The Two Letters that Made the Difference
M.A. Bulgakov (1891-1940), having completed Medicine at the University of Kiev in 1916, started writing in 1919. The first short story was written in the light of a kerosene lamp in a running train and it was published in a small newspaper of a provincial town where he started working in a hospital.
Having reached Moscow in 1921 without any money, without any belongings but with a decision to stay there for ever, Bulgakov started writing sketches in newspapers. He hated the editors at the newspaper offices and this hatred continued till the end of his life.
For the next two years he wrote many satirical sketches in a Berlin Newspaper, ‘Nakanune’. The first novel The White Guards appeared in 1924. Bulgakov also wrote plays during the twenties, which were successfully staged in various theatres.
It seems that all was well with his career as a writer and a playwright, but then the things started going wrong. All his plays were taken out of theatres, his works were not published and he found himself in very difficult situation.
A person like Bulgakov, who was not scared of speaking truth decided to approach the authorities. He wrote two letters: The first one to Joseph Stalin in 1929 and the second one to the Government of USSR in March 1930.
The first letter is like this:
The General Secretary of The Party, J.V. Stalin
President of the Central Executive, M.I.Kalinin
Head of the Cultural Department, A. I. Svidersky
Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov
35/a, Qr 6, T.2-03-27)
This year it’s going to be ten years since I started literary activity in the USSR. Out of these ten years, I dedicated the last four to the drama when I wrote four plays. Out of them three plays (Days of Turbins, Zoya’s Flat and Crimson Island) were staged in the state theatres in Moscow, and the fourth one-The Escape was accepted by Moscow Art Theatre for staging, and while the theatre was working on the play, it was banned.
Now I have come to know about the ban on staging of The Days of Turbins and that of The Crimson Island. Zoya’s Flat was taken off after the 200th show during the last season on the instructions of authorities. Thus, by the present theatrical season all my plays appear to have been prohibited, including The days of Turbins, which has completed 300 shows.
Earlier my novella Notes on the Cuffs was banned. The collection of satirical stories Diaboloid was prohibited from being reprinted, collection of short sketches was not published, Moves of Chichikov was not allowed to be staged. Publication of the novel The White Guards in the journal “Russia” was interrupted as the journal itself was banned.
While I was publishing my works, the critics in the USSR paid more and more attention to me, not a single work of mine-be it fiction or drama-not only were deprived of a single encouraging remark, but on the contrary the more my name became popular in the USSR and abroad, more antagonistic the press became towards me, and at last their remarks turned into frantic abuses.
All my works received monstrous, unfavourable criticism; mud was thrown on my name not only in the periodicals but also in such publications as “The Great Soviet Encyclopedia” and “The Literary Encyclopedia”.
Helpless to defend myself, I requested for permission to go abroad, even if it was for a short period. The request was rejected.
My works The Days of Turbins and Zoya’s Flat were stolen and taken abroad. In Riga, one of the publishers wrote the end of my novel The White Guards and thereafter publishing under my name a book with an illiterate end. They started plundering the honorarium, that I was due for abroad.
Then my wife Lyubov Evgeniya Bulgakova applied again for permission to go abroad alone for settling my financial affairs over there, while I offered to stay back as a hostage.
We were not allowed to do that.
Many times I have requested that my manuscripts be returned to me from SPU and either I was refused or I did not receive any answer to my applications.
I requested for permission to send my play ‘The Run’ abroad, in order to save it from theft beyond the boundaries of the USSR.
I was not allowed to do that.
By the end of tenth year, my strength is overtaxed, unable to survive any longer, hounded, knowing fully well that I shall no more be printed and staged in the USSR, driven to nervous breakdown, I decide to approach YOU and request for your efforts to persuade the Government of the USSR to BANISH ME BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES OF THE USSR ALONG WITH MY WIFE L.E.BULGAKOVA, who joins me in this request.
About the acidic criticism, that appeared in press during those days, Bulgakov wrote a little later in his novel The Master and Margarita:
The Hero Appears
‘For the first time I found myself in the world of literature, but now, when it’s all over and my ruin is clear, I recall it with horror!’ the master whispered solemnly and raised his hand. ‘Yes, he astounded me greatly, ah, how he astounded me!’
‘Who?’ Ivan whispered barely audibly, fearing to interrupt the agitated narrator.
‘Why, the editor, I tell you, the editor! Yes, he read it all right. He looked at me as if I had a swollen cheek, looked sidelong into the corner, and even tittered in embarrassment. He crumpled the manuscript needlessly and grunted. The questions he asked seemed crazy to me. Saving nothing about the essence of the novel, he asked me who I was, where I came from, and how long I had been writing, and why no one had heard of me before, and even asked what in my opinion was a totally idiotic question: who had given me the idea of writing a novel on such a strange theme? Finally I got sick of him and asked directly whether he would publish the novel or not. Here he started squirming, mumbled something, and declared that he could not decide the question on his own, that other members of the editorial board had to acquaint themselves with my work – namely, the critics Latunsky and Ariman, and the writer Mstislav Lavrovich.
He asked me to come in two weeks. I came in two weeks and was received by some girl whose eyes were crossed towards her nose from constant lying.’
‘ That’s Lapshennikova, the editorial secretary,’ Ivan said with a smirk. He knew very well the world described so wrathfully by his guest.
‘Maybe,’ the other snapped, ‘and so from her I got my novel back, already quite greasy and disheveled. Trying to avoid looking me in the eye, Lapshennikova told me that the publisher was provided with material for two years ahead, and therefore the question of printing my novel, as she put it, “did not arise”.
The story of Ivan’s guest was becoming more confused, more filled with all sorts of reticence. He said something about slanting rain and despair in the basement refuge, about having gone elsewhere. He exclaimed in a whisper that he did not blame her in the least for pushing him to fight – oh, no, he did not blame her!
Further on, as Ivan heard, something sudden and strange happened. One day our hero opened a newspaper and saw in it an article by the critic Ariman, in which Ariman warned all and sundry that he, that is, our hero, had attempted to foist into print an apology for Jesus Christ.
……….Two days later in another newspaper, over the signature of Mstislav Lavrovich, appeared another article, in which its author recommended striking, and striking hard, at Pilatism and at the icon-dauber who had ventured to foist it (again that accursed word!) into print.
‘Dumbfounded by this unheard-of word “Pilatism”, I opened a third newspaper. There were two articles in it, one by Latunsky, the other signed with the initials “N.E.” I assure you, the works of Ariman and Lavrovich could be counted as jokes compared with what Latunsky wrote. Suffice it to say that Latunsky’s article was entitled “A Militant Old Believer”. I got so carried away reading the article about myself that I didn’t notice (I had forgotten to lock the door) how she came in and stood before me with a wet umbrella in her hand and wet newspapers as well. Her eyes flashed fire, her trembling hands were cold. First she rushed to kiss me, then, in a hoarse voice, and pounding the table with her fist, she said she would poison Latunsky.’
Ivan grunted somewhat embarrassedly, but said nothing.
‘Joyless autumn days set in,’ the guest went on. ‘The monstrous failure with this novel seemed to have taken out a part of my soul. Essentially speaking, I had nothing more to do, and I lived from one meeting with her to the next. And it was at that time that something happened to me. Devil knows what, Stravinsky probably figured it out long ago. Namely, anguish came over me and certain forebodings appeared.
“The articles please note, did not cease. I laughed at the first of them. But the more of them that appeared, the more my attitude towards them changed. The second stage was one of astonishment. Some rare falsity and insecurity could be sensed literally in every line of these articles, despite their threatening and confidant tone. I had the feeling, and I couldn’t get rid of it, that the authors of these articles were not saying what they wanted to say, and that their rage sprang precisely from that. And then, imagine, a third stage came – of fear. No, not fear of these articles, you understand, but fear of other things totally unrelated to them or to the Novel. Thus, for instance, I began to be afraid of the dark. In short, the stage of mental illness came. It seemed to me, especially as I was falling asleep, that some very cold and pliant octopus was stealing with its tentacles immediately and directly towards my heart. And I had to sleep with the light on.
In order to get out of this critical situation Bulgakov wrote to J.Stalin and others. It is clear from the letter that his aim was not to travel abroad but he wanted to defend himself from the attacks of these literary aggressors. It was the agony of a soul trampled and broken. But his self-esteem did not permit him to ask directly for help.
Shortly afterwards he wrote another letter A.S. Enikudze, Secretary of The CP Politburo, with almost the same request and he did not get any reply.
And then he wrote another letter to the Government of the USSR in March 1930. This letter was going to provide the much-needed turning point in Bulgakov’s life:
The Government of the USSR
Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov
(Moscow, Bolshaya Pirogovskaya, 35-a, Qr 6)
I approach the Government of the USSR with the following letter:
After all my works were banned, among many citizens, who know me as a writer, started spreading voices giving me one and the same advice:
To write a ‘Communist Play’ (I give quotations in inverted commas), and in addition to that, write a letter of repentance declaring renunciation of my earlier views, expressed by me in literary works, and giving an assurance that from now onwards I shall work as a fellow-traveller writer, dedicated to the ideology of communism.
The aim: To save myself from persecution, poverty and an inevitable death at the end.
I did not listen to this advice. I could have hardly found myself in a comfortable position in front of the Government of the USSR after writing a false letter, which would have appeared as a very shabby and at the same time a very naïve political trick. I did not even try to write a communist play, knowing fully well that such a play will never come out from me.
The pregnant desire to stop my sufferings as a writer forces me to address the Government of the USSR with an honest letter.
While analysing my album of newspaper cuttings, I found out that during the ten years of my literary work, there appeared 301 reviews about me. Out of which: commendable were-3, hostile-abusive-298.
These 298 comments are reflections of my literary life.
The hero of my play The Last Days Turbins, Alexei Turbin, was called a “SON OF A BITCH” in bold letters, and the writer of the play is presented as one who has been “possessed by DOG’S AGE”. I was described as a “literary SCAVENGER”, who picks up the left over after “A DOZEN OF GUESTS HAVE VOMITED.”
They wrote like this:
“…MISHKA Bulgakov, my son’s God father, ALSO, FORGIVE FOR THE EXPRESSION, THE WRITER, fumbles in STINKING GARBAGE…What is this, brother, I ask, FACE that you have…. I am a delicate person, HIT HIM ON THE HEAD WITH A PAN…For the MASSES WE CONSIDER TURBINS as useless as a BRASSIER IS FOR A DOG… Here appears “ The SON OF A BITCH. HERE APPEARS a TURBIN, LET HIM HAVE NEITHER VIEWERS NOR ANY SUCCESS. (‘Life of ARTS’, No.44, 1927)
They wrote about Bulgakov who will remain what he always was, THE NEW BOURGEOIS SPAWN, splashing poisonous but powerless saliva on the working class and its communist ideology.” (‘Comsomolskaya Pravda’, 14/X.1926)
It was informed that I like the “ATMOSPHERE OF A DOG’S WEDDING around some red-haired wife of a friend” (A. Lunacharsky, ‘Izvestiya’, 8/X-1926) and that my play The Last Day of Turbins “STINKS (Stenographer’s notes at Agit prop in May 1927) etc. etc.
I quickly inform that I am quoting not with the intention of complaining about critics and to create any controversy. My aim is-much more serious.
I can prove with the documents in my hands that the whole Press of the USSR, along with all the institutions who are looking after the control of repertoire, during all these years of my literary work, have unanimously and with EXTRAORDINARY RAGE have proved that the works of Mikhail Bulgakov cannot exist in the USSR.
And I declare that the Press of the USSR is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.
The pretext for sending this letter serves my pamphlet The Crimson Island.
Each and every critic of the USSR, without any exception, met this play with the declaration that it is “worthless, insipid, shoddy,” and that it is a “ lampoon against the revolution.”
The unanimity was complete, but it was disrupted suddenly and in a totally surprising way.
In No.12 of ‘ The Repertoire Bulletin’ (1928) appeared a review by P.Novitsky, which informed that The Crimson Island “ is an interesting and witty parody” in which “ rises the evil shadow of the Great Inquisitor, suppressing the artistic creation, cultivating the SLAVISH SYCOPHANTIC-RIDICULOUS DRAMATIC STAMPS, wiping out the personality of the actor and the writer “, that in “The Crimson Island goes talk about “the most evil, depressing power, which brings up GOVERNMENT SLAVES, SYCOPHANTS and NON-STOP ADMIRERS…”.
It was said, “ If such a depressing power exists, THE INDIGNATION AND MALICIOUS WIT OF THE PLAYWRIGHT PRAISED BY BOURGEOISIE IS JUSTIFIED.”
It is natural to ask- where is truth?
What is after all –The Crimson Island? – “Wretched, talent less play” or is it a “witty pamphlet?”
The truth is contained in the review of Novitsky. I am not going to judge, how witty is my play, but I feel that there rises the most evil shadow, and this shadow is that of the Chief Repertoire Committee. It is he, who is upbringing the Government slaves, bootlickers and the terrorised “servants”. It is he who is killing the creative thought. He is killing the Soviet dramatics and he will kill it.
I haven’t whispered out these thoughts sitting in a corner. I have included them in a dramatistic pamphlet and presented this pamphlet on the stage. The Soviet Press, defending the Chief Repertoire Committee, wrote that The Crimson Island is a lampoon against the Revolution. This is a non-serious babble. There are many reasons to consider that there is no lampoon against the Revolution in the play, out of which, due to lack of space, I shall prove only one: consequent upon its extreme grandiose, it is IMPOSSIBLE to write a lampoon against the Revolution. A pamphlet is not a lampoon, and the Chief Repertoire Committee is not the Revolution.
But when the German Press writes that The Crimson Island is “the first in the USSR attempt towards freedom of Publication” (‘The Young Guard’ No.1-1929)-it writes the truth. I agree to this. Struggle against the censors, whatever be its form, and during whichever regime it existed, is my duty as a writer, just like the appeal to freedom of publication. I am a staunch supporter of this freedom and I suppose that if someone from amongst the writers tried to prove that he does not need it, he will be like a fish, which is publicly convincing the world that she does not require water.
Here is one of the characteristics of my creativity, and it alone suffices to prove that my works do not exist in the USSR. But with this first characteristic are connected the remaining ones, which are observed in my satirical novellas: The dark and mystic colours (I am a MYSTICAL WRITER), in which the countless abnormalities of our life are depicted; the poison with which my language is saturated, the deep skepticism towards the revolutionary process which was taking place in my backward country and it’s juxtaposition with the most favoured and great evolution, and most importantly-depiction of the horrible years of my people, of those characteristics which invited, much before the Revolution, the deep sufferings to my teacher M.E.Saltykov-Schedrin.
There is no need to say that the press of the USSR did not even seriously think of taking a note of it, as it was busy with less convincing information that in M.Bulgakov’s satire, there is- “SLANDER”.
Only once, in the beginning of years of my popularity, it was noticed, with a tinge of somewhat haughty astonishment:
“M. Bulgakov WANTS to become a satirist of our era.” (‘knigonosha, No 6, 1925)
Oh, the verb “To Want” is unnecessarily used in the present tense. It has to be used in the past perfect: M. Bulgakov HAS BECOME A SATIRIST, and at such a point of time, when no other existing (penetrating into the prohibited zone) satire is absolutely unthinkable of in the USSR.
But I got the honour of expressing this criminal thought in the Press. It is expressed with perfect clarity in the article by V. Blyum (No.6, Literaturnaya Gazeta) and the gist of this article is exactly and splendidly put in one formula:
EVERY SATIRIST IN THE USSR IS INFRINGING UPON THE SOVIET SYSTEM.
Am I thinkable in the USSR?
And, lastly, my recent characteristics in the throttled play The Last Days of Turbins, Escape and in the novel The White Guards: “ A persistent depiction of the Russian intelligentsia as the best layer of society in our country. Partially, the depiction of the intellectual noble family, which is, by the law of indisputable historical fate, is thrown during the years of the Civil War into the camp of White Guards, on the lines of The War and Peace.” Such a depiction is totally natural of a writer who is a descendant of the intelligentsia.
But such depictions lead to the point that their author in the USSR, along with his heroes, gets-in spite of his great efforts TO STAND DISPASSIONATELY ABOVE THE REDS AND THE WHITES- a certificate of being a White Guard-an enemy, and on receiving it, as everyone understands, could consider himself a finished man in the USSR.
My literary portrait is complete; it is also my political portrait. I can’t say of what degree a criminal could be searched in it, but I request about one thing: please do not search anything beyond it. It is written with perfect conscientiousness.
Today I am destroyed.
This destruction was greeted by the Soviet public with complete happiness and it was termed as “ACHIEVEMENT”.
R. Pikel, celebrating my destruction (Izvestiya, 15/IX-1929), uttered a liberal thought:
“By this, we do not want to say that Bulgakov’s name is struck out from the list of Soviet dramatists.”
And he pacified the slaughtered writer by the words that, “it refers to his past dramatic works.”
However, life, in the disguise of Glavreportkom committee has proved that R.Pikel’s liberalism has no basis.
On 18th March. 1930, I received a paper from the Glavreportkom laconically informing me that it is not my earlier play, but the play Bondage of Hypocrite-Molyer that is not cleared for presentation.
I shall tell briefly: under the two lines of this official paper are buried-my work in the book-depository, my fantasy, the play which has received innumerable reviews from the theatre specialists as a fantastic play.
R.Pikel is getting confused. Not only my earlier works, but the present works and all the future works are also buried. And personally, I myself, by my own hands threw down the manuscript of the novel about the devil, manuscript of a comedy and the beginning of another novel Theatre in furnace.
All my works are hopeless.
I request the Soviet Government to take into consideration the fact that I am not a political activist, but a man of letters and that I have given all my productions to the Soviet stage.
I request that attention be paid to the following two opinions about me in the Soviet press.
Both of them come from staunch enemies of my works and hence they are very precious.
It was written in 1925 that “HERE EMERGES A WRITER WHO DOES NOT STAND ALONG WITH EVEN THE FELLOW TRAVELLERS.”(L.Averbakh, Izvestiya, 20/IX-1925)
And in 1929:
“His talent is as obvious as is the social response of his creative works.” (R.Pikel, 15/IX-1929).
I request the fact that for me inability to write is as good as being buried alive.
I REQUEST THE GOVERNMENT OF USSR TO ORDER ME TO LEAVE IMMEDIATELY THE BORDERS OF THE USSR ALONG WITH MY WIFE LYUBOV EVGENYEVNA BULGAKOVA.
I appeal to the humanity of Soviet Government and request that I, the writer, who could be of no use to his country, be magnanimously set free.
Even if all this, which I have written, is not convincing and I am doomed to life long silence in the USSR, I request the Soviet Government to give me any work according to my specialisation and assign me a permanent job in the theatre as a Staff Director.
I request precisely and only ABOUT A CATEGORICAL ORDER, ABOUT THE ASSIGNMENT, because all my efforts to get a job in that solitary field, where I could be useful to the USSR, as an exceptionally qualified specialist have ended in a total fiasco. My name has been made so odious that the suggestions from my side to work in the theatre created HORROR, in spite of the fact that the umpteen number of actors and directors and along with them the directors of theatres in Moscow very well know about my brilliant knowledge of the stage.
I am offering to the USSR a totally honest, without any shade of harm, specialist and actor, who voluntarily offers to stage any play, right from Shakespeare to the modern plays.
I request you to kindly appoint me as a technician-director in the 1st Art Theatre-in the best school headed by the masters K.S.Stanislavskyi and V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko.
If I am not to be appointed as director, I request to be given the responsibility of a staff-mock-artist. If even that is not possible-I pray to be made a worker of the stage.
If even this is not possible, I request the Soviet Government to deal with me in whatever way it deems fit, but to do something, because for me, who is famous in the USSR and abroad, at THIS POINT OF TIME-there is destitution, street and death.
Bulgakov’s letter was received with some understanding by the Soviet Government. And on 3rd April The Director and Literary Head from The Theatre for Working Youth(TRAM) came to Bulgakov and requested him to join their theatre as Director.
On 18th April Bulgakov got a call from none other than J.V.Stalin. The conversation went on like this:
“Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov?”
“Comrade Stalin will now speak to you.”
“What? Stalin? Stalin?”
And there itself he heard a voice with clear Georgian accent:
“Yes, Stalin would be speaking to you. Hello, Comrade Bulgakov!”
“Hello, Joseph Vissarionovich!”
“We received your letter. Read it along with comrades. You will get a proper answer to that…And may be, is it true that are you requesting to be allowed to go abroad? What, have we pestered you so much?”
Bulgakov did not at all expect this question-in fact he did not even expect a call-he got so confused and could not answer at once. He said, “I have been thinking a lot for quite some time on whether a Russian writer could survive outside his motherland. And I feel that he can’t.”
“You are right. I too have the same opinion. Where would you like to work? In The Art Theatre?”
“Yes, I would. But I talked to them about this and they refused.”
“But you submit your application there. I feel that they will agree. We should meet and talk to you some time.”
“Yes, yes! Joseph Vissarionovich, it is very necessary for me to speak with you.”
“Yes, we must find time and meet, definitely. And now I wish you all the best!”
This conversation undoubtedly played a positive role in the life of M.A.Bulgakov.
He joined Moscow Art Theatre soon after that-in July 1930-and in the evenings worked for TRAM. This continued as long as his health permitted him to work.