“Manuscripts don’t burn.” — Mikhail Bulgakov

Speaking of Mohammad Rasoulof

It’s Mikhail Bulgakov’s birthday. The author of The Master and Margarita, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. (It’s not his only work. There are many others. But I’ll be focusing on Master and Margarita one today.)

It’s a miracle that Master and Margarita even exists. Bulgakov wrote it in the late 1920s, a terrible time in Russia, although even more terrible times were coming. The book is not a “critique” of Soviet society. It is an indictment, an evisceration, the truths so appalling that they can only be expressed allegorically. But the message is crystal clear.

Recently, a graphic novel adaptation of MASTER AND MARGARITA was released, with astonishing illustrations by Polish graphic designer and artist Andrzej Klimowski.

Bulgakov started out as a physician before segueing to writing. Post Russian Civil War, in the 1920s, he found it increasingly difficult to get his work past the censors, even though Stalin himself was a “fan” of a couple of his plays. Stalin protected Bulgakov, putting in a good word, essentially. Eventually, though, Stalin’s protection vanished. In the 30s, Bulgakov’s work was permanently banned, which meant that his name was mud. He would never be able to publish again, not in his own country.

In desperation, Bulgakov (famously) wrote two letters to Stalin. Both letters and commentary here. The letters basically say: “I do not want to leave Russia. But I don’t know what else to do. If I am not allowed to work here, then please, I beg you, allow me to leave Russia.” They’re heartbreaking letters, and an indictment of dictatorships and censorship – not just the FACT of them, but what it DOES to people. Artists are always the first ones on the chopping block.

Unbelievably: Stalin received the letters and called Bulgakov personally on the phone. (None of this excuses Stalin for his tremendous war crimes on a scale which would have made Hitler jealous, I’m just reporting the facts: Stalin liked Bulgakov. Maybe because Bulgakov wrote a play in the 20s praising Stalin’s early years in Georgia – an act of sycophantish flattery on Bulgakov’s part – but even that play didn’t pass muster with the censors. Stalin’s early years were a very very touchy subject and Stalin did everything he could to erase all traces of himself.) This might not be the reason Stalin actually read these letters and actually called the anguished dude who wrote them. But there is a reason. Stalin never did anything without a reason: it’s one of his scariest characteristics. The people who survived the 1930s in the USSR only did so because Stalin, for whatever reason, decided to spare them.

Imagine being Bulgakov sitting around his apartment in 1930. The phone rings. He answers. It’s Stalin on the line. Stalin asked Bulgakov if he really wants to leave Russia. Bulgakov reiterated: “I don’t WANT to leave but I am not allowed to work here anymore. I have no choice.” So Stalin arranged for Bulgakov to work as a stage director’s assistant in the Moscow Art Theatre. (This is devastating. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century “allowed” to sweep backstage. It makes me see red. And not Soviet red.)

Now: about Master and Margarita.

Bulgakov wrote it in 1927, 1928. He considered it too dangerous to even exist so he burned the manuscript.

When you think you are oppressed, please remember Mikhail Bulgakov. Or, at least that’s what I do if I feel like I want to get more work, or I’m “left out” of higher echelons. At least I don’t have to burn my Elvis writing because I’ll be killed if anyone finds it. Bulgakov wrote a masterpiece. And then burned it.

From the novel, where a burnt manuscript factors into the action, an immortal line, and an immortal idea: “Manuscripts don’t burn.”

When you consider that line … and then you consider that Bulgakov burned the very manuscript in which the line appears …

One of the most amazing parts of this story is that Bulgakov rewrote the manuscript from memory in the late 1930s when shit was even MORE harrowing in Russia. It was the time of the Great Terror and the Show Trials. Remember that line: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” Bulgakov burned his manuscript but it didn’t really burn.

Upon completion of the manuscript, he wrote a letter to his wife:

“In front of me 327 pages of the manuscript (about 22 chapters). The most important remains – editing, and it’s going to be hard, I will have to pay close attention to details. Maybe even re-write some things… ‘What’s its future?’ you ask? I don’t know. Possibly, you will store the manuscript in one of the drawers, next to my ‘killed’ plays, and occasionally it will be in your thoughts. Then again, you don’t know the future. My own judgement of the book is already made and I think it truly deserves being hidden away in the darkness of some chest.”

Bulgakov invited friends over for a private reading of Master and Margarita. He told the small group of friends that he was going to take it to the publishers the next day. Everyone present was terrified. His wife begged him not to. A friend of his begged him to not let anyone else see it. And so Bulgakov thought better of his plan to go to the publishers.

The manuscript stayed in a drawer and Bulgakov died in 1940. Probably thinking his name would never be known. Probably thinking his masterpiece – and it is a stone cold masterpiece – would never see the light of day. The fact that it eventually WAS published is a triumph, but it is also a DISGRACE that it took so long. People say shit like “Better late than never”. Fuck you. Not everything is an inspirational story. I feel the same way about Jafar Panahi’s films. I am glad he continues to make films in secret, even though he has been banned from making movies for life. But I don’t just think, “You go, Jafar, you’re an inspiration!” although it is inspirational and one hopes one would be as brave as Panahi if one was in the same terrible position. But mainly I think “I hope those assholes who have done this to you burn in hell. And fuck censors and dictators and autocracies and oligarchies and theocracies everywhere.” Fight the real enemy. Keep that enemy in your crosshairs.

What is amazing is that Bulgakov died of natural causes. Something was going on there. Everyone died or was imprisoned or vanished in the 30s. Bulgakov – hounded and harassed through the 1920s – survived. Nothing was “random” in the USSR. Stalin had a soft spot for the guy, and Stalin had maybe two soft spots in his whole entire makeup. And they were just SPOTS, nothing larger. But that’s got to be the reason Bulgakov wasn’t “disappeared.” He was on everyone’s radar as “controversial” in the 20s, and most people like that perished in the 30s, if they didn’t perish in the 20s. Anyone who survived was probably being protected at some higher secret echelon of power, and none of this is found in the archives. There’s no dictum from Stalin saying “Lay off him”, stamped and dated. Stalin erased his fingerprints from everything. You can only look at the results to perceive Stalin (this was Robert Conquest’s point, I’m just stealing it from him). Stalin erased himself from the archives – plausible deniability was his name: the erasure is so total it’s still hard to find out the truth about his childhood, his young adulthood. And so Bulgakov survived. That’s the result and it is the RESULT that matters, it is in the RESULT that you can see Stalin. Same with Anna Akhmatova. (My piece about her here.) She was famous outside Russia, and because of that Stalin hesitated. He “allowed” her to live. She couldn’t write or be published but she was allowed to live. As far as I know, Stalin calling up Bulgakov and negotiating a way Bulgakov could stay is an anomaly. Stalin never did such a thing before or since. This is hugely signifcant.

Bulgakov’s brave widow did not confiscate the manuscript, even though it was dangerous to have it around. She kept it hidden for DECADES. Finally, the coast was clear enough in the calcifying edifice that was Communism she felt it safe to bring the manuscript to a publisher. It was finally published in 1966.

One chapter of the book is called “Ivan Is Split In Two” and it is a brilliant breakdown of how man is broken down by propaganda, fake news, lies. The whole 2+2=5 of George Orwell. You think that never in a million years could you be forced to declare that 2+2=5. Orwell shows how it happens. So does Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, and so does Bulgakov in Master and Margarita in “Ivan Is Split In Two.”

Ivan – the poet – witnesses strange things happening around Moscow. There’s a big black cat spotted on the streetcar, spotted elsewhere. Two men approach him in a park and talk to him. Pontius Pilate is a theme. Stalin is never mentioned. Communism is never mentioned. But – like Anna Burns’ The Milkman – the oppressive quality of the surrounding city is palpable in the book. After a tragedy occurs which makes no sense – there seems to have been something occult about it – (the devil is alive and well and living in Moscow, in other words), Ivan tries to tell people what has happened. He is not believed. He is desperate to get the word out. He tells everyone: “The Devil is here in Moscow!” Predictably, he is put into a mental institution. He is asked to write down all of his memories of the day of the tragedy. Then begins his re-education. A terrible term. And so Ivan must be “split in two.” People must always be ‘split in two’ in a totalitarian society. The officials say: What you saw is NOT really what you saw … and you cannot have an opinion on what you saw anyway. You have to just take it as truth. Even if you DO see a massive cat riding the streetcar … what proof do you have? You didn’t really see it.

It’s gaslighting on a gigantic scale.

Certain political systems want to abolish contemplation, grappling, THOUGHT itself. They only want party-line bullet points: and so the language is boiled down, destroying even the possibilities of ambiguity, of thought itself. (Again: Orwell’s “newspeak.”) If you limit a people’s vocabulary, you limit their thought. It’s that simple. The ideal is an obedient populace, a populace who will swallow ANYthing, even the devil walking around a pond in a public park. In that stifling environment, anyone who protests, “This isn’t right!” is seen as a threat, or as just flat out stupid or crazy.

I re-read the book for the third time last year. The conditions under which Bulgakov wrote the book (and then burned it) and then wrote it again from memory – haunt every page, so much so that I was consistently surprised at how FUNNY Master and Margarita is. The giant obnoxious cat lolling back on the bed sipping vodka, nibbling on a little hors d’ouevres. You can just SEE this giant cat chillin’ out, and it’s totally absurd. It’s also amazing because I love cats but I HATE this cat. Every page has some crazy image like that, and even a man’s severed head bouncing down a sidewalk has its humorous side.

The humor and the horror are one and the same, of course. Because of that, the book still feels dangerous.

It’s such a perfect metaphor. In a supposedly athiestic country – the Bolsheviks got rid of God, right? They turned churches into barns and pool halls and Museums of Atheism, right? – if the Devil appeared in such a place, the actual Devil, how would anyone even recognize him? In a world where no one is allowed to speak outside an approved narrative, then how on earth could you get the message out that there’s an abnormally large cat lying on your bed sipping vodka out of a glass? You are forced – at gunpoint essentially – to parrot the accepted truth. You did not see what you think you saw. There’s the almost slapstick sequence in the writers’ building, where everyone has been put under a spell and they can’t stop singing. They try desperately but they open their mouth and operatic anthems burst out. It’s HILARIOUS but … think of the metaphor. In the process of telling an entire population that they didn’t see what they say they saw, the cognitive dissonance is so extreme (Orwell’s 2+2=5 is the most perfect metaphor) that Ivan is “split in two”. It’s the only way to survive.

It’s fun to revisit because the book is so dense and brilliant there’s so much to it I always forget. But the details I remember. The apricot juice. The cat lolling about with the vodka. The writers’ restaurant. The character with one black eye and one green eye. The apartment where every resident eventually disappears, never to be seen again. Pontius Pilate’s headache. The headaches – everyone has splitting headaches. Of COURSE they do. That’s cognitive dissonance for you.

In “Ivan is Split in Two”, the doctor comes in, gives Ivan a shot, and says “all will be forgotten.”

This is the split. Ivan begins to doubt himself. He begins to doubt his own eyes. He doubts that he saw what he really saw.

Once when this happens, the enemy has won.

Here’s an excerpt from “Ivan Is Split In Two”:

The poet’s attempts to compose a report on the terrible consultant had come to nothing. As soon as he received a pencil stub and some paper from the stout nurse, whose name was Praskovya Fyodorovna, he had rubbed his hands together in a businesslike fashion and hastily set to work at the bedside table. He had dashed off a smart beginning, “To the police. From Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomny, member of MASSOLIT. Report. Yesterday evening I arrived at Petrarch’s Ponds with the deceased Berlioz …”

And the poet immediately became confused, largely due to the word “deceased”. It made everything sound absurd from the start: how could he have arrived somewhere with the deceased? Dead men don’t walk! They really will think I’m a madman!

Such thoughts made him start revising. The second version came out as follows, “… with Berlioz, later deceased …” That didn’t satisfy the author either. He had to write a third version, and that came out even worse than the other two, ” … with Berlioz, who fell under a streetcar …” What was irksome here was the obscure composer who was Berlioz’s namesake; he felt compelled to add, “… not the composer …”

Tormented by these two Berliozes, Ivan crossed everything out and decided to begin with a strong opening that would immediately get the reader’s attention. He began with a description of the cat boarding the streetcar, and then went back to the episode of the severed head. The head and the consultant’s prediction made him think of Pontius Pilate, and in order to make the report more convincing, he decided to include the whole story about the procurator, starting with the moment when he came out onto the colonnade of Herod’s palace dressed in a white robe with a blood-red lining.

Ivan worked hard, crossing out what he had written and adding new words. He even tried to do drawings of Pontius Pilate, and of the cat on its hind legs. But the drawings didn’t help either, and the more the poet worked, the more confused and incomprehensible his report became…

The doctor appeared, gave Ivan an injection in his arm and assured him that he would stop crying, that now everything would pass, everything would change and all would be forgotten.

The doctor turned out to be right. The wood across the river started to look as it had before. It stood out sharply, down to the last tree, beneath the sky which had been restored to its former perfect blueness, and the river grew calm. Ivan’s anguish began to diminish right after the injection, and now the poet lay peacefully, gazing at the rainbow spread across the sky.

Things stayed this way until evening, and he never even noticed when the rainbow evaporated, the sky faded and grew sad, and the world turned black.

Ivan drank some hot milk, lay down again, and was himself surprised at how his thoughts had changed. The image of the demonic, accursed cat had somehow softened in his memory, the severed head no longer frightened him, and when Ivan stopped thinking about the head, he began to reflect on how the clinic wasn’t so bad, everything considered, and how Stravinsky was a clever fellow and a celebrity and extremely pleasant to have dealings with. And, besides, the evening air was sweet and fresh after the storm.

The asylum was falling asleep. The frosted white lights in the quiet corridors went out, and in accordance with regulations, the faint blue night-lights came on, and the cautious steps of the nurses were heard less frequently on the rubber matting in the corridor outside the door.

Now Ivan lay in a state of sweet lethargy, gazing now at the shaded lamp, which cast a mellow light down from the ceiling, now at the moon, which was emerging from the black wood. He was talking to himself.

“Why did I get so upset over Berlioz falling under a streetcar?” the poet reasoned. “In the final analysis, let him rot! What am I to him, anyway, kith or kin? If we examine the question properly, it turns out that I, esentially, didn’t really know the deceased. What did I actually know about him? Nothing, except that he was bald and horribly eloquent. And so, citizen,” continued Ivan, addressing an invisible audience, “let us examine the following: explain, if you will, why I got so furious at that mysterious consultant, magician, and professor with the black, vacant eye? What was the point of that whole absurd chase, with me in my underwear, carrying a candle? And what about that grotesque scene in the restaurant?”

“But, but, but …” said the old Ivan to the new Ivan, addressing him in a stern voice from somewhere inside his head or behind his ear, “but didn’t he know in advance that Berlioz’s head would be cut off? How could you not get upset?”

“What is there to discuss, comrades!” retorted the new Ivan to the broken-down old Ivan. “Even a child can see that there is something sinister about all this. He is, no doubt about it, a mysterious and exceptional personality. But that’s what makes it so interesting! The fellow was personally acquainted with Pontius Pilate, what could be more interesting than that? And instead of making that ridiculous scene at Petrarch’s Ponds, wouldn’t it have been better to have asked him politely about what happened next to Pilate and the prisoner Ha-Notsri? But instead, I got obsessed with the devil knows what! Is it such an earth-shattering event – that an editor got run over! Does it mean the magazie will have to close down? So, what can you do? Man is mortal and, as was said so fittingly, sometimes suddenly so. Well, God rest his soul! There’ll be a new editor, and maybe he’ll be even more eloquent than the last one.”

After dozing off for awhile, the new Ivan asked the old Ivan spitefully, “So how do I look in all this?”

“Like a fool!” a bass voice pronounced distinctly, a voice which did not come from either one of the Ivans and was amazingly reminiscent of the consultant’s bass.

For some reason Ivan did not take offense at the word “fool”, but was pleasantly surprised by it, smiled, and fell into a half-sleep. Sleep was creeping up on Ivan, and he could already see a palm tree on an elephantlike trunk, and a cat went by – not a fearsome one, but a jolly one, and, in short, sleep was about to engulf him when suddenly the window grille moved aside noiselessly, and a mysterious figure, who was trying to hide from the moonlight, appeared on the balcony, and shook a warning finger at Ivan.

Not feeling the least bit afraid, Ivan raised himself in bed and saw that there was a man on the balcony. And this man pressed his finger to his lips and whispered, “Shh!”


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11 Responses to “Manuscripts don’t burn.” — Mikhail Bulgakov

  1. Biff Dorsey says:

    Sheila, I share your enthusiasm for “The Master and Margarita”. Its impact on me was so great I didn’t read any other Bulgakov for two decades or so because I didn’t want to be let down. I eventually read “The White Guard” and “Heart of a Dog” and enjoyed them, but recently I read ” A Country Doctor’s Notebook” and found it utterly compelling. I read it in one fell swoop and felt the catharsis one feels after reading a truly great book. If you haven’t read it, I commend it to you. You deserve a satisfying and slim book after all those heavy tomes you read for your HD article.
    Stalin had a truly ambivalent relationship with the arts. I think he respected artists’ gifts, but also feared them. The best thing I’ve read on this topic is the chapter entitled “Stalin and the Muses” in Alex De Jonge’s Stalin biography. Stalin saw the play version of “The White Guard” seventeen times.

    • sheila says:

      // recently I read ” A Country Doctor’s Notebook” and found it utterly compelling. //

      I haven’t read it – I’ll have to check it out! Thank you! and a slim book sounds definitely my speed right now.

      Thank you too for the rec of the Stalin biography – I haven’t read that one.

      // Stalin saw the play version of “The White Guard” seventeen times. //


  2. Elena says:

    Sheila and other fans of Bulgakov and/or surrealism, you may find John Hodges’s play COLLABORATORS of interest. In it, Stalin calls Bulgakov and asks for some help writing his own projects… [dun-dun-dun]

    Hodges plays with the mystery of Stalin’s relationship to Bulgakov, the quality of THE WHITE GUARD, and the extent of Stalin’s personal power over the apparatus of terror in the USSR. It’s a slim read, but it packs a punch.

  3. william green says:

    Terrific Sheila. I’ve only read The Master and Margarita twice. And it is definitely one of those books one can read at different times of ones life. Maybe I’ll get the graphic version. Thanks for your blog. I always learn so much. The downside is that it inspires me to add more books to my already too full “ books to read” list.

    • sheila says:

      Bill – hello! always so good to hear from you.

      I want to re-read Master and Margarita this year – I think the last time I read it was 15 years or something – which seems insane – but there you go.

      Hope you are doing well!

  4. Your comparison with Milkman is spot on.

  5. Martine says:

    What are you rambling about when America is going the same exact direction? Just try and make a film in America that doesn’t have the right ESG or DEI message.

  6. mutecypher says:

    I read the graphic novel version a few months ago. I really enjoyed it.

    The novel itself is something I return to every decade or so. It always feels like there’s more in it for me to get.

    • sheila says:

      Yes! It’s so dense and complex – there’s so much in it. I took it so damn seriously the first time I read it – and of course it is very serious. But I think I missed the humor. because this book is FUNNY. The scene that made me lose it the last time I read it (last year) was the scene at the Writers’ collective house – where all the writers are under a spell where they HAVE to sing, instead of speak. It’s just an amazing metaphor for being forced to speak in a voice not your own – but the way he writes it, these helpless people being forced to sing, even when they try not to – it’s just so slapstick funny!

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