“Sorry for the expression, atom”: what Mikhail Bulgakov wrote to Stalin

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It seems that everything is already known about the fate of the great Russian writers of the twentieth century – both tragic and happy. However, literary historians still continue to make new finds in the archives of the “engineers of human souls”, compiling biographical collections of letters and documents. One of them, dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov, is presented as a book of the week, especially for Izvestia, by the critic Lydia Maslova.

Michael Bulgakov

“I need to see the light …” Diaries, letters, documents

M.: KoLibri, Azbuka-Atticus, 2021 .– 784 p.

The new collection of Mikhail Bulgakov’s epistolary legacy opens with an article by the compiler Viktor Losev “Biography of M. Bulgakov in Letters and Documents.” Its author, who has been engaged in the reconstruction of Bulgakov’s intentions for a long time, expresses confidence that the collage he has collected from archival materials already published in different years and first made public will form a new, especially realistic, portrait of the writer:

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“… these documents were created for other purposes – each time they recorded some specific life situation, – but in aggregate, arranged in chronological order, they reflect the life and work of the writer most objectively”

Here Losev uses approximately the same expressions that can be found at the beginning of his old book “The Fictional Autobiography of Mikhail Bulgakov.” In its very name, there is an obvious claim to something like a spiritualistic seance, when Bulgakov himself allegedly leads the hand of a literary critic interpreting the texts of literary works and documents dug up in archives.

In the current edition, Losev again demonstrates that he and Bulgakov are on the short side, but the promise of an “objective” biography of the hero should not be taken too literally. On the pages of abundant comments, it is not Mikhail Afanasyevich himself who appears in small print, but rather a lyrical hero similar to him, as he is seen by the interpreter of the collected documents. It is Viktor Losev who puts on the cover of the book the quote “I need to see the light …”, about the context of which, for the time being, an inexperienced reader can make a variety of guesses.

The first part of the collection contains letters from the 1920s, which in many ways resemble Bulgakov’s Notes on Cuffs. You can hear the familiar intonation of a person in an extreme situation of survival, an elementary struggle against hunger and cold, which Bulgakov himself calls “a frantic struggle for existence.” The main aspect of this struggle for Bulgakov, who “came in large numbers” in and without him hungry Moscow and registered in the room with the husband of his sister A.M. Zemsky (in the apartment, which Bulgakov did not call otherwise, as “damned apartment number 50”), there was a housing issue, which in letters really appears as a real idée fixe. In the comments, you can read excerpts from the letters of the writer’s sister, N.A. Zemskoy, shedding light on the origins of Bulgakov’s satirical ruthlessness towards specific human types:

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“The living experiences of the apartment instilled in the soul of Mikhail Afanasyevich a lifetime hatred of the house managers, whom he repeatedly describes in a number of works as a kind of special human species …”

In the diary entries of 1923, there are many frank confessions of this kind: “Until I have an apartment, I am not a man, but only half a man”; “If we discard my imaginary and real fears of life, we can admit that in my life there is now only one major defect – the absence of an apartment”; “I’m not like the Moscow Art Theater, I’m ready to sell to the devil for an apartment! ..”; “I envy nothing in the world – only a good apartment.” Commenting on Bulgakov’s apartment experiences, Viktor Losev refers a lot to various Bulgakov’s wives and, among other things, quotes from Elena Sergeevna’s diary: “For M.A. there is one magic word – apartment. “ This word inevitably comes up in the 1930s, in a letter to Vikenty Veresaev, one of Bulgakov’s most important correspondents:

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“So what’s the deal? Flat. This is where it starts. So, in my declining years, I found myself in someone else’s square. This one is delivered, but that one is not ready. A sour face climbs from time to time into the apartment and says: “The apartment is mine.” Advises to go to the hotel and other vulgarities. I’m unbearably tired “

Immersed in this housing context, at some point you begin to suspect that The quote “I need to see the light …” put on the cover does not imply something metaphysical (in the sense of the opposition “light and darkness”), but something purely applied, realtor’s – say, the degree of insolation of a dwelling. But no, we are talking about light in the broadest sense of the word – the quote is taken from a letter to I.V. Stalin on May 30, 1931, where there is such a passage: “Before writing to you, I weighed everything. I need to see the light and, having seen it, return. This is the key. “

In principle, it is not too obvious that such a title for the collection is obligatory. His the compiler could have included any other quote in the title – but at least the phrase “They drink an incredible amount of beer in Moscow” (from a letter on August 31, 1923 to Yuri Slezkin, one of the most colorful characters in “Notes on Cuffs”). Or something philosophical from a diary, which is not entirely devoted to the bourgeois apartment suffering, and sometimes gives out in the author a wise, exalted and God-fearing man: “So, let’s hope in God and live. This is the only and best way. “

However, for Losev, as for many other Bulgakov scholars, this infernal line of the writer’s fate is important – his relationship with Stalin. In his introductory article, Losev separately announces “a very important letter from Bulgakov to Stalin dated June 10-11, 1934, which is being published in full for the first time.” When the reader gets to the 1930s, he will already have a strong impression that Bulgakov wrote to Stalin almost as often as he wrote to his brothers and sisters, and often in a more expressive manner. Losev explains this circumstance in one of the comments, where a particularly comical clerical style suddenly breaks through in him:

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“The writer’s repeated appeals to Stalin indicate that he perfectly understood his place in the strict hierarchical system of power and was aware that the head of state was still showing interest in his work.”

This is perhaps the most profound psychological observation about the relationship between Bulgakov and Stalin, which can be found in the accompanying part of the book. But on the whole, Bulgakov’s own statements in the first person describe the character of the writer much more clearly than the accompanying Losev’s considerations. Moreover, Bulgakov evokes the greatest sympathy not when he tries to seriously analyze his condition, but when he jokingly splashes it out in random rhymes, for example, in a letter to his sister Nadezhda: “On Bolshaya Sadovaya // There is a healthy house. // Our brother lives in the house, // Organized proletariat. // And I got lost between the proletariat, // Like some kind of, excuse the expression, atom. “