in the Moscow apartment of Mikhail Bulgakov. The voice was instantly recognisable, speaking Russian with a heavy Georgian accent. The general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party was on the line, Josef Stalin. He was calling up one of his favourite authors, the comic playwright Mikhail Bulgakov in response to a letter that he had received. Bulgakov’s work had been banned and so he appealed to the highest law in the land, and Stalin responded personally saying “We’ll try to do something for you.”
Bulgakov did not receive his wish. He longed for his plays to be staged again and for his works to be published. A bourgeois intellectual with White Russian sympathies, Bulgakov never had a chance. During his lifetime, his novels and stories were “written for the drawer”, hidden away only to be read to friends in private, or circulated in illegal home-made copies known as samizdat.
Nevertheless, during the Great Terror of the 1930s when millions of innocent people were enslaved or murdered during Stalin’s purges, Bulgakov remained relatively untouched. Stalin loved his early work, even while he banned its performance and publication. When his works finally appeared in the late communist thaw, Bulgakov’s writing lit up the world of Russian literature with their wit, imagination and horror.
One of his early works was A Dog’s Heart (1925). Drawing on his experiences as a wartime surgeon, Bulgakov spared no details in narrating the ghastly experiments undertaken by his anti-hero Professor Preobrazhensky. Blindly stumbling in the light of new scientific knowledge, Preobrazhensky replaces the pituary gland of a stray dog with that of a hard-drinking itinerant who was murdered in a tavern brawl. Alas, the scientist has no idea of the havoc that his misguided experiment will create.
The dog suffers a transformation into a half-man, half-canine creature that invents the name ‘Polygraf Polygrafovich Sharikov’. As Sharikov grows in confidence, Preobrazhensky discovers that he has lost control of his creation, whose wild ways throw the scientist’s world into utter disorder:
He [Sharikov] speaks a large number of words: ‘Cabby’, ‘No seats left’, ‘Evening Gazette’, ‘The best present for children’ and absolutely all the swearwords that exist in the vocabulary of Russian.
Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, published ten years before, almost all the action takes place in a single apartment, but whereas Kakfa’s story is a dark nightmare, Sharikov’s transformation leads to black comedy.
The book would survive today on its humour alone, but it also a fierce satire of social change. It criticises those who would dabble in experiments (either medical or social) just because they are possible, and without worrying about the consequences. Furthermore, A Dog’s Heart shows a society in the throes of economic collapse, where the old order has been exposed as a pathetic fraud, but no one has yet arrived to fill the gap they have left behind.
The novella also plugs into a deep human fear: the threat of losing one’s home. As Sharikov breaks all the windows and trashes the bathroom while chasing cats, Preobrazhensky is under threat from the new housing committees who wish requisition his home and carve up his seven rooms into cramped, shared apartments.
It was a theme that would reappear in Bulgakov’s masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a novel that he was working on from 1928 until his early death from a hereditary liver disease in 1940. In this, his final novel, things have literally gone down in the world. Professor Preobrazhensky was the proud owner of a penthouse apartment in A Dog’s Heart, but the eponymous master has been reduced to living in a soot-caked basement flat, which he rents. Other characters suffer from the downward spiral in everyday life: one young poet even uses ‘Homeless’ as his nom de plume.
Madness too has grown as a forbidding force in Bulgakov’s later work. Professor Preobrazhensky in A Dog’s Heart was only slowly becoming ‘unwell’. In The Master and Margarita the master, Homeless and many other characters become inmates in an insane asylum. Indeed, the whole of Moscow is in turmoil, for the devil has arrived in the Russian capital with mayhem on his mind.
Using the name ‘Woland’, the devil and his retinue descend on Moscow to celebrate a diabolical ball. Unleashing his minions across the city, Woland puts the USSR’s toadying writers, editors and other apparatchiks through a series of humiliating and deadly ordeals. Although just occasionally, Woland makes sure that people get a decent breakfast before he teleports them to the other side of the world:
‘My dear Stepan Bogdanovich’, the visitor said, with a perspicacious smile, ‘no aspirin will help you. Follow the wise old rule – cure like with like. The only thing that will bring you back to life is two glasses of vodka with something pickled and hot to go with it.’
Styopa, rolling his eyes saw that a tray had been set on a small table, on which tray there were sliced white bread, pressed caviar in a little bowl, pickled mushrooms on a dish, something in a saucepan, and finally, vodka in a roomy decanter … The saucepan was opened and found to contain frankfurters in tomato sauce.
The whole work is a piece of wish fulfilment on the part of a man whose own writing career had been stifled by party men, who banned his works from appearing on stage.
Rather than being the ravings of a bitter man, the novel is actually a joyous romp where the characters care little for the fate of their immortal souls. Greatest among them is the Witch-Queen Margarita, who makes a deal with the devil so that he will restore to her the man she loves. And why not? In the topsy-turvy world of Stalin’s Moscow, who else but Satan could put the world to rights? The populace was already living under a stultifying fear that haunted their waking and sleeping hours, like in the master’s ominous dream :
I began to be afraid of the dark. In short, the stage of mental illness came. It seemed to me, especially as I was falling asleep, that some very soft and pliant octopus was stealing with its tentacles immediately and directly towards my heart.
Both The Master and Margarita and A Dog’s Heart are complicated novels with shifting viewpoints and sources. The Master and Margarita features long, beautiful sequences retelling of the life of Pontius Pilate, which might be a dream, a back story or a book within a book. It’s clear neither to the reader nor to the characters who witness these events from long before they were born.
It took twenty-five years after Bulgakov’s death for The Master and Margarita to be published. Since then, its mystical, beguiling story has captured the interest of readers all around the world. Its message crosses age, boundaries, languages and time because it is a reaffirmation of the rights of the creative spirit to flourish even in the midst of the darkest oppression His enemies knew it too. In The Court of Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore, there’s a moment when the Soviet politician Bukharin tells Stalin that ‘Poets are always right, history is on their side.’
Bulgakov said it most tellingly himself in those prophetic lines of Woland, which would echo down the years decades after the author’s death. While the dictators and despots of this world do everything they can to suppress the truth from coming out, in the end, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”