July 01, 2001

Mikhail Bulgakov: A Wolf's Life

In the late 1930’s, at a time when Bulgakov had been forced into silence by the watchdogs of Stalinist orthodoxy, he applied to himself words that had been used to describe the great German fantasist, E. T. A. Hoffmann: “He transforms literature into a battle tower, from which, as an artist, he metes out satiric punishment against all that is deformed in the real world.”

A connection between literature and battle in Bulgakov’s work can actually be traced to his very first attempt at creative writing—at the age of seven: a knightly tale entitled “The Adventures of Svetlan.” The fact that at this tender age he chose the adventure genre was no mere chance, because the young Bulgakov was, by all accounts, a pugnacious child, who took the lead in yearly school battles. His most deadly weapon, however, as a schoolmate, the writer Konstantin Paustovsky, recalls, was “his merciless tongue, which everyone feared.” Thus, as a boy Bulgakov already had the temperament of the satirist. But he also possessed another ingredient essential for satire: a moral standard against which to measure society. This was instilled in him by his father, Afanasy Ivanovich (1859-1907), a professor at the Kiev Theological Academy, who in his writings advocated the primacy of moral education: “The distinction between good and evil, an arousal of love of good and hatred of evil, . . . – these are the cornerstones that should form the foundation of ‘educational’ activity.”

Bulgakov’s calling as a writer was apparent early. But, as the eldest son of a large, fatherless family (his father died when he was sixteen), he needed to choose a useful profession. Therefore, like several of his uncles before him and his younger brother Nikolai after him, he decided to study medicine. He graduated from the medical faculty of Kiev University in 1916, in the middle of World War I. After a short period at the front as a Red Cross volunteer, he was sent to a village hospital to replace the more experienced doctor, who had been mobilized in the war effort. Although this assignment took him far from the actual fighting, in Notes of a Young Doctor, the fictionalized version of his experiences, he characteristically saw in military terms his medical battle against disease and ignorance (which he terms “Egyptian darkness”): “The Egyptian darkness spread out like a shroud ... and I appear to be in it ...with something like a sword, or perhaps a stethoscope. I am walking ... I am struggling ... Out in the sticks.”

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