‘It can’t go on like this anymore’

The year is 1984. The snow has melted and the smell of spring is in the air. I am walking along Bolshaya Sadovaya Street, which begins at the Mayakovsky Square. At house number 10, near the archway from the street to the courtyard, there is graffiti reading Slava Bulgakovu (Hail Bulgakov!). An arrow points towards the interior, and another shows me the way to apartment number 50. I get into a dimly lit stairwell. From the landing on the second floor to Bulgakov’s apartment on the fifth floor, the walls, ceilings and stairs are covered with graffiti: a gallery of drawings, sketches, slogans, announcements and pronouncements.

For most of the 1920s, Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940), the famous Russian writer, stayed in this apartment on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. In The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Berlioz, the chairman of the influential MASSOLIT literary organisation, also lives in apartment number 50, the so-called ‘wicked house’, which is also the setting of several critical events in the novel. Although the street address in the novel is 302B instead of 10, Bulgakov’s fans, the graffiti writers, were able to locate the right house.

In 1966 the literary magazine Moskva, with a circulation of 150 000, published a doctored version of The Master and Margarita (Part 1 in December 1966 and Part 2 in January 1967). I read the novel in 1974 in samizdat (clandestine publications of banned materials). There were a few copies going around the university then. Soon people began identifying houses, streets, gardens and theatres in Moscow that appear in the novel. Every time I walked past the Lenin Library, I couldn’t help stopping to look at the grand building known as Pashkov House because this is where, my friends told me, Bulgakov’s Woland and Azazello stood one evening looking at the city and the sunset.

In April 1977, Yuri Lyubimov, the director of the Taganka Theatre in Moscow, succeeded in staging The Master and Margarita. The actors in the finale carried a banner proclaiming: ‘Manuscripts don’t burn.’ In spite of criticism in Pravda, the play remained in the repertoire till 1980, when it was banned. Four years later, Lyubimov was sacked and stripped of Soviet citizenship.

At this time, there was a sudden rise in graffiti in ‘Bulgakov’s’ house’. ‘Make apartment number 50 a museum devoted to Woland and other clean powers,’ proclaimed one inscription. The apartment then housed draftsmen of a design bureau and it is said that they allowed Bulgakov’s fans to enter the apartment and paste their drawings, poems and other proclamations on the walls. It became an impromptu museum not so much for the writer but for the book. The fans loved the writer but they loved the characters he created even more.

In September 1921, Bulgakov and his wife Tatyana Lappa arrived in Moscow from Vladikavkaz, the capital of Ossetia in the Caucasus, intending to stay there forever. In Moscow, Bulgakov succeeded in becoming secretary of the literary section of Glavpolitprosvet (Central Committee of the Republic for Political Education). It is believed that a brief note from Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, helped him secure both the job and the Bolshaya Sadovaya apartment.

Life in Moscow was tough, much tougher than he could have ever imagined. He hated the cold, but returning to warm and sunny Kiev, where he was born and missed all his life, was impossible. He was a writer and had to prove himself as such in the cultural heart of the Soviet Union. For the next twenty years, he worked incredibly hard. He wrote novels, plays, biographies, stage adaptations, film scripts and feuilletons. He even directed plays at Moscow Art Theatre and moved to the Bolshoi Theatre to compose librettos for operas and scripts for ballets, but he never achieved the success he had aimed for. Nothing except a few feuilletons, short stories and brief sections of his novels would be published.

‘This is the darkest period in my life,’ he records in his diary on 9 February 1922, only five months after moving to Moscow. ‘My wife and I are starving. The other day I had to ask my uncle to help us with some flour, oil and potatoes. I have run around looking for work but haven’t found anything.’ At times he didn’t have enough money to buy even paper or ink to write.

His friend Pavel Popov, a literary critic (he was married to Lev Tolstoy’s granddaughter), wrote to him often. Popov’s letters came on beautiful light green sheets of vellum with a logo in gold and white. ‘I am stunned by the paper on which you write to me,’ Bulgakov writes to Pavel in one of his letters. ‘So incredibly beautiful. And look what sort of paper I am forced to reply on; and that too not in ink but with a little pencil. The ink I have these days is absolutely useless.’

There was little improvement over the course of the decade. In a letter to his brother Nikolai, dated 28 August 1929, Bulgakov sums up his frustration: ‘All my plays have been banned and not a single line of my fiction has been published. Bulgakov, the writer, is dead.’ Five months later, on 16 January 1930, he writes again to Nikolai: ‘This is to let you know that all my literary works are dead including any future ideas and plans. I am doomed to remain silent and possibly starve. In these very hard conditions I wrote last year a play about Molière, the best play I have ever written. But all signs indicate that it won’t be allowed to be published or performed.’

Bulgakov received the official letter banning The Cabal of the Hypocrites, the play about Molière, on 18 March 1930. In desperation he burnt the manuscripts of his two novels (one of which was an early version of The Master and Margarita).

And then he did the unthinkable: he wrote to Stalin. In this rather long letter, Bulgakov described his perilous situation. He appealed to the authorities that because he wasn’t of any use to the government as a writer, he should be freed and allowed to leave the country, or else they should find some employment suitable for him as a writer, because without work he and his wife wouldn’t survive.

It took four weeks for the Soviet government to respond. In the evening of 18 April, Bulgakov received a telephone call from Stalin. It was a very brief conversation. ‘Is this true that you want to leave the country?’ began Stalin. ‘Are we really so disgusting to you?’ Nonetheless, Stalin agreed with Bulgakov that a proper job had to be found for him. The job appeared the next day: Bulgakov walked into the office of the Moscow Art Theatre where he was welcomed as an assistant director.

Why did Stalin phone Bulgakov? Did he really want to help him? If so, why?

Stalin is known to have liked Bulgakov’s The Days of the Turbins and is rumoured to have seen the play at least fifteen times. But I think Marietta Chudakova, Bulgakov’s Russian biographer, is probably right when she suggests that Stalin’s phone call to Bulgakov could have been related to Vladimir Mayakovsky’s suicide.

Mayakovsky shot himself in his Moscow apartment on 14 April 1930. His satirical plays The Bedbug (1929) and The Bathhouse (1930) had been granted permission to be performed at the Meyerhold Theatre, but were criticised by the members of the officially sanctioned RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers). The party that had declared him as its preeminent poet was having second thoughts; Mayakovsky’s loyalty was under suspicion.

Bulgakov didn’t like Mayakovsky, neither his politics nor his poetry. But he seems to have taken the suicide as a warning that he shouldn’t allow frustration to get the better of him, that the only way to survive was to keep on writing. Chudakova believes that in Mayakovsky’s tragic death, Bulgakov found the inspiration to pull out from his desk a manuscript he had abandoned many years earlier, a manuscript that would turn into the book we now know as The Master and Margarita.

In August 1927, three years before Mayakovsky’s suicide, Bulgakov and his second wife, Lyubov Belozerskaya, rented an apartment on the first floor of a house on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street. The apartment had three rooms including Bulgakov’s study; it was here that he began writing The Master and Margarita.

I remember walking past the building in the early 1970s. My friend Natasha had asked me to accompany her to the Novodevichy Convent to see if we could coax the nuns or babushkas to bless us with a few painted Easter eggs. We waited on the bench near the pond for close to an hour. As we were about to walk away disappointed, we saw an old nun come towards us. She smiled and dropped two eggs in Natasha’s hands, marked a sign of the cross in the air and walked away after checking that we were not being watched. We weren’t.

On our way back to the metro station, we walked past Bulgakov’s house. Just for a minute we thought that we would knock on the door of the apartment, but then changed our minds. It was a silly idea, Natasha would tell me later. And risky. I remember agreeing with her: risky because of the furore caused by Lyubimov’s theatrical adaptation.

Bulgakov didn’t like the apartment. A hellhole, he called it. The trams rattled outside the window disturbing his quiet, and the walls in the rooms were often damp and cold. His study, too, was rather small and confined – so small that one day he decided to break down one of the walls of an adjoining room. The opened space created an illusion of freedom, enough for him to write.

Bulgakov seems to have started work on the novel in 1928; that year is mentioned on the title page of a later version. Most of the first version of the manuscript was burnt by Bulgakov in 1930. It had many different working titles, and thematically it was conceived as a fantasy novel, mixing realistic, fantastic and grotesque elements. He worked on the second version of the novel between 1932 and 1936. Its subtitle (‘a fantasy novel’) indicates that his initial concept had by and large remained unchanged. The only significant difference was two new characters.

In October 1932, Bulgakov left his second wife and married Elena Shilovskaya. After the wedding, they travelled to Leningrad and stayed at the Hotel Astoria, where, according to Elena, Bulgakov began working on the second version. She notes in her diary that Bulgakov told her he wanted to begin rewriting the novel he had destroyed earlier. ‘How can you do it here in Leningrad,’ she writes, ‘with drafts and notes still in Moscow?’ His reply: ‘I remember every word.’

Many Bulgakov experts believe that the emergence of Margarita in the novel was associated with the appearance of Elena in Bulgakov’s life. He was desperately in love with her, and this love helped him to write. She also loved him, and without her it is hard to imagine the novel would have ever been published. Elena’s divorce from her second husband was messy and she had to give up her older son; the younger brother, Sergei, came with her to live with Bulgakov.

In 1934, utterly fed up with the apartment on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya, Bulgakov, Elena and Sergei moved to apartment number 66 on 3 Nashokinsky Lane. The house, also known as Dom Pisatelei (The House of Writers), had been acquired by the Cooperative of Soviet Writers for its members. Nazheda Mandelstam, the wife of Osip Mandelstam, writes about the house in her memoirs, and Anna Akhmatova also describes it in her brief reminiscences about her time in Moscow. Mandelstam and his wife had moved into the house six months earlier than Bulgakov, and although the two couples never met, they would have known about each other through Akhmatova, who used to stay with the Mandelstams during her visits to Moscow and often visited Bulgakov and Elena. In May 1934, Osip Mandelstam was arrested in this very house and exiled to Cherdyn, a small town near the Urals.

Sometime in 1974, I accidentally found myself on Nashokinsky Lane, walking from a literary reading in Noviy Arbat. The lane runs parallel to Gogolevsky Boulevard, my favourite boulevard in Moscow. I was heading in the direction of a metro station, but for some unknown reason drifted onto the lane. There, on the wall of a multi-storeyed house, I spotted the words ‘M BULGAKOV LIVED HERE’ in white paint under a third-floor window. The house was empty, fenced and secured, ready for demolition to make way for a new block of apartments for a cooperative of employees in the Ministry of Defence.

In August 1978, before leaving Moscow, I went to see the house again. This time, I saw the very new block of apartments: the house where The Master and Margarita was finished and where Bulgakov died had vanished.

The third major rewrite of The Master and Margarita began in 1937 and continued till Bulgakov’s death.

His situation as a writer had barely improved since Stalin’s phone call in 1930: the job at the Moscow Art Theatre didn’t help much. The only success was The Days of the Turbins, Stalin’s favourite. It was revived in 1932 and marked its five hundredth performance in 1934.

‘In the last seven years,’ Bulgakov writes in 1937 to his friend Boris Asafiev, the famous Russian composer and musicologist for whom he composed a number of librettos, ‘I finished at least sixteen works of different genres, but each one of them has perished. It can’t go on like this anymore.’ Elena’s note in her diary expresses the same feeling of abandonment: ‘We are absolutely alone and our situation is terrible.’

But Bulgakov was determined to finish his most important book. ‘Finish it,’ he writes on the manuscript, ‘before you die.’

The possibilities of imprisonment, exile, torture and death were real. There were times when Bulgakov was overwhelmed by a terrible fear for his life. For days he shut himself up in the house unable to come out without Elena by his side. He sought help from a psychologist, who treated him with hypnosis until the fear and paranoia were brought under control. He wrote two more letters to Stalin (in 1931 and 1934) but didn’t receive a response. He assisted Akhmatova in October 1935 in writing to Stalin, asking for mercy for her husband and son, both of whom had been arrested. The two were released a few months later – a reprieve that proved only temporary.

Life in the Nashokinsky Lane apartment wasn’t always dull and bleak. Bulgakov’s friends came to him almost daily; they gossiped, joked and laughed. Bulgakov read them excerpts from his plays, stories and novels, including pages from the manuscript he was working on. Once he read a humorous skit about Stalin and other members of the Central Committee – an unwise decision, as among his many visitors was, Chudakova believes, an informer. This is supported by material in the secret Lubyanka file on Bulgakov.

By the autumn of 1937, Bulgakov had finished the last major rewrite of the novel, although it still didn’t have a formal title. ‘My novel about the devil,’ he used to call it. Elena records in her diary that the name The Master and Margarita appeared in November of that year.

The first fully typed version of the manuscript was finished in June 1938. It was typed by Olga, Elena’s sister. ‘I have 327 typed pages in my hand,’ Bulgakov wrote to Elena. ‘We’ll soon finish typing and begin working on the corrections. I am sure I’ll have to rewrite a few pages. What next, you would want to know? I really don’t know. I suspect it too will be put away in the cupboard next to all my other dead plays.’

On 25 June 1938, Bulgakov left Moscow to join Elena in the dacha where he began working on the stage adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Before leaving, Bulgakov persuaded NS Angarsky, an influential publisher, to hear him read out his novel. Angarsky stopped him after the third chapter. ‘I don’t see how such a thing can ever be published here,’ he said.

Bulgakov’s Don Quixote, like all his other ventures, failed to find acceptance. After it was finished, he embarked on his last – and in my view fatal – project: Batumi, a play about Stalin. It was fatal because it caused the illness from which he soon died.

In January 1936, Boris Pasternak had published a poem about Stalin in the newspaper Izvestiya, and this may have prompted Bulgakov to begin Batumi. In September 1938, he was formally asked by the Moscow Art Theatre to write the piece. Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the famous director, wrote to Stalin requesting that Bulgakov be allowed access to material needed for the play.

Bulgakov finished Batumi in July 1939. The Moscow Art Theatre was so confident about the project that it announced a public reading. But the permission on which the theatre was waiting didn’t arrive. Instead the troupe, including Bulgakov, was asked to go to Tbilisi and Batumi to learn more about the places where Stalin had spent his childhood. On 14 August, they boarded the train in Moscow, but at Serpukhov, a little town a hundred or so kilometres south of Moscow, they were told to return to the capital. Two days letter the theatre was informed that the play would not be granted permission. ‘Stalin cannot be turned into a literary hero,’ they were told, especially not a ‘romantic hero’.

In September the same year, Bulgakov and Elena returned to Hotel Astoria in Leningrad, where Bulgakov suffered an acute loss of eyesight. The doctor diagnosed him with hypertensive nephrosclerosis, a kidney disorder brought on most probably by the shock from the telegram received at the Serpukhov railway station. He had to stop reading and writing completely. Nonetheless, his work continued unabated with the assistance of Elena, who took dictations from him, including a long epilogue to The Master and Margarita.

Chudakova reports a conversation she recorded in 1969 with Elena about the final few months of Bulgakov’s life. According to Elena, just a few weeks before his death, Bulgakov was still making additions to the first section of the novel. ‘And when we came to the chapter about the funeral of Berlioz,’ Elena recounts, ‘he first wanted to make a few alterations, but then changed his mind. “That’s it”, he said to me. “No more”.’

In the first week of March, the illness plunged Bulgakov into a state of delirium. Even then, he was more worried about the manuscript, terrified it would be confiscated. He pled with Elena to gather all his manuscripts and hide them in the forest. To reassure him, Elena pretended to take the packet out of the house and brought it back after he had fallen asleep. A day or so before his death, Bulgakov asked Elena to remove his shirt, thinking that without it he would escape arrest.

Bulgakov died on 10 March 1940, two months before his forty-ninth birthday. It had taken him twelve long years to finish the manuscript.

Chudakova’s biography reprints a letter, dated 5 December 1939, from Popov to Bulgakov. ‘Dear Maka,’ it begins. ‘I was very moved by your brief letter. I haven’t stopped thinking about you even for a moment. It doesn’t matter if I see you again, but you need to know that you have made my life beautiful.’

The last line in the letter is even more touching: ‘At times I feel terribly fortunate to have met you; that I can converse with you using the friendly “ty”, and that this indiscretion, to my great amazement, doesn’t soil the blessed sense of closeness we feel for each other.’

As I translate parts of the letter into English, I realise that my efforts remain wanting, that I am unable to convey the full intensity of Pavel’s letter. Only silence on my part can, I think, do it justice.

‘All novelists dream’, notes José Saramago, ‘that one of their characters will become “somebody”.’ I am not sure if Bulgakov had a similar dream, but the characters in The Master and Margarita have certainly acquired a life of their own.

In the late 1970s, Bulgakov’s fans resurrected his novel by their own acts of courage and defiance. They not only claimed the story, but also, albeit partially, the places where it unfolds.

The first place was the stairway to apartment number 50 – it came to be known as the ‘wicked stairway’. Chudakova notes that the fans were mostly young people who, like me, must have read the book in samizdat. They hardly knew anything about Bulgakov and wanted to find out more about this intriguing writer. They would have also found the novel true, especially its unrelenting satire of Soviet bureaucracy, and would have enjoyed seeing Woland and his allies expose, ridicule and demolish the apparatchiks. Perhaps that is why they began to cover the walls with Woland and his friends, especially the cheeky black cat Behemoth. Bulgakov himself was generally ignored.

The present-day Bulgakov House Museum in the apartment resembles many similar museums all over the world. It has the same paraphernalia: the writer’s desk, his glasses, manuscripts and posters of his plays. There is, however, a theatre attached to the museum that mounts plays and shows. Part of the original artwork on the walls of the stairway has been preserved. A brief note on the museum’s website declares that ‘the appearance of the museum doesn’t mean that the stairway will die. It awaits rejuvenation.’ I hope it does. I hope the space earmarked to Woland and his cohorts and their beautiful and daring Margarita doesn’t disappear in the shadow of the esteemed writer who I not only admire but love for his will to survive and write.

As readers, we come to like and love this or that book for many reasons. Often we like a book because we can’t imagine ourselves growing up without it. It appears suddenly and we find that we are ready for it, and, like a good friend, it opens its secrets with grace and facility. After we have finished reading and moved on to other books, it still doesn’t disappear. Like an afterimage, it remains attached to the retina of our life; like a reflection in the rear-view mirror of a car, it travels with us, showing the path we have traversed.

The Master and Margarita is a milestone in my life, a sort of signpost with a double-headed arrow that I can use to delineate before and after reading. It also separates my time in Moscow into two neat segments. I had come to Moscow in 1969 and had spent five years immersed in Russian culture. I read the book in 1974, after which I spent another four and a half years in Moscow.

The book changed me. Suddenly the rumours and whispers about the dark past and the undercurrents of dissidence became more audible and meaningful. I slowly began to read more of the samizdat and tamizdat (Russian books published abroad) literature. I also began to pick up the double entendres in the speech of my Russian friends. A rupture appeared between the Russian I had been taught and the Russian I heard. The rupture brought a feeling of uneasiness, but it also made me realise the power with which language can do its job and say the unsayable. The vow of silence taken by the titular Andrei Rublev in Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous 1971 film acquired a new meaning. Similarly, the trial of Mikhail Lunin in the play Lunin, or the Death of Jacques, Recorded in the Presence of His Master, which I saw in the theatre on the Malai Bronnoi in 1978, reminded me of Anatoly Shcharansky’s 1977 trial.

There is one more even more important reason why I like this book, and the reason has become obvious to me only after I have found out more about Bulgakov’s life in Moscow. From Elena’s diary we know that Bulgakov often read extracts of the novel to his friends at his house. They must have discussed it with their own friends and acquaintances. Hence the word would have spread about the book. It is likely that this is how Abram Vulis, a Moscow philologist working on a book on Soviet satirists, came to know about Bulgakov’s unpublished manuscript. The year was 1961. He contacted Elena, who at first didn’t want anything to do with him, but changed her mind and gave him the manuscript to read. It would take Vulis five years to get the novel published in Moskva.

The book survived, I think, because Bulgakov and Elena wanted it to survive. The effort it took to finish the book was unimaginable. They lived in constant fear of imprisonment, and the spectre of torture and death wasn’t imaginary. ‘I have to finish it before I die,’ Bulgakov scribbles on the manuscripts. And finish he did, not alone but with Elena.

There are books that are written because the author feels a moral compulsion to write. They aren’t created to master a style or to solve an aesthetic problem. The writerly craft is of secondary importance. Such books may not be stylistically perfect but they stand out because of the moral imperative that permeates the story. Like many writers, Bulgakov wrote pieces to sharpen his technique or to dazzle the reader with his skill, but The Master and Margarita isn’t one of them. It reminds us that we should write stories that we feel morally compelled to write. To feign compulsion, to pretend an imperative, won’t work.

A good reader can always notice whether the moral imperative driving the narrative is true or put-on. Stylistic tricks can’t hide the pretence; the impostor is always exposed. A book like The Master and Margarita stimulates both good reading as well as writing. It is re-read and re-written, and in the process it outgrows its own beginnings.

I am very grateful to Jorge Salavert for his editorial comments on an earlier version of this essay.


Subhash Jaireth

Subhash lives in Canberra. He has published poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Hindi, Russian and English. He is the author of the novel After Love and the short-story collection Moments. His latest book, a series of essays titled Incantations, was published in 2016.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays