Diaries and Selected Lettersby Mikhail Bulgakov, Roger Cockrell
The first English translation and only edition in print of Bulgakov's diaries and letters
The career of Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of Master and Margarita—now regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature—was characterized by a constant and largely unsuccessful struggle against state censorship. This suppression did/i>/b>
The first English translation and only edition in print of Bulgakov's diaries and letters
The career of Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of Master and Margarita—now regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature—was characterized by a constant and largely unsuccessful struggle against state censorship. This suppression did not only apply to his art: in 1926 his personal diary was seized by the authorities. From then on he confined his thoughts to letters to his friends and family, as well as to public figures such as Stalin and his fellow Soviet writer Gorky, while also encouraging his wife Yelena to keep a diary, with many entries influenced or even dictated by him. This selection from the diaries and letters of the Bulgakovs provides an insightful glimpse into a fascinating period of Russian history and literature, telling the tragic tale of the fate of an artist under a totalitarian regime.
When writer and playwright Bulgakov (1891–1940) forsook his medical practice for a writer's life in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, he could not have anticipated the measure of his hardships. This selection of letters (1921–40) and diary entries (1921–25) attest to the writer's personal sacrifice and commitment in defiance of totalitarian suppression and dictate. Daily accounts and correspondence to his brothers, his wives, and Constantin Stanislavski, cofounder of the Moscow Art Theatre, among other theater directors and his small circle of trusted friends, reveal a lifelong protest against bureaucratic intransigence, betrayal, and censorship. His impassioned letters to party apparatchiks and even Stalin, pleading for a chance to emigrate or secure a temporary visa, are depressing in their futility. Bulgakov often refers to his work on stories and plays, but there is little on his posthumously published masterpiece novel The Master and Margarita (1967). The informative endnotes beg amplification, and the biographical and historical "extra material" at the end of the book would have been more advantageous as a prolog contextualizing the forthcoming material. This selection, taken from more complete Russian editions (1997; 2004), is a fluid and solid English translation by Cockrell (Russian, Univ. of Exeter, England; Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs and The White Guard). VERDICT For large public and academic libraries and ardent Bulgakov readers.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
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Diaries and Selected Letters
By Mikhail Bulgakov, Roger Cockrell
Alma Books LtdCopyright © 2001 Estate of Mikhail and Elena Bulgakov
All rights reserved.
Diaries and Selected Letters
To Varvara Mikhailovna Voskresenskaya
How are you? Are you well? [...]
I'm really sorry that, in a short letter, I can't tell you in detail exactly what Moscow's like nowadays. Suffice it to say that people are undergoing a mad struggle for existence and having to adjust to the new conditions. Since my arrival I think I've managed to achieve everything it's possible to achieve in the six weeks I've been here. I have a job – not the most important thing, I know, but you have to be able to earn a living. And that's something I've succeeded in doing, believe it or not. In only a miserly way so far, it's true, but Taska and I have been managing to eat and to stock up with potatoes. She's mended her shoes and we've begun to buy wood for the fire, etc.
The work has been frenzied, not easy at all. Morning to night, day after day, without a break.
Soviet institutions have been completely reorganized, with people being fired. This includes my own firm, which clearly won't last very long. So I'll shortly be out of a job. But that's not important: I've taken steps, before it's too late, to switch to private work. You'll no doubt already be aware that that's the only way to exist in Moscow – either that or setting oneself up in business. [...]
I'm trying to get myself a position in the linen industry. And, what's more, yesterday I was offered a job as a journalist for an industrial newspaper that has just started up. I don't yet know on what terms. It's a genuine commercial enterprise, and they're taking me on for a trial period. Yesterday I had to take an examination, as it were. Tomorrow they should be offering me an advance of half a million. This will mean that they think highly of me, and it's possible I'll be put in charge of the news section. And so that's what lies in store for me: linen, an industrial newspaper and (casual) private work. The search for work of this sort is precisely what I had in mind when I was in Kiev. Any other kind of work would be impossible. It would mean, at best, that we'd starve.
[...] I know masses of people here – journalists, theatre people or simply business people. That means a lot in today's Moscow, which is changing to a new way of life, something that it hasn't experienced for ages – mad competition, everyone racing around showing initiative and so on. You have to live like this, otherwise you'll die. And I have no desire to die.
[...] Poor Taska is flailing away trying to grind rye with an axe head and prepare food from all kinds of rubbish. But she's marvellous! In a word, we're both thrashing around, beating our heads against the ice like fish. Just so long as we have a roof over our heads. Andrei's room is a life-saver. When Nadya comes, this question will become fearsomely more difficult of course. But I'm putting this out of my mind for now and trying not to think about it, since I have quite enough to worry about each day as it is.
In Moscow only hundreds of thousands and millions are worth anything. A pound of black bread costs 4,600 roubles, a pound of white 14,000. And the cost is increasing all the time! The shops are full of goods, but you can't afford anything! The theatres are full, but as I was walking past the Bolshoi on business yesterday (going anywhere not on business is out of the question nowadays!) the girls were selling tickets for 75, 100, 150 thousand roubles each! Moscow has everything: shoes, cloth, meat, sturgeon, conserves, delicacies – everything! Cafés are opening, spreading like mushrooms. And, everywhere, hundreds of thousands of roubles! Hundreds of thousands! A roaring wave of speculation.
I have just one dream: to get through the winter, to survive December, which will be the most difficult month, I should imagine. I cannot express just how helpful Taska is to me. With the enormous distances that I have to cover each day running (literally) around Moscow, she saves me a massive amount of energy and strength, feeding me and leaving me to do only those things she can't do for herself: chopping wood in the evenings and carting potatoes about in the mornings.
We both go around Moscow in our miserable little coats. I walk along with one side of the coat in front of the other (the left side lets in much more cold air for some reason). I dream of getting Tatyana something warm for her feet. She's only got her thin little shoes. But maybe it will be all right! Just so long as we have a room and good health!
[...] I'm writing all this just to show you the circumstances in which I have to realize my idée fixe: to re-establish within the space of three years the norm of an apartment, clothes, food and books. Whether or not I'll be successful, we'll have to see.
I won't tell you, because you won't believe me, just how frugally Taska and I are living. We're careful with every little piece of firewood.
Such is life's harsh school.
In the evenings I work in fits and starts on my Country Doctor's Notebook. Could turn out to be quite a big piece. I'm also working on The Ailment. But I don't have time, I don't have time! That's what's really painful! [...]
PS: Can you guess what my most pleasant memory has been recently? Lying on your sofa and drinking tea with French rolls. I would give so much to be able to do that again, if only for a couple of days, drinking tea and not thinking about anything. I'm just so tired. [...]
To Nadezhda Zemskaya
[...] I'm head of the current news section at the Business and Industrial Herald, and if I go out of my mind you'll know why. Can you imagine what it means to produce an independent newspaper?! There should be an article by Boris in the second number, on the aviation industry, on cubic capacity and stockpiles and that sort of thing. I'm being driven completely mad. What about the supply of newsprint? What if we don't get any advertising? Then there's the news! And the censorship! I'm at boiling point all day long.
I've written a piece on Eugene Onegin for the theatrical journal The Screen. It hasn't been accepted. The reason: suitable for a literary journal, but not for a theatrical one. I've written a literary article dedicated to Nekrasov, 'The Muse of Revenge'. Accepted by the arts-publications bureau of the Main Political Education Committee [of the Commissariat of Enlightenment]. They paid me 100. It was forwarded to the Artistic Herald, which is due to be published under the aegis of the MPEC. I know already either that the journal won't appear, or that at the last minute someone or other will take a dislike to 'The Muse' ... and so on. Such a mess.
Please don't be surprised by such an outrageously incoherent letter – it's not deliberate, just that I'm literally worn out. I've given up on everything. Writing is out of the question. The only time I'm happy is when Taska pours me some hot tea. The two of us are now eating immeasurably better than at first. I wanted to write a long letter to you describing Moscow, but this is what you've got instead. [...]
To Nadezhda Zemskaya
[...] I'm enclosing with this letter the correspondence from Business Renaissance. I hope you'll feel able (I will try to repay you by doing something for you in Moscow) to send it to one of the Kiev newspapers of your choice (preferably one of the large dailies) as a matter of urgency and offer it to them.
The results could be as follows:
(1) They won't accept it; (2) they will accept it; (3) they will accept it and find it interesting. If (1), then there's nothing more to say. If (2), then collect the fee agreed by the journal and send it on to me, deducting for yourself any amount which you calculate you've spent on postage and any other expenses arising from your correspondence with me (entirely up to you how much).
If (3), then please put me forward as their Moscow correspondent on any topic of their choice or for some "basement" satirical article on Moscow. They can then send me an invitation and advance. Tell them that I'm head of the news section, a professional journalist at the Herald. If they print the Renaissance piece, send me two copies by registered post. Please forgive me for troubling you [...]. You'll understand what I must be feeling today, as I disappear up the chimney with the Herald.
In a word, overwhelmed. [...]
(Tatyana's name day)
Given up writing the diary for a bit. A pity – there's been a lot of interesting things going on all this time.
I'm still without a job. Taska and I not eating well. So I don't feel like writing.
Black bread now 20 thousand a pound; white <...> thousand. [...]
Joined a troupe of roving actors. We'll be playing in the suburbs. 125 roubles a performance. Miserly amount. It will mean I'll have no time for writing of course – vicious circle.
Taska and I now half-starving.
Didn't mention that Korolenko's death has been marked in the newspapers by masses of complimentary comments.
Vodka at N.G.'s.
My life's never been so black as it is now. Taska and I are starving. Had to ask uncle for a little flour, vegetable oil and some potatoes. Boris has a million. Been all over Moscow at a run, but no job. [...] <...> They may be turning No. 3 into a home for starving children.
Professor Ch. has gone overboard, striking the following off the lists of those who receive special rations: all actors, infant prodigies (Meyerhold's son was one of those on the list!) and "academics", such as those from Sverdlovsk University. <...>
This evening, at the former women's college on Virgin Fields, A Doctor's Notebook was discussed. By half-past six all doorways were crammed with dark masses of students. There were several thousand of them. In the lecture hall <...>
Veresayev is not at all attractive, looks like an elderly Jew, but he's kept himself very well. He has very narrow eyes, large, bushy eyebrows and a bald patch. Low-pitched voice. I found him very likeable. A completely different impression from the one he used to give when lecturing. A contrast perhaps with the professors. Whereas they ask difficult, boring questions, Veresayev is always close to his students – they look for challenging questions and truthful resolutions. He doesn't speak very much, but when he does, it always sounds somehow clever and intelligent.
There were two women with him, evidently his wife and daughter. Very nice wife. <...>
The weather's got much worse. There's a frost today. Walking around on totally worn-out soles. My felt boots are useless. We're half starving. Up to my ears in debt [...]
To Nadezhda Zemskaya
[...] I shan't even begin to describe what life in Moscow's like. It's so extraordinary I'd need eight pages to describe it properly; you wouldn't be able to understand it otherwise. [...] But I'll mention a few random points anyway.
Most obviously I've noticed the following: (1) badly dressed people have disappeared; (2) the number of trams has increased and, if you are to believe the rumours, shops are going bust, theatres (apart from those putting on grotesque shows) are going bust, together with private publishing houses. It's impossible to talk about prices, since the currency is falling so rapidly that sometimes the price of things changes within a single day. [...]
The rest, I repeat, is indescribable. Apartment prices are unbelievable. Luckily for me, this nightmare of an apartment on the fifth floor in which I've been struggling to live for six months is inexpensive (700 thousand for March). [...]
I'm completely overwhelmed by work. I don't have any time for writing or for learning French as I should. I'm building a library (prices at second-hand booksellers – the ignorant, insolent swine – are higher than in the shops). [...]
It's now two in the morning. I'm so tired that I can't even actually remember what I've written! Some rubbish or other, but the main thing is it seems I've forgotten what it was ...
To Vera Bulgakova
[...] I'm working very hard for the large newspaper The Worker and the Head of the Scientific and Technical Department. With Boris Mikhailovich Zemsky. Started only recently. The worst issue in Moscow is the question of housing. I'm living in a room left to me by Andrei Zemsky. Bolshaya Sadovaya 10, Apartment 50. A really nasty room, the neighbours also. I don't feel I've settled in, had so much trouble getting everything organized. I won't begin writing about the cost of living in Moscow. My salary is about 45 million a month (that's the rate for March). It's not enough. I need to do all I can to earn some more. I have many acquaintances in Moscow (journalists and artists), but I rarely see any of them, because I'm working so hard, racing around Moscow exclusively on newspaper business. [...]
To Vera Bulgakova
Thank you all for your telegram. I was very pleased to hear that you're in Kiev. Unfortunately, I couldn't deduce from the telegram whether you had returned for good or just for the time being. My dream is that all of us should at last be able to settle down safely in Moscow and Kiev.
I think that you and Lyolya might be able to get together amicably and arrange to live in the same place where Mama lived. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I feel this would be better for Ivan Pavlovich too – perhaps one of the family who is so closely linked to him and who owes him so much could live nearby. I can't stop thinking about Kolya and Vanya and how sad it is that we can't make things easier for them in any way. I'm also very sad when I think about Mama's death and the fact that it means that there's now nobody in Kiev living close to Ivan Pavlovich. My one wish is that your arrival in Kiev doesn't lead to any disagreements within the family but, on the contrary, brings you all closer together. That's why I was so glad to read your reference to the "friendly family". That's the main thing, for all of us. It's true: just a little goodwill and life would be so wonderful for you all. I'm speaking for myself: after so many tough years I value peace and quiet above all else! I would so love to be among family. But it can't be helped. Living here in Moscow, in circumstances that are immeasurably more difficult than yours, I am nonetheless thinking the whole time how to place my life onto a normal footing [...]
I'd like to ask a special favour of you: please live together in friendship and do it in memory of Mama.
I'm working so hard and am dreadfully tired. Maybe I'll be able to come to Kiev for a bit in the spring to see you and Ivan Pavlovich. If you manage to settle down in Kiev, have a word with Ivan Pavlovich and Varvara to see if you can do something to preserve Mama's plot of land in Bucha. I would be so sorry if this were to disappear. [...]
Your brother Mikhail
Haven't taken up my diary for ages. On 21st April travelled from Moscow to Kiev, where I stayed until 12th May. In Kiev operated on myself (cancerous lump behind my left ear). I didn't get to the Caucasus as I had planned and returned to Moscow on 12th May. That's when things really started to happen. The Soviet representative Vatslav Vatslavovich Vorovsky was murdered in Lausanne by Conradi. On the 12th there was a grandly staged demonstration in Moscow. Vorovsky's murder coincided with Curzon's ultimatum to Russia to take back Weinstein's impudent diplomatic messages that had been sent via the British trade representative in Moscow, to pay compensation for the English fishing vessels detained in the White Sea, to desist from propagandizing in the Far East and so on and so on.
The air was full of talk of a diplomatic bust-up, even of war. But the general opinion, it's true, was that it wouldn't come to war. And quite right too: how could we go to war with Britain? But there may well be a blockade. The news that both Poland and Romania are getting agitated (Marshall Foch has visited Poland) is also very bad. In general we're poised on the brink of events. In today's newspapers there are reports that British warships are being sent to the White and Black Seas, and news that Curzon rejects any idea of compromise and demands that Krasin (who set off by airplane for London immediately after the ultimatum) precisely fulfils the terms of the ultimatum.
Moscow is such a rowdy city, especially when compared to Kiev. Most striking of all is the huge amount of beer-drinking that goes on here. Even I'm drinking quite a bit. And, in general, I've let myself go recently. Count Alexei Tolstoy has arrived from Berlin. Dissolute, insolent behaviour. Drinks a lot.
Have gone off the rails – written nothing for six weeks.
Wednesday 11th July
The biggest gap in my diary so far. In the meantime there have been events of extraordinary importance.
Excerpted from Diaries and Selected Letters by Mikhail Bulgakov, Roger Cockrell. Copyright © 2001 Estate of Mikhail and Elena Bulgakov. Excerpted by permission of Alma Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940) was a Russian writer and playwright whose works include The Master and Margarita, which has been hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Roger Cockrell has also translated Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs and White Guard.
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