Who? Mikhail Bulgakov, well-mannered satirist, playwright and author of everyone’s favourite The Master and Margarita.
What? An epistolary anthology: diary entries up until they were confiscated by the Soviet political police, then letters, letters, letters.
When? Material ranging from 1921 to 1940, slapped together by Alma in 2013.
How? In a mostly extremely-direct and disarmingly honest style, particularly when addressing the authorities. His courage in places is baffling.
Why? Loving Bulgakov’s work as I do, I expected his correspondence to be overflowing with humour and imagination. In fact, there is very little. Instead, the anthology demonstrates the exasperating administrative work of a creative individual struggling against the dual bureaucracies of the state and the theatre world. His drawn-out legal difficulties are reminiscent of Lenny Bruce’s final performances, in which the censored comedian took to reading aloud from the reams of court transcription that had begun to obsess him. The confiscation of Bulgakov’s diary (including his invaluable insights into current affairs of the day) was a blow to the writer and to the historiography of primary sources concerning Stalin’s Russia; after the theft, Bulgakov never wrote another entry. Amongst the correspondences that followed is the author’s letter to Stalin himself: an incredibly open, unashamed request to be allowed to leave the USSR. Despite the sincerity, courage and unflinching frankness of this letter, Bulgakov was never permitted to make his escape. We are lucky, in respect to our understanding of the twentieth century, that manuscripts don’t burn.
Diaries and Selected Letters is available as an Alma Classics hardback.
27 May 2017