10 Things You Didn't Know About Bulgakov

A room in the Bulgakov museum
A room in the Bulgakov museum | © Tothkaroj/Wikimedia Commons
Anastasiia Ilina

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), like his infamous novels, was surrounded by mystery. He was known to be eccentric, spontaneous and many rumours surrounded him during his life. His works, though banned for the better part of the 20th century, are now widely read and appreciated for their bold, unprecedented ideas.

Bulgakov changed profession at the age of 30 and became a writer

Although Bulgakov did not come from a wealthy background, as a young student he successfully enrolled at the Medical Faculty of Kiev University. He was inspired by his two uncles, both of whom were doctors, one in Moscow and the other in Warsaw. As the First World War spread to Russia, Bulgakov received his first hands-on experience saving lives in a military hospital. He later joined the front again at the break of the Russia Civil War. Following a serious illness, Bulgakov made a move to Moscow and at the age of 30, gradually transfered to writing.

A portrait of Bulgakov

Bulgakov abused morphine, his experience inspired the novel Morphine

The first time Bulgakov used morphine was for genuine medical purposes. He was operating on a child who was sick with a highly infectious disease, diphtheria. As a precaution, Bulgakov decided to vaccinate himself and as a result, had a severe reaction to the injection. To ease his pain, Bulgakov took morphine and soon became addicted. His experiences as a drug-addict later became the inspiration for the novel Morphine, yet unlike its character, Bulgakov managed to recover from addiction.

Bulgakov had one very successful play during the Soviet times

Although most of Bulgakov’s works were either criticised or censored during his lifetime, one of them, a play, was very popular and well-received. The play was based on the novel The White Guard. For ideological reasons, the name was changed to The Days of the Turbins (so as not to allude to the monarchist white army). Some scenes were changed or removed and The Internationale hymn was played in the end. The play ows its success largely to prominent theatre director Stanislavksi who even promised to shut down the theatre if the play did not run.

From Stanislavsky’s play based on The White Guard

Bulgakov’s works were often censored, his apartment searched and raided

The works of Bulgakov were always followed by a trail of censorship. He was a controversial, well-educated writer and most importantly, was not afraid to openly share his ideas. When one of Bulgakov’s outstanding novels The Heart of a Dog was completed he performed a reading in front of his fellow writers. As a precautionary measure, members of the government police were also there, undercover. Their reports suggested that the novel went against all beliefs of the communist revolution and should be banned. His house was raided and the only two manuscripts of the novel confiscated. Three years later, Bulgakov managed to regain the manuscripts but the novel remained banned from publication. It was first published in 1987, 60 years after its completion and long after he had passed away.

Bulgakov burned the first copy of Master and Margarita in the 1930s

Work on the novel Master and Margarita continued for many years. Bulgakov began writing it in the 1920s and by the 1930s decided to burn the whole draft of the novel. It is said that this rash action was a response to yet another one of his works being censored. Bulgakov returned to writing the novel in 1932, changing the plot and adding the two leading characters – Master and Margarita. Bulgakov continued working on the novel right up until his last days when he was too ill to even dictate the words. He left the novel to his wife, Elena, who then completed it and saw it through to publication.

Statue of Bulgakov and Behemoth cat in Kharkiv

Bulgakov’s characters were inspired by real people

Bulgakov gained inspiration for his works from the outside world. Thus his work as a doctor inspired many of his novels and the turbulent history of Russia in the 20th century obviously had an influence on his writing. People around Bulgakov have also made their way onto the pages of his novels. The memorable character of professor Preobrazhensky from The Heart of a Dog was likely inspired by Bulgakov’s uncle in Moscow who was a gynaecologist. In his final novel, Master and Margarita, the character of Margarita is a compound character part of whom was inspired by Bulgakov’s third wife Elena. Even the demonic cat, Behemoth, had a real-life counterpart; although it wasn’t a cat but a large black dog who belonged to Bulgakov.

The house described in The White Guard is an exact copy of Bulgakov’s house in Kiev

The house where the Turbin family lived in Kiev is described in great detail in the novel. The reason for this was that Bulgakov actually lived in that house himself during his youth and recreated it all from memory on paper. All was exactly as it was apart from one detail that drove the owners of the property (at the time of publication) absolutely mad. They desperately tried to find the treasure that was hidden behind the walls in the apartment, though in reality, it never existed. The hopeless treasure hunters ended up destroying their home, searching for the treasure behind every wall.

The Bulgakov family home in Kiev

Bulgakov had a difficult relationship with Stalin

Unlike many of his contemporaries, especially members of the intelligentsia, Bulgakov decided to stay in Russia and continue his work. Stalin was an admirer of some of his works and a harsh critic of others. Allegedly he watched The White Guard on stage many times but banned numerous other works of Bulgakov. In 1930 Bulgakov gave up and wrote a letter to Stalin, asking for passage out of the Soviet Union. His letter was followed up by a personal call from Stalin himself. Bulgakov did not receive permission to leave and remained in Russia until his untimely death in 1940.

Bulgakov’s death was sudden and untimely

Bulgakov died at the age of 48 from kidney failure, just like his father. His final years were difficult and painful. He couldn’t write any more as he was losing his eyesight. Some suggest that he relapsed into his morphine addiction towards the end of his life when trying to complete his final work, Master and Margarita. Traces were found on manuscript pages but Bulgakov was a sick and dying man and the morphine would have just as likely been prescribed for treatment.

Bulgakov’s grave at the Novodevichy cemetery

Bulgakov adored Gogol and is buried beneath his tombstone

Nikolai Gogol was an inspirational writer to many and Bulgakov was no exception. Bulgakov was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow along with many other artists and prominent characters, including Gogol. It so happened that Bulgakov’s widow, Elena, found out that Gogol’s tombstone, a large granite stone, was being discarded to be replaced with his bust. Elena managed to acquire the stone for herself and placed it at Bulgakov’s grave. After death, Bulgakov was united with the man who he so admired and was inspired by but never met in life.

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