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Mikhail Bulgakov - Satirist and Playwright

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Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1891. He studied medicine at Kiev University from 1909 to 1916, and in 1916 he took up practice as a doctor, first in district hospitals, then in Kiev during the German and Red Army occupations. These experiences led him to become addicted to morphine, but with the help of his first wife, Tatiana Nikolaevna, he kicked the habit, became a journalistic writer and, in 1921, moved to Moscow, Russia. In 1924, after finding journalistic work with a few Soviet periodicals, divorcing his first wife and remarrying, he attempted publication of his first novel, The White Guard.

Bulgakov the Author

The White Guard was a fairly straightforward account of the lives of a Ukrainian family during the struggle between the White Army (Tsarist) and Red Army (Bolshevik) and the early years of Soviet rule, a largely autobiographical work. The journal Rossiya agreed to serialise the novel, but only the first two parts were published - Rossiya was closed down by the Soviet government before the third and final part could be published.

Bulgakov was not deterred, and 1925 was a fruitful year for him. In this year he wrote a collection of short stories, Diaboliad, which was published; he began the serialisation of Notes of a Young Doctor1, an account of his medical career, in Medical Worker; he wrote the novella The Heart of a Dog; and he began work as a playwright.

1926 was not such a good year. Bulgakov's plays - satires of varying subtlety that poked fun against Soviet ideals in general, and against the idealised historical view of Lenin and the October 1917 coup in particular - would premiere and then be closed by order of Stalin. The NKVD2, the State secret police, confiscated his manuscript for The Heart of a Dog. In 1927, the Medical Worker completed serialisation of Bulgakov's medical memoirs; it was the last piece of work Bulgakov would see published in his lifetime. But Bulgakov continued writing and staging plays, and began work on another novel.

Stalin continued to block Bulgakov's theatrical work and refused to allow him a visa to stage his works abroad. Frustrated, Bulgakov demanded several times to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. He received no reply until 1930, when Stalin personally phoned Bulgakov, offering him the position of stage manager at the Moscow Academic Arts Theatre, one of Russia's best known theatres. Bulgakov accepted.

Bulgakov the Dramatist

For the rest of his life, Bulgakov staged other people's plays at the Moscow Academic Arts Theatre, and attempted with little success to have his own plays staged. He also continued work on his second novel, and in 1932 he divorced his second wife, Liubov Evgenevna and married for a third time. In 1938 he became ill and spent much of the next two years completing work on his novel, which by now was entitled The Master and Margarita. He finished the book shortly before his death from kidney disease in 1940, entrusting the manuscript to his third wife, Elena Sergeevna. Bulgakov had no children from any of his three marriages; his novel was his only legacy. True to Bulgakov's wishes Elena Sergeevna kept the manuscript safe until, in 1966, the novel was serialised for the first time (albeit heavily edited) in Moskva. The full manuscript was not published in Russia until 1989.

But What Does it Mean?

With its outlandish plots and characters, Bulgakov's best satire can be enjoyed as fantasy or magic realism in its own right, but merits closer inspection. Two early short stories illustrate the opposite ends of Bulgakov's satirical spectrum: Diaboliad (1925), published in the eponymous anthology, is a straightforward satire of Soviet bureaucracy, while The Eggs of Doom3 (1924), published in the same collection, directly mocks the Bolshevik regime Lenin created. In this tale, Professor Persikov, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Lenin, exposes two eggs to an experimental red4 light ray. The eggs expand enormously and hatch into a pair of vast serpents that devour Persikov and rampage through Moscow.

A later play, Crimson Island (1928), carries this further. It parodies the rise of the Bolsheviks, with Lenin - represented by a cowardly native of the volcanic Island - fleeing overseas at the first sign of trouble to seek military backing for his takeover of the Island. He triumphs, but at the play's end the Island is ruined by a volcanic eruption5.

Bulgakov's novella The Heart of a Dog - which wasn't officially published in Russia until 1987 - gives us a vivid indication of Bulgakov's view of Bolshevism as a failed experiment. Here the protagonist, Professor Preobrazhenski - a urologist - rescues a stray dog and implants in its body the testicles and pituitary gland of a labourer killed in a pub brawl. The dog starts to walk upright and bark out Soviet slogans, and before long has evolved into a particularly unpleasant member of the Russian proletariat. Dismayed, the Professor declares his experiment a failure and reverses the process. The character of Preobrazhenski was largely based on Bulgakov's uncle, a gynaecologist and member of the White Guard, and the likeliest interpretation here is of the older Russian generation 'creating' the younger, Soviet generation, only to have to fight them on political and ideological grounds.

The Master and Margarita, the culmination of Bulgakov's life's work, is undoubtedly his most complex piece. In this novel, the Devil, in the bearded and insinuating form of Professor Woland, comes to Moscow and causes widespread death and chaos. At the same time, the Devil rescues the Master (an otherwise unnamed writer living in a mental asylum) and his lover Margarita, and offers them redemption from their worldly lives. Most analyses of this novel see the Master as an autobiographical figure, and therefore view the story as the fulfilment of Bulgakov's own desire to escape the asylum of his own Moscow. However, Russian critic Alfred Barkov has suggested a likelier and far more intriguing analysis. Barkov posits that Woland, another Lenin-figure6, is seen here elevating Soviet writer Maxim Gorki (the Master) and his wife-of-convenience, the actress Maria Andreeva (Margarita) to the head of his new Soviet literary establishment. If nothing else, this analysis allows an ambiguity of interpretation that would not be out of keeping with Bulgakov's oeuvre as a whole.

1A literal translation of Zapiski Yunovo Vracha, which has been translated for UK publication as Notes of a Country Doctor.2Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or The People's Commission for Internal Affairs. The NKVD was succeeded by the better-known KGB - Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, or The Committee for State Security.3Again, a literal translation of the Russian title Rokovyie Yaitsa, which has been translated for UK publication as The Fatal Eggs.4Red, of course, being the colour of the Bolshevik flag. This wasn't the last time Bulgakov made use of the red/Bolshevism association.5Lava, of course, being red, the colour of the Bolshevik flag. More overtly, the Russian word bagrovyii, translated in the play's title as 'crimson', refers to the exact shade of red the Bolsheviks used.6Not only is Woland another 'Professor' (compare with The Fatal Eggs and The Heart of a Dog), and bearded, he also has difficulty in pronouncing the letter 'v', a speech impediment from which Lenin also suffered.

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