“And in the room of the banished poet
Fear and the Muse take turns to watch,
And the night comes
When there will be no sunrise”

(from Voronech, 1936, by Anna Akhmatova – these lines about Mandelstam apply equally well to Bulgakov)


Well, needless to say, the Bulgakov kick continues! After my recent intense novel-reading I felt the need of a little non-fiction and this book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. It’s not a new book – it was first published in 1991 to celebrate the centenary of MB’s birth – but my edition is a recent reprint (possibly to coincide with the fairly high profile of the writer at the moment?)

ms dont burn

The blurb on Amazon for the book sums up what the contents are:

“The Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 – 1940) is now widely acknowledged as one of the giants of twentieth-century Soviet literature, ranking with such luminaries as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. In his own lifetime, however, a casualty of Stalinist repression, he was scarcely published at all, and his plays reached the stage only with huge difficulty. His greatest masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a novel written in the 1930s in complete secrecy, largely at night, did not appear in print until more than a quarter of a century after his death. It has since become a worldwide bestseller.

In Manuscripts Don’t Burn, J.A.E. Curtis has collated the fruits of eleven years of research to produce a fascinating chronicle of Bulgakov’s life, using a mass of exciting new material – much of which has never been published before. In particular, she is the only Westerner to have been granted access to either Bulgakov’s or his wife Yelena Sergeyevna’s diaries, which record in vivid detail the nightmarish precariousness of life during the Stalinist purges. J.A.E Curtis combines these diaries with extracts from letters to and from Bulgakov and with her own illuminating commentary to create a lively and highly readable account. Her vast collection of Bulgakov’s correspondence is unparalleled even in the USSR, and she draws on it judiciously to include letters addressed directly to Stalin, in which Bulgakov’s pleads to be allowed to emigrate; letters to his sisters and to his brother in Paris whom he did not see for twenty years; intimate notes to his second and third wives; and letters to and from well-known writers such as Gorky and Zamyatin.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn provides a forceful and compelling insight into the pressures of day-to-day existence for a man fighting persecution in order to make a career as a writer in Stalinist Russia.”

And this really is a treasure of a book. Each section covers a number of years, with an introductory text by Curtis, followed by the clearly set out letters and diary extracts. The earlier parts are naturally less detailed, as a limited amount of items survive from the time of the revolution and civil war. However, what exists is expertly commented on and put in context by Curtis, who clearly has a deep understanding of, and respect for, her subject.

The later chapters are full of detail of Bulgakov’s life and his attempts to work and survive under the repressive regime. Particularly valuable are Yelena Sergeyevna’s diaries which allow us to see the writer from the point of view of someone close to him, which works well alongside MB’s own thoughts. And there is a wonderful section where Yelena is sent away for a month owing to an illness, and Bulgakov’s letters to her, while he is in the midst of writing “The Master and Margarita”, are illuminating and revealing.

But there is chilling material in this book. Bulgakov comes to Moscow in the early 1920s and struggles to survive the privations of the time – lack of food, fuel, clothing, all the basic necessities plus nowhere to live (ah, this is why the eternal Moscow housing issue turns up time and time again!) He writes shorts stories but after initial hope of publication they are deemed unsuitable. He prolifically produces plays and one, “Days of the Turbins” is a runaway success with the public, despite the fact the critics point out that it doesn’t conform with party ideology. The authorities are left with the awkward situation of a hugely successful production by an author they don’t wish to acknowledge. In desperation, as he cannot find any kind of work to survive, MB writes directly to Stalin asking for a job or to be allowed to leave Russia. Amazingly, the Iron Dictator telephones him and asks if he really wishes to leave the country. This is a pivotal moment that B always looks back on – he refuses the chance to leave Russia and so work at the theatre miraculously appears. However, he always wonders whether this was the time he should have gone into exile as much of the rest of his life is tormented by his inability to travel the world.

Certainly, it is quite clear from this book what a cat and mouse game was played in Soviet Russia between the authorities (all the way up to the Top Man) and the country’s artists. All of these creative people were trying to work whilst having an acute awareness of being constantly observed. The kind of bureaucracy that existed in Soviet Russia was ideal for tormenting the citizen, giving him hope and then snatching it away – in B’s case we can feel his agony at not being allowed to travel outside the USSR (passports were dangled in front of him several times) and the constant commissioning of work which was then never produced or changed so much that it bore no relation to the original concept.

(On his play being cancelled):

“How did I feel?

My first wish was to grab someone by the throat and start some kind of fight. Then came a lucidity. I understood that there was no-one to grab, and that I didn’t know why or what for. Tilting against windmills is what used to happen in Spain, as you know, and that was a long time ago.

And it’s an absurd pastime.

I’m too old.

And the thought that someone might watch from the sidelines with cold and powerful eyes, and might laugh and say, ‘Go on, flounder away….’ No, no, it’s unthinkable.

You have to keep the knowledge of your utter, blinding helplessness to yourself.”

And by the time we reach the 1930s the Stalinist purges begin; the letters and diaries give a terryifying insider’s view of the effects of the purges on artists such as Akhmatova and Shostakovich as well as of course B himself and there are heartbreaking glimpses of artists trying to deal with the fear of not knowing what the next knock on the door might mean. These extracts are shot through with pain and particularly poignant are the attempts to keep in touch with his family in exile, particularly his brother in Paris. There are also snapshots of writers like Ilf and Petrov, and Zamyatin, who were friends of Bulgakovs, and it is astonishing to see how these higher profile names were working and publishing at the same time as B, but his work was buried by the authorities. Zamyatin later went into exile in Paris but alas did not survive for many years more.

mb and yelena

What shines through most is MB’s absolute dedication to his craft as a writer and his determination to write the works he must, even if he is “writing for the drawer”. The insight into the composition of “The Master and Margarita” in these extracts is immense and it is clear that Bulgakov felt that this was a major work.

(Letter toYS while working on M&M)

“‘And what will come of it?’ you ask. I don’t know. In all probability you will put it away in the writing-desk or in the cupboard where the corpses of my plays lie, and from time to time you will remember. However, we cannot know our future….

For the moment I am interested in your judgement, and no one can tell whether I shall ever know the judgement of the reading public.”

But he felt a hopelessness about getting his work to the public in his lifetime:

“The stove long ago became my favourite editor. I like it for the fact that, without rejecting anything, it is equally willing to swallow laundry bills, the beginning of letters and even, shame, oh shame, verses!”


“And I personally, with my own hands, threw into the stove a draft of a novel about the devil, the draft of a comedy, and the beginning of a second novel entitled The Theatre.”

All my things are past rescuing.”
(Letter to the Soviet Government 28.3.1930)

The many references to the burning of his papers are chilling and it still amazes me at the resilience of these works and how they have managed to escape down the years so that we may read them now. Posterity is also fortunate to have had YS to support B through his final years and to preserve his work after his tragic death. Although her diaries often reflect despair:

“Misha’s destiny is clear to me: he will be alone and persecuted until the end of his days.” (Yelena Sergeyevna’s diary, 24.2.36)

there are happier times when they attend events at the American Embassy or go on holidays or laugh with friends – it *is* worth remembering that their life was not all doom and gloom, or else where would the strength come from to produce all these works? Akhmatova in particular has memories of a witty friend.

This is one of those life-changing books that takes you right inside someone’s life and world – you come out the other end of the read feeling as if you have lived through what they have lived through and you will never look at things in quite the same way again. In the end, Bulgakov was a bourgeois trapped in a Soviet world. He did not settle easily into the post-revolutionary regime and refused to produce Socialist Realist works or stories that toed the party line. His writing was always individual and from the heart, which is why his life was such a difficult one. Out of his struggle to survive came his great works of art, for which we have to be grateful. But the human cost to the man was immense.


As an afterword, I was alerted (by Alex in Leeds pointing me at the Alma Classics catalogue) that a new collection of Bulgakov’s diaries and letters has been published by that company (who also issue a number of Bulgakov titles). It sounds magnificent and I hope will expand my knowledge and enjoyment of MB’s work even more than this excellent and pioneering book has done!