May 01, 2021

Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov

Reactions to Mikhail Bulgakov have changed so radically over the past hundred years, it is sometimes hard to believe that they all pertain to the same man – the revered author of The Master and Margarita we know today.

If official reviews are to be believed, in the 1920s, this doctor-turned-writer was not just on the literary sidelines – he was relegated to a fetid cultural trash heap. Back in the 1970s, Marietta Chudakova, a leading scholar of Bulgakov’s works, published an overview of the writer’s archive that included quotes from reviews of his works in the 1920s. These reviews make the sorts of hateful attacks we see on social media today look civil. And whereas today, when someone spatters you with vitriolic dirt on Facebook, you can at least respond, in the 1920s, Bulgakov, of course, had no way to defend himself against his critics.

He did have some early successes. In 1926, his novel The White Guard was adapted for the stage as Days of the Turbins and performed to a packed house at the prestigious and popular Moscow Art Theater. But by the late 1920s the first Five-Year Plan had arrived and the pressure on writers from the ideological press was intensifying. Bulgakov was banished from the Moscow Art Theater. Like many of the early Soviet “fellow travelers” who were not enthusiastic supporters of the regime but also not vocal opponents, Bulgakov appeared doomed to a meager existence and ultimate obscurity.

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