Diaries and Selected Letters by Bulgakov

Russia in the 1930s was not a comfortable place for writers to be. The Soviet authorities spent much of the decade purging and cracking down, and being in the arts was no guarantee of safety. Many great writers (Babel, Mandelstam, Pilnyak) and other luminaries of the art world (including the director Meyerhold) were victims of the terror, and one of the surprises is that the magnificent author Bulgakov survived the purges, to die of natural causes in 1940.

What’s also amazing is that so much of his work survived; and his novels, novellas and plays are now widely available. Additionally, a lovely recent volume from Alma Classics (which my brother kindly presented me with on my birthday) brings together some surviving diary entries and a selection of letters – all of which are a great joy to any lover of Bulgakov’s work.

MB was never from the working class; a qualified doctor with decided upper class tendencies, he was thrown into the hell of the revolution and civil war, surviving by treating whoever needed treating and eventually making his way to Moscow where he tried to carve out a new life for himself. The diary entries run from 1921 to December 1925; nothing exists after this point as his apartment was raided in May 1926 and his diaries confiscated. Thereafter, up until the time of his untimely death in 1940, we see inside Bulgakov’s head via his letters, to everyone from his wife and his brother, to Stalin and the authorities.

And these writings certainly enable us to follow Bulgakov’s emotional journey through life; the ups and downs of his psyche, his attempts to become a writer, to make a living out of this art, and his terrible frustrations at the restrictions he faced. For under Soviet rule Bulgakov became in his own words “unthinkable”. His plays were going to be staged, and then were cancelled. Nobody would publish his work. He burned the first draft of his great novel “The Master and Margarita”. He tried writing biographies. But nothing worked – he could barely scrape along, he was not allowed to travel abroad and frankly it’s surprising he found the strength to produce so many wonderful works.


Some of the writing here is heart-rending and intense. In one of several impassioned letters to the Soviet authorities (this one addressed to Stalin himself) Bulgakov does not try to hide his views and is quite frank about his beliefs, while desperately appealing to be able to continue his work as a writer or to make a visit abroad (a wish he never fulfilled, alas):

I would scarcely be presenting myself to the government of the USSR in a favourable light, were I to write a mendacious letter which was nothing more that an unsavoury and, what’s more, a naive political about-face. And I have not even made any attempt to write a communist play, fully aware that I would never be able to do such a thing.

In the same letter he bravely goes on to declare:

It is my duty as a writer to fight against censorship, whatever form it may take, and whatever authority it may represent, just as it is to call for freedom of the press. I am fervent believer in such a freedom and I maintain that if any writer were to think of showing that he didn’t need it, then he would be like a fish declaring publicly that it doesn’t need water.

Reading remarks like this, you might be forgiven for wondering how Bulgakov survived the repression of the 1930s whilst many other authors didn’t, and it’s often said that it’s because Stalin enjoyed Bulgakov’s play “The Days of the Turbins” so much. Or maybe it was just that he liked to have a live victim to torment…

The later letters give a fascinating insight into the final genesis of the second version of “The Master and Margarita”. We read about the long and tortuous process of reconstructing manuscript, typed out by his sister-in-law:

About 327 pages of typescript are lying in front of me (about 22 chapters). If I stay fit and healthy the typing will soon be finished. Then the most important thing will remain: the author’s correction of the manuscript – important, complicated and painstaking work, including possibly retyping some pages.

“What’s going to happen to it?” you ask. I don’t know. You’ll probably put it away in your desk or in the cupboard, together with all the rejected plays, and you’ll think about it from time to time. However, we don’t know the future.

Bulgakov was clear-eyed enough to know that his work was unlikely to be read in his lifetime; and indeed many Russian authors wrote “for the drawer (i.e. posterity). Bulgakov certainly didn’t *know* the future, but at least he had enough faith in it to get his works down on paper for us to read nowadays.

This is a truly wonderful collection from Alma, translated by Roger Cockrell. The notes are copious and informative, there is a lovely plate section, and “Diaries and Selected Letters” gives a real insight into Bulgakov’s life, work and struggles. It’s sad to read of his frustrations and difficulties during his life, but the insight gained from this collection certainly will add to my future readings of Bulgakov – and I think a re-reading of “The Master and Margarita” is definitely overdue.