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"You're Not a Modern Man, Mikhail Afanasyevich"

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov burned thousands of pages of his own writing. The title of this collection of his correspondence and diaries (recorded by his third wife, Yelena Sergeyevna) is taken from his magnum opus, the now widely read novel The Master and Margarita. The novel remained unpublished for 25 years after Bulgakov’s death until a censored version was released in 1966. The first uncensored edition was published in 1973, a full 35 years after it was initially completed. It is an undeniable masterpiece of Russian literature that J. A. E. Curtis calls “a precursor of that international tradition of ‘magic realism’ to which Marquez, Kundera and Salman Rushdie have all made contributions.”

In it, the Master confesses to Satan in disguise that he has burned his novel about Pontius Pilate’s execution of Yeshua Ha-Nostri (Jesus of Nazareth). He responds, “Forgive me, I don’t believe that…It simply cannot be. Manuscripts do not burn.”

Indeed, Bulgakov had burned several hundred pages of the first draft of that same novel, but the repressed returned, unfazed by fire.

In one letter to his close friend Yevgeny Zamyatin, Bulgakov writes, “And then yesterday I took all twenty of those closely written sheets, corrected all the mistakes on them first, and then burned them in the stove which you have sat next to more than once.”

The process of writing, revising, and finally burning is a synecdoche for the lives of Soviet writers, especially Bulgakov, whose career at its very peak was an infuriating lap around a Sisyphean Habitrail. He wrote with impressive focus and speed, despite illness, serious poverty, and a sometimes consumptive self-loathing. (Regarding his play The Sons of Mullah, the text of which he burned in 1923 along with four plays, he commented, “We wrote it in seven and a half days, so in other words we spent a day and a half more on it than on the creation of the world. Nevertheless, it came out even worse than the world.”) He was primarily a dramatist who wrote plays that, if they were approved by the Soviet authorities, became hugely popular. But his most successful work, Days of the Turbins, was either panned or ignored outright by critics at the behest of the government, despite evidence that Stalin himself liked it quite a bit. On the play’s 10th anniversary, Bulgakov wrote to his friend Yakov Leontyev of what he hoped might be his reward for this achievement from Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, the co-founders of the Moscow Arts Theatre: “The speech will be adduced of all the joys that they, Stan. and Nem., have brought me during ten years in Arts Theatre Passage. The valuable gift will take the form of a large saucepan made of some precious metal (copper, for example), filled with all the blood they have sucked from me over the ten years.”

Yelena Sergeyevna, in her diary entry for that day, is characteristically curt: “5 October 1936. Today is the tenth anniversary of the premiére of The Turbins. It was first performed on 5 October 1926. M. A. [Bulgakov] is in a wretched state. Needless to say, it didn’t even occur to the Theatre to mark the day in any way.”

Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov, A Life in Letters and Diaries

Edited by J.A.E. Curtis

Ardis Publishers, 2012

Manuscripts Don’t Burn shows the fatal toll the repeated rejection and marginalization took on Bulgakov. Beginning each of the six chapters is a brief but thorough description by J. A. E. Curtis, the translator and collector of the documents that compose the rest of the text. These introductions provide an invaluable context for the unprecedentedly personal primary sources that follow. The sociopolitical changes that occurred during Bulgakov’s lifetime had profound effects on his work and career, and upon finishing the book the reader has an accurate, detailed picture of where Bulgakov fit into Soviet society and discourse. This is a result of Curtis’s 11 years of impressive research and her unprecedented access to documents that were still shielded by the Soviet government even in 1991, when Manuscripts Don’t Burn was first released. Reading the text for the first time in 2012, on the eve of its re-publication as a paperback, is made even more interesting by the fact that the Soviet Union, the great antagonist of the collection, fell 20 years ago.

Bulgakov was born in 1891, the oldest of seven children. His life as he saw it went largely downhill from there. His early letters (1917-1921) are filled with deeply endearing words to his siblings and mother. The author seemed concerned with keeping his family safe, happy, and together, above all else.

His father, Afanasy Ivanovich, fell ill and died in 1907 at the age of 48 of the same kidney disease that would eventually kill Bulgakov at almost the same age (49). “Bulgakov would always remember his father with love, and with admiration and respect for his scholarship,” Curtis writes. When his mother, Varvara Mikhaylovna, remarried, the seven siblings accepted their stepfather, Ivan Pavlovich Voskresensky, as one of their own and loved him deeply. In other words, Bulgakov’s family life was remarkably bereft of the typical familial strife that I normally find compelling.

His training was in medicine and he worked until 1920 as a doctor. Though he had not yet completed his studies, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 resulted in his being drafted to treat the wounded in a hospital in Saratov. From there he moved on to running a small country hospital, where he faced innumerable difficulties. In his collection A Country Doctor’s Notebook, the author “records his horror at the backwardness of the peasant population he had to treat; his vain attempts to limit the spread of syphilis due to sheer ignorance and prejudice; his terror at having to carry out operations he had only once witnessed being performed, as a student; and his longing to get back to his home and to civilization.”

His qualifications as a doctor meant that, beginning with the October Revolution of 1917, he was mobilized by each new power that entered Kiev, including the White Army and Petlyura’s Ukrainian troops. Just as Bulgakov had decided to abandon his career in medicine, he fell ill with typhus while working with the White forces in Vladikavkaz and was generally unconscious from the end of 1919 until March 1920. When he awoke, the Soviets had taken Vladikavkaz and Bulgakov created himself anew.

The next 20 years, which would end with Bulgakov’s early, though eerily timely death, were marked by the sort of anguish and paranoia that were part of everyday life for artists in the Soviet Union. His literary aspirations often took a backseat to more pressing concerns: food, shelter, and health. In a letter to his mother, written 17 November 1921, he writes, “I dream of just one thing: of surviving the winter, of not succumbing in December.”

He describes in the same letter the skyrocketing inflation that was a consequence of the reintroduction of private trading that was prescribed by Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which had apparently reached near-Zimbabwean levels. (As Curtis writes: “Bulgakov refers to the two different currency rates in force during this period, one of them counted in tens of roubles, the other eventually in tens of millions of roubles.”) But through all of this, Bulgakov maintained a resilient sense of humor that makes these letters a joy to read. To his mother: “Poor Taska [Tatya Nikolayevna, his first wife] is having to exert all her strength to grind rye using an axe-head, and to prepare meals out of all sorts of rubbish. But she’s doing very well! In other words we’re both engaged in a desperate struggle.”

On 7 May 1926, Bulgakov’s flat was searched by the OGPU (the intelligence service that would later become the KGB). Among the documents seized were the author’s diaries and the manuscript of The Heart of a Dog, a hilarious and scathing satire of the New Soviet man told from the point of view of a stray dog. Bulgakov now had the sad distinction of being among the writers popular enough to justify intense scrutiny from the secret police. His circle of friends and acquaintances grew to include the likes of Yury Olesha (who also demolished the New Soviet man in his wonderful 1927 novel Envy), the poet Anna Akhamatova, and the composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. Whatever comfort their company and conversation provided eventually paled in comparison to the unprecedented savagery of Stalin’s Great Purge, during which Yelena Sergeyevna’s diary entries devolve into lists of friends who have been arrested or killed.

Throughout Bulgakov’s career, the figure of Joseph Stalin lingers threateningly just beyond the realm of visible light. He played a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse game with prominent Soviet artists and Bulgakov experienced this firsthand. The author would see his creative efforts stymied at every turn by state agencies refusing to license his plays for performance or by sudden changes of management at theaters, only to have his hopes reignited by small but promising signs that appeared to come straight from Stalin himself. Chief among these was the time Bulgakov answered his telephone and a voice on the other end said, “Comrade Stalin will speak to you now.” Bulgakov had directed much of his effort for the preceding several years to pleading with the government to allow him to leave the Soviet Union. He had a desperate desire to see Europe before his death, and this later became a plea that the government expel him forever. With typical cruelty, Stalin gave him hope that he might get his wish, but this came to nothing.

With each new disappointment, Bulgakov grew weaker, more exhausted, and more exasperated: “I don’t want any bows or curtain-calls, in fact there’s nothing I want, except for Christ’s sake to be left in peace to take hot baths and not to have to think every day about what I am to do with my dog when the contract on my apartment runs out.”

Bulgakov’s life ended with the production of The Master and Margarita, his finest work. He and Yelena Sergeyevna had more or less resigned themselves to the fact that he would die largely unknown. (From her diary, 24 February 1936: “Misha’s [Bulgakov] destiny is clear to me: he will be alone and persecuted until the end of his days.”) Still, he was stunningly prolific in his writing until the day he died. In a letter dated 26 April 1934, he writes, “It’s the truth, and that truth needs to be defended.” His unerring fidelity to his own moral truths allowed him to continue writing despite the antagonism of the entire Soviet government and despite the fact that, as Yelena Sergeyevna writes on 12 September 1938, “the man’s written twelve plays and works at a furious pace, and he’s got nothing to show for it except a pair of worn trousers.”

Curtis guides the reader through the stories and correspondence of Bulgakov’s life with her practical and smart prose introductions and her deft translations. The quality and strength of her work is evident on every page, and the result is a collection of letters that is much more than that. Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a compelling tale of the life of one of the world’s greatest and most tormented writers. Bulgakov was a creative mind who was forced to live the bitter, oppressive reality of Soviet communism, but whose deepest desire was to finally “stroll with [his] beloved by day under the cherries bursting into bloom, and in the evening listen to Schubert’s music.”

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