The day after Mikhail Bulgakov died in 1940, an anonymous official from Joseph Stalin’s office telephoned the playwright’s home and asked, “Is Comrade Bulgakov dead?” The question was asked to verify the death of the censored author, not to mourn him; after hearing that Bulgakov was indeed dead, the caller hung up without further comment.
Stalin took a personal interest in Bulgakov’s plays and life, as well as his death. Some astounding facets of the relationship between the Soviet dictator and the renegade artist are revealed in Anatoly Smeliansky’s landmark book, Is Comrade Bulgakov Dead? This new account of Bulgakov’s years at the Moscow Art Theatre draws on recently opened archives, and uncovers a long-withheld history as macabre and comic as the plays Bulgakov wrote in Russia during the ’20s and ’30s.
Some of Bulgakov’s late satires were undoubtedly inspired by his relationship with Stalin. The writer on whom a devil confers favors in the posthumously published novel The Master and Margarita is very much like the playwright himself, who in 1930 wrote Stalin that he did not want to be “sentenced to silence for life in the USSR.” Bulgakov, whose plays were by then totally banned, promised to take any theatre work offered: “If I cannot be a walk-on actor, I request employment as a stage hand.” Stalin read his request, and advised him over the phone to put in an application at the Moscow Art Theatre. “I have a feeling they will agree [to hire you],” said Stalin, whose offer neither Bulgakov nor MAT could refuse. By May 1930, the suppressed playwright was an assistant director at the same theatre that had only one year earlier bowed to political pressures and acquiesced in his censorship.
In the ’30s, Stalin bestowed favors on Bulgakov, as well as the Moscow Art’s actors and its directors, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko. But in return, Smeliansky notes, the Soviet dictator expected MAT to “demonstrate the legitimacy and continuity of Stalin’s cultural policies to the whole of the civilized world.” This “legitimacy”–and its consequences–are seriously challenged by Smeliansky, whose book reconsiders the roles leading Soviet artists and critics played in support of authoritarian rule. Although Smeliansky now serves as literary director of MAT, he is hardly protecting his institution’s past when he uncovers the compromises MAT artists made to retain Stalin’s patronage.
Both Bulgakov and the MAT are tragic heroes in this critical biography. They joined together in 1925, when Stanislavsky’s theatre sought out authors who would take it beyond Chekhov and address contemporary issues. A Bulgakov play, The Day of the Turbins (adapted from his 1925 novel White Guard and commissioned by MAT) was just the script needed–or so it became after numerous meetings and rewritings which the playwright parodied later in his novel Black Snow.
That play won approval from Stalin, but not from others defending the Communist Party line. In Turbins, Flight (written in 1927 and his first play to be banned before it premiered) and later plays to which Party hacks objected, Bulgakov gave voice to White Army officers, the Russian intelligentsia and middle-class citizens alienated from the new Soviet society. His plays did not advocate dissent, but even the mere acknowledgment of discontent was considered counterrevolutionary by his critics.
Outlasting the censors
As Stalin’s regime began regulating every detail of Soviet art, officials read each new Bulgakov play with greater suspicion. Smeliansky cites newly available documents to prove that Stalin himself secretly endorsed the decision to close Bulgakov’s play Moliere (also known as A Cabal of Hypocrites) in 1936, after only seven performances at MAT, because the play allegedly invited “the theatregoer to see an analogy between the situation of a writer under the dictatorship of the proletariat and the ‘tyranny without redress’ under Louis XIV.” No one at MAT discerned this alleged subversion in the play during its overlong, four years of rehearsal. Stalin noticed its threat without even attending a performance; he merely read and approved a wily bureaucrat’s recommendation, after which Moliere was withdrawn from MAT’s repertoire.
Like Bulgakov’s own writing, Smeliansky’s discourse is rich in comic discoveries and the intellectual freedom of inquiry that have outlasted countless censors. Theatre history, and superb historians like Smeliansky, now vindicate Bulgakov’s determination to write about Soviet life as he saw it and suffer the consequences. Bulgakov will be remembered as one of the U.S.S.R.’s authors who would not legitimize Stalinism in the theatre; even Batum, the biographical play Bulgakov wrote about Stalin in 1939, was rejected after its “First Reader” (Stalin) detected qualms about his reign between the lines of the eagerly awaited tribute.
In 1938, Bulgakov appealed directly to Stalin again, not for himself but on behalf of his friend, the playwright and satirist Nikolai Erdman; this time the letter went unanswered. Erdman’s 1928 play The Suicide was rehearsed at the Meyerhold Theatre but banned and closed before its official debut, although both Stanislavsky and Meyerhold championed it. The satire of political self-sacrifice was not staged in Moscow during Erdman’s lifetime–and he lived until 1970, overcoming a 1933 sentence to a labor camp in Siberia and defiantly outlasting the authorities.
Released from the camp in 1940, Erdman never completed another original play; but he wrote film scripts, army entertainments during World War II and stage adaptations of Russian classics. The Suicide, which premiered in Sweden in 1969, was not seen in Russia until more than a half-century after it was written, despite performances in Europe, Canada and America.
Erdman wrote a great deal of theatrical material in the decade before he was sent to Siberia, and his work has finally surfaced in English. His satiric sketches for musical halls, cabarets and circus have been collected and translated by John Freedman as part of a new Russian Theatre Archive coordinated by Freedman, Smeliansky and Leon Gitelman. The series also includes new translations of Erdman’s major plays in a separate volume.
Early in A Meeting about Laughter, the long-lost cabaret sketch that gives the new collection its title, an assembly speaker announces that “we need joyous, cheerful art and…must do something to make spectators in theatres laugh.” One loyal Communist delegate after another proposes politically correct attitudes toward laughter; a speaker warns the audience: “I see that a few of those present are grinning. Shame on you, comrades! There is nothing to grin about when I am speaking to you about such an important sector as laughter.” Probably Erdman’s adversaries saw nothing funny in this reproach, or in other sketches which mocked dialectics, courtroom justice and government handling of the housing shortage. By the 1930s, Freedman concludes, “comedy in the Soviet Union was a doomed enterprise.”
But Erdman found humor even in doom. In The Suicide, various characters debate the content of a message to be written in a suicide note, until one of them prophetically declares: “Nowadays only the dead may say what the living think.” A few decades after Erdman’s death, he is able to speak more freely to those living in his country and our own, thanks to new stage productions of his plays and publications such as Freedman’s anthology.
Exactly how long Erdman and Bulgakov will remain in print in their own country remains to be seen. With the possible arrival of yet another repressive government in Russia after Yeltsin departs, these comic witnesses to tyranny need to be heard again, and need successors to keep their disrespectful art of satire alive.