Mikhail Bulgakov, known as one of the greatest Russian novelists of the 20th century for his posthumously published masterpiece The Master and Margarita, was born in Kiev, then part of Imperial Russian, on May 15, 1891.
Bulgakov came from a religious haute bourgeois family. His father was a well known professor of theology as well as being a writer and translator. Both of Bulgakov’s grandfathers were Russian Orthodox priests.
Bulgakov himself trained as a doctor and served as a medical officer with the Russian Army. He served in World War I as an army medic on the front lines, where he was severely wounded, leading to a four year addiction to morphine.
By 1921 he had left medicine and moved to Moscow to become a writer, working as a journalist, novelist, and an aspiring playwright. His satirical pieces, poking fun at what he called “Homo Sovieticus” (Soviet Man), were regularly banned by Communist Party censors.
Ironically, Bulgakov found an ally, although a fickle one, in Joseph Stalin, who became the Soviet dictator in 1924. Stalin was a fan of one of Bulgakov’s early plays and took an interest in his career, often meeting him backstage.
Stalin continued to periodically enforce censorship and bans on Bulgakov’s plays, but he protected him from arrest. Many other artists were jailed, exiled to Siberia or executed during this time for attacks on the Communist Party much less severe than Bulgakov’s.
At one point a desperate Bulgakov even wrote Stalin an intemperate letter demanding that if he wasn’t allowed to publish in the Soviet Union he should be allowed to emigrate.
Stalin replied immediately with a phone call where he asked Bulgakov if he really wanted to emigrate. Bulgakov replied that no Russian could ever survive for long separated from his homeland.
In 1928 Bulgakov began work on the fantastical novel The Master and Margarita, which he finished just before his death 12 years later at the age of 48.
The novel is a surreal and humorous tale of Satan (in the form of a magician, Professor Woland), visiting atheistic Russia, causing chaos, with his motley retinue, including the giant, talking, gun-toting black cat, Behemoth.
A parallel story is found in the novel that The Master, an embittered writer clearly based on Bulgakov himself, is writing about the clash between Pontius Pilot and Jesus of Nazareth in Biblical Jerusalem. One of the themes of the novel is the harm that abandoning Christianity had done to the Russian soul.
The other main character is the sensual Margarita, based on Yelena Shilovskaya, Bulgakov’s third wife, who is The Master’s mistress but who also flirts with Woland’s black magic.
The novel wasn’t published in Russian until 1966, in a censored version printed in Paris. It was decades until a complete official version appeared in the Soviet Union.
The novel has had a tremendous success in English translation and has many admirers. Mick Jagger admitted using it as the basis for his song “Sympathy for the Devil” and Salman Rushdie cites it as a major inspiration for his novel The Satanic Verses.
Bulgakov died in 1940 at the age of 48, from an inherited kidney disease which had also killed his father at an early age.