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Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was born in 1891 in Kiev, Ukraine, and died in 1940 in Moscow. He was a Soviet playwright, novelist, and short-story writer best known for his humour and penetrating satire. Bulgakov studied medicine between the years 1909 and 1916; he practiced medicine, specializing in venereal diseases, until 1920, when he decided to devote himself to literature and theater. In 1916, he worked in military hospitals for several months, after which he was sent to serve as a regional physician in the village of Nikolskoe in the province of Smolensk. He tapped into his experiences of this period when writing his collection of short stories, “A Country Doctor’s Notebook,” which was first published in Moscow in the mid-twenties.  His first major work was the novel The White Guard, serialized in 1925 but never published in book form. A realistic and sympathetic portrayal of the motives and behaviour of a group of anti-Bolshevik White officers during the civil war, it was met by a storm of official criticism for its lack of a communist hero and banned. In 1925 he published a book of satirical fantasies Diaboliad implicitly critical of Soviet communist society. This work, too, was officially denounced. In the same year he wrote Heart of a Dog, a scathing comic satire on pseudoscience. Because of their realism and humour, Bulgakov’s works enjoyed great popularity, but their trenchant criticism of Soviet mores was increasingly unacceptable to the authorities. By 1930 he was, in effect, prohibited from publishing. His plea for permission to emigrate was rejected by Joseph Stalin. During the subsequent period of literary ostracism, which continued until his death, Bulgakov created his masterpieces. In 1932, as literary consultant to the Moscow Art Theatre staff, he wrote a tragedy on the death of Molière, Molière. A revised version was finally staged in 1936 and had a run of seven nights before it was banned because of its thinly disguised attack on Stalin and the Communist Party. Bulgakov produced two more masterpieces during the 1930s. The first was his unfinished Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel, originally titled “Notes of a Dead Man”, an autobiographical novel, which includes a merciless satire on Konstantin Stanislavsky and the backstage life of the Moscow Art Theatre. The second was his dazzling Gogolesque fantasy The Master and Margarita. The work oscillates between grotesque and often ribald scenes of trenchant satiric humour and powerful and moving moments of pathos and tragedy. It was published in the Soviet Union only in 1966–67, and then in an egregiously censored form. The publication came more than 25 years after Bulgakov’s death from a kidney disease. Most of his writing was actually published only after his death, from the sixties and onward, thanks to the efforts of his third wife, Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaia-Bulgakova, and only then he was recognized as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.

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