Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Manuscripts don’t burn

It’s 70 years to the day that Mikhail Bulgakov, one of Russia’s most interesting 20th century writers, died. Although feted at home for a short period in the 1920s, his satirical tone fell out of favour with the authorities, and he spent the last decade of his life unable to publish any writing. His most famous book - The Master and Margarita - was kept secret for years after his death and not published until the 1960s. Intriguingly, he had, in the book, used the phrase ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, and this has since become a famous quote. The phrase, however, applies even more pertinently to a diary Bulgakov kept in the 1920s which, after having been confiscated by the authorities and returned, he himself destroyed! Yet, a copy was found 60 years later, buried in the KGB’s files.

Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891 to Russian parents, his father being a professor at the Kiev Theological Academy. He married Tatiana Lappa in 1913, and with the outbreak of the First World War volunteered as a doctor for the Red Cross. He was sent to the front line, where he was severely injured. In 1916, he graduated from the Medical School of Kiev University and then served in the White Army, before also briefly serving in the Ukrainian People’s Army. After the Civil War, much of his family emigrated to Paris, but Bulgakov went to the Caucasus, and was then refused permission to leave Russia. In 1919, he gave up medicine for literature, and in 1921 moved, with Tatiana, to Moscow to pursue the life of a writer.

In Moscow, he worked as a journalist and for the literary department of the People’s Commissariat of Education. Parts of a largely autobiographical novel (much later published in English as The White Guard) were serialised in a journal. In 1924, he married again, to Lyubov Belozerskaya. In 1926, according to Wikipedia, he published a book called Morphine, which gave an account of his addiction to the drug (taken initially to ease the pain of war wounds).

From the mid 1920s, though, Bulgakov mostly wrote and staged plays, especially with the Moscow Arts Theatre. He was at the height of his popularity in 1928 when he had three plays showing. But, increasingly, he found himself at odds with the Soviet authorities for the nature of his satire; and, before the end of the decade, government censorship was preventing publication of any of his work or the staging of any of his plays.

In 1929, Bulgakov wrote to Maxim Gorky (according to his Kirjasto biography): ‘All my plays have been banned; not a line of mine is being printed anywhere; I have no work ready, and not a kopeck of royalties is coming in from any source; not a single institution, not a single individual will reply to my applications.’ In 1931, Bulgakov married for the third time, to Yelena Shilovskaya, who would prove a dedicated and inspirational partner. And then, at a complete loss, he wrote to Stalin asking for permission to emigrate. He refused, but arranged for him find work in the theatre, as an adapter of classics and a producer. Stalin’s favour protected Bulgakov from arrest, but the political climate remained too hostile for his writing to be published.

During the last decade or so of his life, Bulgakov worked on what would become his most important literary work - The Master and Margarita, a multi-leveled satire and fantasy - but it was suppressed by the authorities. Bulgakov died on 10 March 1940, 70 years ago today, and it was not until the 1960s that The Master and Margarita was finally published, subsequently bringing its author considerable but belated worldwide attention.

For a few years in the 1920s, Bulgakov kept a diary, says Dr Julie Curtis, in her biography Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov - A Life in Letters and Diaries (published by Bloomsbury in 1991, and a few pages of which can be read online at

In her preface the book, Curtis writes: ‘An extraordinary story attaches to [the diary], which everyone, including Bulgakov, had supposed to have been destroyed over 60 years ago. In 1926, Bulgakov’s apartment was searched by the OGPU (a forerunner of the KGB) and his diaries were confiscated, along with the text of The Heart of a Dog. Since Bulgakov was on this occasion only marginally implicated in a case being mounted by the secret police against one of his acquaintances, he soon began to make official complaints demanding that the manuscripts be returned. He finally got them back some three years later, in 1929, whereupon he immediately burned the diaries and resolved never to keep a diary again. Since that time, it had been assumed that the diaries were lost, until the advent of Glasnost prompted the KGB to admit that, in fact, the OGPU had made a copy of at least part of of the diary back in the 1920s, and this was still sitting in the KGB’s archives. The text was published, virtually in its entirety, in 1989-90.’

‘The fate of Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita,’ Curtis continues, ‘which was published after being kept secret for a decade while he was alive, and for a further 26 years after his death, together with this astonishing re-emergence of his diary 60 years on, has lent a peculiarly prophetic force to a phrase from The Master and Margarita which defiantly proclaims the integrity of art: ‘Manuscripts don’t burn.’ This is the phrase from the novel most frequently quoted in the Soviet Union today.’

Although there are relatively few entries from Bulgakov’s diary in Curtis’s book (and none that I can find online), Curtis does give more general information about them: ‘In these diaries Bulgakov is very frank, a foolishness which taught him a painful lesson when the diaries were confiscated, and which he never indulged in again; amongst other things, they contain traces of a condescension towards Jews which has caused some dismay amongst his present-day admirers. He is also candid when it comes to speaking about himself and his relationship with Lyubov, whom he describes as his ‘wife’ for some months before the official registration of their marriage. There is an unattractive irritation with himself that he should be so physically infatuated with her, and there is a hint of his doubts about the strength of her commitment to him, which seems to have led, on occasions, to him making scenes. . . The diaries reveal, too, Bulgakov’s obsessive preoccupation with his health, which may be attributable to the fact that as a doctor he knew that there was always a danger he might succumb to the same disease as his father . . . In addition, we can trace in the pages of the diaries the indications of a nervous susceptibility which would lead in due course, when his life really became difficult, to bouts of terror at being left alone and a fear of walking alone on the street. Overall, the image of Bulgakov that emerges from his diaries is not quite that of the cultivated man of letters he was to project in later years.’

And here are two diary entries (taken from Manuscripts Don’t Burn):

29 October 1923
‘The heating went on for the first time today. I spent the entire evening sealing the windows. This first day of heating was marked by the fact that the notorious Annushka left the kitchen window wide open all night. I positively don’t know what to do with the swine who inhabit this [communal] apartment. Because of my illness my nerves have really gone to pieces, and these sorts of things drive me to distraction.’

6 November 1923
‘I am reading Gorky’s masterly work My Universities. I have been thinking a great deal, and one way and another have come to recognise that I must stop playing around. What’s more, literature has become my life. I am never going to go back to any form of medicine now. I don’t much like Gorky as a person, but what a giant, what a powerful writer he is, and what awesome and important things he has to say about the writer. . . I am frightened by the fact that I am 32, by the years I have squandered on medicine, by my illness and weakness. I have this idiotic swelling behind my ear, which has already been operated on twice . . .I am going to study from now on. I can’t believe that the voice that keeps troubling me at the moment is anything but prophetic. It must be. There is nothing else for me to be. I can only be one thing - a writer. I must observe, and I must study, and keep my own counsel.’

While Manuscripts Don’t Burn contains few of Bulgakov’s diary entries, there are many from the diary of his third wife, Yelena. Here are a few from the last day’s of Bulgakov’s life:

29 September 1939
‘I will go straight to Misha’s grave illness. . . World events are seething all around us, but they reach us only indistinctly, so struck down are we by our own misfortune.’

1 January 1940
‘1939, the most difficult year in my life, has gone, and may God grant that 1940 should not be the same!’

15 January 1940
‘Misha is correcting the novel [The Master and Margarita] as much as his strength will allow, and I am copying it out . . .’

16 January 1940
‘42 degrees below zero! . . . I believe that he will get better.’

10 March 1940
‘16.39 Misha died’

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