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a literary excursion

Unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who enjoy widespread recognition the world over, Mikhail Bulgakov is not a name that readily springs to the mind of most non-Russian speakers when discussing Russian literature. This is sad, though perhaps not surprising. Bulgakov’s masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, was not published until 1967 — almost three decades after it was completed — and then only in heavily censored form. And it was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union that an unabridged translation that was true to the original manuscript appeared in English.

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D’s mom recounted how she read the novel when she was a schoolgirl. The first publication had been in journal form. An intrepid editor had managed to push the book through the censorship committee and it was published as a serial, one chapter per issue. When the final chapter appeared, the censors realized that even in heavily edited form the novel was incredibly subversive and anti-Communist. Copies of the magazine disappeared from libraries and the only way to read the book was to borrow it from the handful of people who had had subscriptions to the magazine and had had the foresight to save the back issues. Friends would loan the book — one chapter at a time — and this is how D’s parents first read it.

D took a seminar on The Master and Margarita in college. The book made such an impression on him that he read it twice. Unable to put it down, he read it cover to cover over the course of the semester’s first weekend and then read it again one chapter at a time in order to have each detail fresh in his mind for class discussion. He has reread it a few more times since, along with several of Bulgakov’s other books, and bought an English translation for S soon after we started dating. Small wonder then that Bulgakov’s house in Kiev was high on D’s list of must-see places.

Bulgakov never saw his masterpiece — now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century — in print. In fact, most of what he wrote was banned by the Communist censors even before the ink had dried on the manuscripts. That he managed to survive during Soviet times at all owed to his first novel, The White Guard, which details the fate of a Kiev family during the Russian Civil War. That book also did not see the light of day until well after Bulgakov’s death. However, its first two parts were published by a short-lived literary journal, which led the Moscow Art Theater to invite Bulgakov to adapt the novel for the stage.

At the end of The White Guard, the Red Army sweeps aside the monarchist forces defending Kiev, which likely explains why Stalin liked the story so much. He reportedly saw the play several dozen times and personally ensured that Bulgakov remained in the employ of the Art Theater, even after the government censorship committee issued a decree banning the publication and staging of any of his works. Stalin likely missed what the censorship committee did not. Bulgakov was a fierce monarchist and The White Guard, like all his works, is replete with subtle and not-so-subtle criticism of the Communist regime and way of life.

Bulgakov’s house — or, rather, the house where he grew up before moving to Moscow shortly after the revolution — is located on Andriivs’kyi Descent, one of Kiev’s most famous streets. Guided tours are not always available in English, but we were in luck, or at least we thought so until we met the tour guide. The cashier asked us to wait in the vestibule, and after five minutes an animated, elderly lady appeared. She asked us where we were from, did not bat an eyelash when D answered in Russian that we were from Chisinau and required an English-speaking guide, and proceeded to lead us on one of the most bizarre and memorable, if somewhat unintelligible, tours imaginable.

Not only did Bulgakov grow up in house #13 on Andriivs’kyi Descent, but he also set The White Guard in the rooms of his family’s home. After Kiev’s fall, the house was taken from Bulgakov’s family and its many rooms were turned into a communal apartment. Many things went missing. Nevertheless, a remarkable number of the original items have been returned to the Bulgakov Society after the museum opened its doors. The Bulgakov Society has used the few surviving photographs in its possession to preserve the house in exactly the way it would have been during Bulgakov’s time, including procuring replicas of the unaccounted for items, which have been painted white to indicate that the originals remain missing.

As we walked from one room to the next, our guide carried on a non-stop, fast-flowing soliloquy, interspersing details of Bulgakov’s life with those of the Turbins, The White Guard’s protagonists. She spoke English; there is no doubt about that, but she spoke it so peculiarly and so rapidly that we only got about half of what she was saying. She peppered her speech with literary allusions and frequently inserted asides to D in Russian. At one point she stopped speaking in English altogether and went on for quite some time in Russian. D waited for her to pause to draw a breath before interrupting and reminding her that S did not understand the language.

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At one point, as we neared the end of the tour, our guide turned off the lights and invited us to look into a dimly lit mirror that she swiveled around while talking in an attempt to get us to join her on an imaginary journey back through time to Bulgakov’s days. It failed to produce the desired effect, but then again the rift between our world and the reality that our tour guide apparently occupied was likely too wide to bridge anyway.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Br4ceYourself #

    I’m teaching myself Russian and an online friend suggested I read The M&M. It’ll be a while before I finish the first chapter, in English, I might add. Sadly, I don’t have enough time to sit and read anymore. Thanks for posting these photos and the article. It’ll help me appreciate the book so much more.

    November 4, 2013
    • Thanks for your comment. It might be a bit more time consuming, but if your edition is annotated, we recommend flipping through the notes from time to time. Bulgakov employs a lot of clever language play and makes interesting historical/literary references that you might miss otherwise. On the other hand, don’t worry if you don’t get all the references – the novel is still great even if you have no context and know next to nothing about life in the USSR.

      November 4, 2013

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