Biography of Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was born in Kiev, the current capital of Ukraine, in 1891. His father, Afanasiy Ivanovich Bulgakov, was a respected academic at the Kiev Ecclesiastical Academy, and died in 1907, when Mikhail was 16. He married his first wife, Tatyana Lappa, in 1913, and graduated from Kiev University's Medical School in 1916. Once he graduated, they moved to the provinces, where Bulgakov began his practice of medicine in the villages, which he later documented in his early works Notes on Cuffs (1923) and A Country Doctor's Notebook (1925).

In 1918, Bulgakov returned to Kiev, where he set up a private practice before enlisting in the anti-Bolshevik White Army as a field doctor. He was sent to the Northern Caucasus in 1919, where he became ill with typhus. This experience was significant in two ways for Bulgakov. First, it was around this time that Bulgakov began to undertake writing and journalism as a career; further, the experience of being a White Army volunteer in battle-torn Ukraine formed the backdrop of two of his significant early works, "The Red Crown" (1922) and The White Guard (1926). Second, Bulgakov's contraction of typhus prevented him from leaving Russia; most of his siblings, on the other hand, were able to emigrate to Paris after the conclusion of the civil war and the rise of the Bolsheviks. In 1921, he and Tatiana moved to Moscow, where he began to experience some success as a writer. His success was limited, however, due to his anti-Soviet tendencies.

In 1925, Bulgakov married his second wife Lyubov Belozerskaya, having divorced Tatiana the previous year. Over the next couple of years, he continued to have his novels published. However, even though these novels enjoyed great popularity, they drew fierce criticism from the Soviet authorities of the time. Heart of a Dog (1925) and Fatal Eggs (1924), for example, are two of his most well-known works, satires which focus on scientists and their misuse of new discoveries. In 1926, after the publication of The White Guard, Bulgakov was invited to produce a version for the stage, and The Days of the Turbins was written. The play opened at the Moscow Art Theater and was a favorite of Joseph Stalin, who allegedly saw it performed between 15 and 20 times, if not more. Later, in 1928, Bulgakov began writing what was to posthumously become his most famous novel, The Master and Margarita (a fierce satire of the Soviet literary establishment), but he never attempted to have it published, hiding it in his desk drawer and once even rewriting it from memory after burning a draft.

Instead, Bulgakov focused more on his theatrical writing—his Cabal of the Hypocrites of 1929, a dramatization of the life of Moliere, is still performed by the Moscow Art Theatre today (though at the time it was canceled after seven performances). Yet by the end of 1929, this avenue was effectively closed to him: thanks to his frequent satirization of the Soviet regime, the General Repertoire Committee of the Soviet Union prohibited the publishing and staging of his work. Even The White Guard, beloved by Stalin, was banned in April 1929. In desperation, Bulgakov wrote to the government in 1930 requesting permission to emigrate—hoping perhaps to finally join his émigré brothers who had fled to Paris. Stalin personally called him back, however, and—as a favor to the author of Days of the Turbins—found Bulgakov opportunities to work. For example, Bulgakov worked throughout the 1930s as a consultant to the staff of the Moscow Art Theatre and was librettist with the Bolshoi. However, though Stalin's favor could keep Bulgakov from being purged, the writing he produced at the time was still banned and never performed. Subsequent requests during the 1930s to emigrate went unanswered by the Soviet government.

In 1932, Bulgakov was married for a third time to Elena Sergeyevna Shilovskaya, who became the inspiration for the character of Margarita in The Master and Margarita. He continued writing plays, stories, critical works, and translating during the last decade of his life, as well as working on The Master and Margarita. Still, Bulgakov had nothing published during this time, with the performances of several of his plays and theatrical adaptations canceled at the last minute. A private reading of Master and Margarita was given to friends in 1939, and in the same year, Bulgakov's eyesight deteriorated severely as disease was discovered in his kidneys. On March 10, 1940, Bulgakov died of nephrosclerosis, the same kidney disorder that his father suffered from. He was subsequently buried in the famous Novodevichy Cemetery of Moscow.

Study Guides on Works by Mikhail Bulgakov

Heart of a Dog is one of the best examples of Bulgakov's criticisms of life in the Soviet Union. Written when Bulgakov was 33 years old, it was first introduced to the public in March 1925 in a Moscow apartment with a gathering of approximately 50...