In the Face of Constant Censorship, Bulgakov Kept Writing

From The Literary Hub:

Before his death at a Siberian transit camp in 1938, Osip Mandelstam famously uttered, “Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed.” Today, Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the most iconic Russian authors. But his life as a writer in Moscow from the early 1920s until 1940 was replete with informants and searches, censorship and secrecy, until it ended suddenly and tragically at the age of 49. He’d spent his last 12 years working on a novel in secret—The Master and Margarita. He considered it his masterpiece. His widow, who was the inspiration for his Margarita, recognized the inherent danger of his satirical portrayal of Soviet bureaucracy and hid the manuscript until after the death of Stalin. Heavily censored, The Master and Margarita first appeared in serialized form in 1966 and 1967. Only in 1973 was it published in its entirety. It has been translated into every major world language and rendered in countless film and television and stage productions. It has been cited as the inspiration for The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

And while many focus on Bulgakov’s posthumous triumph, the examination of his entire career raises another pressing question: Faced with constant censorship and artistic oppression, why did he continue to write? Over the span of two decades, he wrote dozens of short stories, four novels, and ten plays. Yet after his first success, the play The Day of the Turbins, he published or produced little else, and from his letters, his notes, and his wife’s diary, we can witness the heartbreak this silence engendered. He received commissions for and wrote plays—and directors like Konstantin Stanislawski and Vsevolod Meyerhold begged to work on them—only to be barred from performance. Some of his work was smuggled abroad and gained popularity, but Bulgakov was repeatedly denied permission to emigrate. In a letter to the Soviet government, he wrote, “not being allowed to write is tantamount to being buried alive.” Perhaps the government thought they could silence him. Perhaps they thought they’d succeeded.

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In a letter to the Soviet government in 1930, Bulgakov described Crimson Island as a call for creative freedom. “I am a passionate supporter of that freedom, and I consider that if any writer were to imagine that he could prove he didn’t need that freedom, then he would be like a fish affirming in public that it didn’t need water.” He further pointed out that of the 301 references to him in the Soviet press, 298 of them were “hostile and abusive.” He quotes the Komsomol Pravda in particular, “Bulgakov, ONE OF THE NOUVEAU BOURGEOIS BREED, spraying vitriolic but impotent spittle over the working class and its Communist ideals.” Bulgakov himself had typed the clause in all capitals.

Like any modern political group, Stalin’s regime was predominantly interested in propagating their own version of truth. It’s unclear if it was Gorky or Stalin himself who coined the term Socialist Realism, but they called upon writers to craft stories imbued with it, portraying the heroism and splendor of the proletariat. The artist should depict Soviet life not realistically but aspirationally, with the larger goal of engineering a new culture. Stalin recognized the power of ideas—to influence and to promulgate lies, to maintain one’s power and to topple others.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Here’s a link to The Master and Margarita and to Amazon’s Mikhail Bulgakov page.

2 thoughts on “In the Face of Constant Censorship, Bulgakov Kept Writing”

  1. if “writers must be paid,
    or they will stop writing”
    is the only thing you say,
    you don’t have much to say
    to a post like this one, do you?

    -bowerbird

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