With friends like Joseph Stalin, you don’t need enemies. Physician-turned-author Mikhail Bulgakov found that out quite early on in his writing career. But having been badly wounded during World War I and subsequently come near death from typhus, he was unable to follow the rest of his family when they fled Russia after the Civil War. So, once he decided that what he really wanted to do for a living was write, Bulgakov was stuck with the on-again, off-again patronage of a politically powerful megalomaniac.
In his early career, he found some success writing for the theatre; but when his plays started reflecting the horrors of the fratricidal war that he had witnessed, they began to get banned – sometimes by Stalin personally. On other occasions Stalin defended the playwright to influential Moscow theatre directors, and reportedly attended 15 performances of Bulgakov’s Days of the Turbins. It must have been quite a schizoid way to keep body and soul together.
For a while Bulgakov turned to disguising his dangerous satirical impulses in the form of science fiction, in stories like “The Fatal Eggs” and “Heart of a Dog,” following a time-honored tradition for Slavic authors trying to stay under the government radar. We think today of late-20th-century sci-fi satirists like the Strugatsky brothers and their Polish counterpart Stanislaw Lem, sending up Soviet bureaucracy in the form of gigantic, immovable robots; but in fact, the practice goes back to Czarist times. Lieutenant Kije, for example – the tall tale of a clerical error that necessitated the creation, many promotions, marriage and state funeral of a fictional model officer – became world-famous thanks to Sergei Prokofiev’s brilliant Soviet-era film score, but had its origins in the reign of the Emperor Paul I, who died in 1801.
By 1929, Bulgakov couldn’t get any of his plays produced or other writing published due to state censorship. He wrote to the government in desperation, begging for permission to emigrate so that he could get work. To his shock, he received a personal phone call from Stalin himself in response, asking if he truly wanted to leave. On the spot, Bulgakov patriotically replied that “a Russian writer cannot live outside of his homeland.” Stalin persuaded him to stay, protected him from arrest and got him work in the theatre; but still Bulgakov could find no one willing to risk publishing his writings, and was limited to adapting other authors’ works for the stage.
Near the end of his career, in 1938, when he was already working on his fantastical masterpiece The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov swallowed his pride and accepted a commission to write a play about Stalin’s early revolutionary days to celebrate the dictator’s 60th birthday. Even that play – his last, titled Batum – ended up being banned before rehearsals could even be held. He had sold his artistic soul for nothing. It’s no wonder that The Master and Margarita is about the meddlings of Satan in the arts establishment of 1930s Moscow. He managed to finish it before he died, and even to shop it around a bit; but the work for which he is mainly remembered today was not published until more than 25 years after Bulgakov’s death – and ten years after Stalin’s.
Now, the British playwright John Hodge – best-known here as the screenwriter of Trainspotting – has written a two-person drama about the final confrontation between Bulgakov and his sometime protector, sometime persecutor. A recent production of Hodge’s Collaborators, starring Alex Jennings (The Habit of Art) as Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale (London Assurance) as Stalin, was filmed as part of the “National Theatre Live from London” series, and will be screened this Sunday, January 29 at the Rosendale Theatre. Check out this grotesquely funny cat-and-mouse game and draw your own conclusions about the price of artistic integrity.
The show begins at 2 p.m., and tickets cost $12 general admission, $10 for Rosendale Theatre members. For more information, visit https://rosendaletheatre.org or call (845) 658-8989.