Old Nick and the Magician of Moscow

Mikhail Bulgakov and the Re-enchantment of Literature

Andrew Hedgecock

We have no longer in any country a literature as great as the literature of the old world, and that is because the newspapers, all kinds of second rate books, the preoccupation of men with all kinds of practical changes, have driven the living imagination out of this world.

—W.B. Yeats (1904)

Proto-magic realist, slipstream writer avant la lettre, scathing satirist, passionate observer of the human condition, doughty opponent of the state control of literature and—bizarrely—the author of one of Stalin’s favourite plays: Mikhail Bulgakov was a difficult writer to pin down. He disdained literary boundaries, striving to set down a truthful, but not necessarily realistic, vision of the world in an astonishing variety of forms, styles and genres. And he wrote with tremendous élan in all of them.

The range of Bulgakov’s fictional concerns is huge, taking in politics, science, myth, human folly, suffering, cruelty, betrayal, religion, nostalgia and the rôle of the artist in society. But his writing does have its trademarks: his most accomplished work tends to be characterised by a fusion of poignant autobiography and sharply focused fantasy. Bulgakov’s mission was to reintroduce what Yeats called “the living imagination” into a literary culture that had come to see books as mere sales brochures for the policies of the state.

A Charm against Burning

There’s a scene in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia where a classical scholar declares her grief at the loss of thousands of works by the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristotle in the burning of the great library of Alexandria. The comfort she is offered by her tutor connects to the timeless nature of the creative impulse and the indestructible nature of ideas: “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.”

This upbeat view of the durability and value of artistic endeavour also constitutes a central theme of The Master and Margarita, the best-known work by Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov—whose own grief at the incineration of manuscripts came from bitter personal experience. In one of the book’s key scenes, the devil, paying a clandestine visit to Moscow in the 1930s, asks to see a copy of a controversial novel. On being told that the original manuscript has been burned on a stove he says: “Forgive me, but I don’t believe you… That cannot be. Manuscripts don’t burn.” And the manuscript re-materialises.

The words of the book’s urbane Old Nick have echoed down the years, becoming a prophecy of its survival and a charm to protect it from the flames of the author’s stove—despair having driven Bulgakov to burn several of his earlier works.

At the time of his death in 1940, few of Bulgakov’s plays had been produced, little of his prose fiction had been published and he was still dictating revisions to the manuscript of The Master and Margarita. The book began to slip past the censors in 1966, but no complete version of the text was published until 1973.

Today, it’s not merely a bestseller in Russia—it’s the icon at the centre of a leisure and heritage industry: there are tourist attractions based on the book’s locations, it’s the subject of a weekly radio quiz and there’s even a Master and Margarita hairdresser. Fortunately, fans of the book will know not to ask for a Berlioz cut (see below). And its impact has been international: the first UK publication in 1967 bought a small but enthusiastic readership; thirty years later it was ranked 63rd in a Waterstones/Channel 4 reader’s poll to identify the “Books of the Century.”

Towards the end of his life, Bulgakov grew tired of hearing the assurance of friends and well-wishers that his work would find an audience after his death. And it’s easy to understand his frustration at being unable to share his perceptions of Stalin’s Moscow with his fellow Muscovites. But, while Bulgakov’s work is crammed with stinging anti-Soviet satire and strongly autobiographical material, his reflections on the transcendent potential of art, the crushing orthodoxy of coercive government and the need for a spiritual perspective on life remain vital and challenging. There is much in his complex, allusive and often mysterious tales that speaks directly to contemporary readers.

A Tragic Comedian

Bulgakov was born into a Russian middle class family in Kiev in 1891. Having studied medicine at the University of Kiev, he worked as a provincial GP and—after being forcibly mobilised by the Ukrainian Nationalist Army—served in field hospitals during the civil war. In 1919 he abandoned medicine for journalism, beginning to write short stories and plays for local theatres. Convinced that a brilliant literary career lay ahead of him, Bulgakov moved to Moscow in 1921 and began to establish a reputation as a versatile, amusing and powerful writer for page and stage.

By the late 1920s Bulgakov had gained a wide readership for several published collections of short stories and established an enthusiastic audience for his plays: in 1928 he had three simultaneously in production at separate Moscow theatres. All three were banned the following year. So were his first two novels. He had begun to experience the systematic and vindictive mauling at the hands of the critical establishment that was to dog the rest of his career.

This was the era of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans—when a period of creative freedom, associated with the New Economic Policy of the early 1920s, was extinguished by strict and coercive state control of the arts. Literary affairs came under the hand of Leopold Averbakh, the dogmatic Stalinist head of RAPP(Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. And Bulgakov—a writer who chronicled the foibles and faults of his society—was learning that the approval of official critics like Averbakh far outweighed the enthusiasm of readers and audiences in determining a writer’s ability to work and survive.

Bulgakov abandoned his career as a doctor, but never relinquished his interest in advances in science and medicine and the social, political and literary possibilities they brought. These themes informed a number of his acerbic fictional critiques of post-revolutionary Russia.

One of his earliest collections of short pieces, Diaboliad, included literary parody, satire, science fiction and surrealism. Its best-known tale, The Fatal Eggs, is a caustic allegory of the revolution in which a biomedical-engineering experiment by ardent Bolsheviks results in the generation of a set of enormous monsters. Bulgakov was, of course, labelled a “neo-bourgeois” and “counter-revolutionary” by the literary press—but at least his book was published.

His 1925 novella Heart of a Dog fared less well. Another political parable, it offers a much more cleverly constructed critique of Russian society than The Fatal Eggs: it’s ironic as well as allegorical, more shrewdly humorous and contains a richer blend of disparate elements—horror, satire, farce and science-fiction. It tells the story of a Moscow professor who transplants a human pituitary gland and testicles into a stray dog with fascinating and alarming results. The book’s science-fiction elements echo both Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein—and the post-operative transformation of the dog prefigures the final image of Animal Farm. A complex and fascinating novella, but not to the taste of the censors and Bulgakov’s enemies in RAPP(Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), the book was banned and remained unpublished until 1987, the era of Gorbachev and Glasnost, sixty-two years after it was written and 47 years after the death of its author.

Bulgakov’s taste for mixing satirical and fantastic elements was also evident in theatrical work like Adam and Eve (1931) and Bliss (1934). Ivan Vasilievich (1935)—treated to an entertaining revival by the Company of Clerks at Battersea Arts Centre ten years ago—is the story of an inventor who uses time travel to escape political persecution and ends up bringing Ivan the Terrible to the Moscow of the 1930s.

These satirical fantasies are packed with knockabout comedy and farce—but they have a dark side: from The Fatal Eggs to Ivan Vasilievich, Bulgakov’s main themes are mourning and erasure. These tales are laments for the loss of spiritual and creative freedom in Stalin’s Russia.

The other important thread in Bulgakov’s work is his directly biographical material, drawing on his experiences as a provincial medic and his childhood in a wealthy monarchist family in Kiev. A Country Doctor’s Notebook (1925-7) is a cycle of short stories about an overworked young doctor in a rural hospital. Like William Carlos Williams’ stories of medical life, they concern the struggle between knowledge and ignorance, and present a positive view of the notion of scientific and medical progress.

In 1925, Bulgakov wrote what was to become his best know work during his lifetime. The White Guard, dramatised in 1926 as The Days of the Turbins, is the realistic and touching tale of a monarchist family in Kiev during the revolution and civil war. The fact that the story failed to portray Communist heroes—concentrating instead on the effects of national upheaval upon the Russian gentry, intelligentsia and White Army officers—did not endear it to the censors. Its publisher dropped the book, which was being serialised in a magazine, and no complete version was published during Bulgakov’s lifetime. And the play was repeatedly banned and rewritten by the censors. Bulgakov saw his work for stage and page as equally important: his tragedy was that much of his output in both areas was proscribed, mutilated and vilified during his lifetime.

Stalin saw The Days of the Turbins several times—and it is widely reputed to have been one of his favourite plays. This may have been a factor in Bulgakov’s survival: he may have been silenced, an internal exile forced to live in conditions of squalor and poverty, but at least he was spared the arrest and disappearance meted out to writers like Babel and Mandelstam.

The Devil Rides Out

Bulgakov began work on The Master and Margarita in 1928. It’s a shape-shifter of a novel, a slice of interactive fiction with no contingent choice-points in the text itself. Every reader brings a different set of concerns and tastes—and each gets a slightly different book. Your political frame of reference, gender, literary taste, culture, life experience and the times you’re living through determine the narrative you read.

It’s a remarkable piece of literary alchemy. A fusion of the Faust legend, fragments of autobiography, an alternative version of the last days of Christ, a Kafkaesque tale of political repression and a quietly impressive meditation on the rôle of the artist in a society bereft of imaginative freedom and enchantment. These narrative elements are set against a background of literary game playing, slapstick comedy, paranoid satire and startling violence. So, plenty to appeal to fans of George Perec, Mack Sennett, Thomas Pynchon and Quentin Tarrantino.

The narrative structure is intricate, dense and highly mysterious. The book begins by inter-weaving two apparently unconnected tales and later introduces a third. The unification of these competing multi-level plots is an audacious feat of narrative control, upstaging even William Gibson’s bravura juggling of storylines in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

The first thread, freighted with exuberant imagery and sharp satire, concerns a visit to contemporary (1930s) Moscow by the devil, in the guise of German philosopher and stage magician Professor Woland. Woland and his infernal retinue, including a talking cat and a hit man with appalling dress sense, lead the citizens of Moscow into irresistible temptation—only to expose them to intolerable humiliation and unendurable torment. The grimmest and most hilarious fates are reserved for the hypocrites, control-freaks and mediocrities of the city’s theatrical and literary establishment. There are detailed references to incidents in the author’s life and satirical shots at the repressive control of the arts under Stalin, including score-settling in the form of retributive violence towards characters based on Bulgakov’s real enemies. Early in the book, Berlioz, chairman of the MASSOLIT literary association, is spectacularly decapitated. Berlioz is, of course, based upon Leopold Averbakh, Bulgakov’s persecutor and head of RAPP(Russian Association of Proletarian Writers).

The second main thread—rendered in a more sombre, naturalistic style—is an enigmatic and complex retelling of the Christian gospel story. It’s set in ancient Yershalaym (Jerusalem)—and based around the fateful encounter between Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus) and Pontius Pilate. But this story, in contrast to the Moscow segments, is stripped of all its traditional imagery and mythic resonance. Bulgakov’s deadpan Yeshua prefigures the recent gritty portrayals of Christ by Norman Mailer and Jim Crace. Pilate, beset by migraines and wracked with guilt, is one of Bulgakov’s most fully drawn characters. He’s a figure who elicits our sympathy, but his sinister manoeuvrings and assassination orders provide the book’s most direct echo of the violence and repression of Stalin’s regime.

The third narrative stream is the love story that gives the book its title, concerning an author known only as ‘The Master’ and the object of his adulterous passion, Margarita. Introduced curiously late in the book, the tale of the Master and his lover teems with symbolism, quotes from a variety of mythological source material and is brimful of metaphysical speculation—serious and frivolous. This tale is the one most concerned with the need for art, the power of the creative act and the rôle of artists within a repressive society. When he despairs of seeing his work in print, the Master flings his manuscript into the fire, simultaneously losing his reason for living, his lover and his mind. That’s the point at which the devil intervenes and we learn of the flame-resistant nature of manuscripts.

But Bulgakov shared The Master’s despair: he spent the last 12 years of his life working on The Master and Margarita, certain that he’d never see it published. And yet—in spite of everything—he was just as certain that the work was worth doing. Information about Bulgakov’s political outlook is vague. He began as an uncritical monarchist; later, in spite of his service in the White Army, he is believed to have become sympathetic to the broad aims of the Bolshevik revolution; and he seems to have ended life as a kind of anarchist-mystic with strong humanist streak. Having lost faith in organised religion, scientific progress and political change, art was the only force he had left to believe in as a means of transforming human behaviour.

The Master and Margarita contains many biographical references and detailed caricatures of figures from Moscow in the 1930s, but transcends its setting, its era and even, to some extent, its author’s intentions. One reason the novel hasn’t dated is that Bulgakov’s satire didn’t depend on embedded allegorical references to Stalin’s regime: the whole book challenges the notion of external controls on the artistic process through its life-affirming humour, sense of the grotesque and relish for the absurd.

While its heady brew of fantasy, myth and bawdy comedy was an act of literary insurrection against the established ethos of ‘Socialist Realism’, the novel’s enduring appeal and resonance for a contemporary audience is easy to understand. There’s a growing awareness of the crisis of modernity that Bulgakov started reporting more than 70 years ago: the notion of progress seems more fragile than ever and our models of the way the world works are pre-packaged by party and corporation spin doctors—the private-sector progeny of MASSOLIT.

There’s a lot of expediency and selling out in the book: Pilate betrays Yeshua and is eternally tortured by his decision; Ponyrev, a poet, becomes Berlioz’s toady and suffers infernal torture and episodes of madness; and the Master betrays his art. The recurring motif of betrayal seems to reflect Bulgakov’s doubts about his own artistic integrity. In 1930 he wrote to Stalin asking for permission to leave Russia or to be found work in the Moscow Art Theatre. And Stalin, the unlikely admirer of The Days of the Turbins, gave Bulgakov a job. In 1938 he was persuaded to write Batum, a play about the early life of Stalin. This was a painful and—ultimately—futile episode as the play was eventually banned by its leading character. So the theme of betrayal and redemption in The Master and Margarita seems to be rooted in Bulgakov’s coming to terms with the compromises he’d made to ensure his artistic and personal survival.

Throughout the book, Bulgakov raps on the themes of creativity and authorship. The tale-within-a-tale, the Yeshua story, is related initially by the devil, later becomes the subject of The Master’s great novel and, finally, achieves resolution in the dreams of the poet Ponyrev. And there’s a degree of ambiguity surrounding the narrator of the framing Moscow story. These games with layers of storytelling are tremendous fun, but also serve the purpose of dragging the reader into Bulgakov’s great quest: the relentless separation of truth and falsehood.

The Master and Margarita was the culmination of the work of a great writer. It’s darkly ironic—but there’s a lot to laugh at too. Admirers of Iain Sinclair, Angela Carter, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Salman Rushdie and Michael Moorcock will find much to enjoy in Bulgakov. Our own era (like Yeats’, like Bulgakov’s) is one where the forces of mediocrity are driving “the living imagination” out of the world. A journey through the surreal streets of Bulgakov’s Moscow is a powerful reminder of what we risk losing and an entreaty—for readers and writers—to join the fight to keep it.


This essay was originally commissioned by Nicholas Royle for the defunct Time Out literary website.

Copyright © 2002 by Andrew Hedgecock.