May 01, 2016

The Man with the Monocle

In January of 1930, Mikhail Bulgakov was a great writer with only one published novel to his name, a situation that was driving him to despair over his literary career. “All my literary works have perished, as have my literary plans,” he wrote to his brother Nikolai in Paris. “I am condemned to silence and, quite possibly, to complete starvation.”

Bulgakov’s fortunes had turned the previous year when his new play Flight, depicting the exodus of the Russian intelligentsia after the Bolshevik Revolution, was dismissed by Josef Stalin as an “anti-Soviet phenomenon.” The remark was made in private but reverberated throughout the literary community. Overnight Bulgakov became an outcast from the world where he had only recently been a star. His five running plays, including the wildly successful Days of the Turbins (which Stalin himself had attended no fewer than 15 times), were dropped by the theaters, while his new works, most notably a biographical play about Molière, were denied authorization for performance. He became unemployable and his work effectively untouchable. Though he continued to hold out hope that things would change, Bulgakov would not publish another work for the rest of his life.

Several months after writing to his brother, Bulgakov composed another letter – this time, to the Soviet government. In a lengthy treatise that decried his vilification in the Soviet press and affirmed his right to free speech, Bulgakov presented the government with an ultimatum: either allow him to emigrate from the Soviet Union, or secure his employment at home. The response, now infamous, was a personal phone call from Stalin. Did the writer really want to leave the country? the Soviet leader asked. Bulgakov, caught in a moment of uncertainty, changed his mind: “I have thought a great deal recently about the question of whether a Russian writer can live outside his homeland,” he recounted his answer later. “And it seems to me he cannot.”

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