There is a passage in Robert Conquest’s brilliant, monumental epic, The Great Terror, where the insane brutality of the process he recounts seems to infect the prose.
“The Deputy Commissar for Justice was severely criticised in January and shot.”
It is as though the author, overwhelmed, has given up on any attempt to identify due legal process, any fragment of justification for execution, just as they were abandoned in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The reader too adapts to this new logic and it is a shock, when you stop to think, to realize that you are no longer surprised. Why, if a man is criticised, then of course he will later be shot.
Welcome to Moscow, 1938. It is here, in this atmosphere, in fact this deadly reality, that Mikhail Bulgakov, aged forty-seven, novelist and dramatist, will undertake his most hazardous assignment, and how often – in all honesty – can you say that about playwright?
Here we join him, a novelist and librettist as well, looking for a theatre to take his work. The stage adaptation of his own novel The White Guard has been a huge success, running at the prestigious Moscow Arts Theatre for over eight hundred performances. The success, however, is tainted. He was forced to change the ending (the story of White Russians living in Kiev during the turmoil of the civil war) to make it politically acceptable. Of his other plays, Flight (also featuring White Russians as heroes) is banned, as are Last Days (Pushkin’s battle with the Tsar Nicholas I), Madam Zoyka (a satire on Lenin’s New Economic Policy), and Moliere (the playwright’s extinction at the court of Louis XIV). This last one hurt especially.
By now, Bulgakov is an author in distress. The artistic and commercial success of The White Guard keeps him afloat, but the horizon is empty and his future looks bleak. At an emotional low, he writes privately of his intention to give up the theatre. It is into this gloomy domestic scene that a new opportunity is delivered. Bygones are to be bygones, censorship lifted and the pariah readmitted, for it turns out that the stage needs him as much as he needs the stage.
The MAT has a privileged status, the double edged gift of Stalin. It has been allowed a tour to Paris with its actors waved through customs on the way home. Its senior figures have travelled to Germany for medical treatment, but are not denounced and tried as spies on their return. In exchange for all these favours, the company is supposed to showcase all that is great in Soviet drama. There is only one problem: Soviet drama is dismal. There is propaganda of course, no shortage of work written to the Bolshevik order, but the MAT is supposed to be above all that. They need quality and ideological rectitude, Marxist orthodoxy with a human twist, a big bold hit that doesn’t get anyone in trouble. So they turn to the man they know is in need of a break, a man with talent, a man who has previously toyed with the dangerous notion that they now present to him late one night in his cramped, cold apartment.
They want him to write a play about Stalin. In return, he asks for a new apartment. An agreement is reached. A deal is done.
But Bulgakov, I believe, had no choice other than to deliver the play he eventually did. People well known to him and his wife, Yelena, had been arrested. The poet and playwright, Vladimir Maykovsky was driven to suicide (or possibly assassinated). Another poet, Osip Mandlestam, died for, basically, writing a poem. Actor and theatrical innovator Vsevolod Meyerhold was banned, arrested, and eventually shot, so the first actor to shoot the seagull (in Chekhov’s play) was himself shot on the orders of the man who wore the Seagull badge (the MAT’s gift to its all-powerful sponsor). The terror was in full swing: show trials, hysteria, fear and paranoia were the stuff of daily life. And even with all that, if Bulgakov had been exceptionally brave (or foolhardy) on his own account, he had to think of his wife. An act of rebellion or refusal would have doomed Yelena too, perhaps before him. In a surviving document from the NKVD, four categories for arrest are listed. The first three are various definitions of enemies of the people. The fourth is quite simply: “wife”.
If he had good reasons not to decline the challenge, it is also likely that he actively wanted it. I don’t think it is a conjecture too far to suggest that Bulgakov felt he had some sort of relationship with the man who ruled the Soviet empire. Like Moliere before him, he had come to the attention of the supreme ruler and found himself now utterly dependent on the indulgence of that ruler for his continuing ability to work and to live. For Stalin had taken a liking to The White Guard and had seen the play many times. He had even attended with his old comrade and fellow member of the Politburo, Sergei Kirov in November 1934, only two days before Kirov was murdered (probably, as it happens, on Stalin’s orders). But four years before that, the path of playwright and tyrant had already crossed. In 1930, in despair and anger, the victim of a campaign of persecution and believing he had no future in the U.S.S.R., Bulgakov had applied for permission to emigrate. Stalin, in one of his characteristically Olympian interventions (a surprise phone call from the Kremlin), threw Bulgakov a lifeline, the promise of work at the MAT.
It was the first act in a near decade-long tease that would lead, in the end, to a telegram, a train journey interrupted, and the damning faint praise of the ultimate critic. He had given Bulgkov hope, a gift in its own way more destructive than despair. In the years that followed that call, his work approached production but never quite got there (Moliere was rehearsed nearly three hundred times). Bulgakov was driven to distraction, torn between feeling saved and knowing he was doomed. He longed for a message from above, a signal to tell him where he stood. But in the years that followed, there was none.
Bulgakov should not have been surprised. One of Stalin’s most effective tactics was the use of uncertainty: subtle alterations in job description might lead to arrest weeks later. Or, just possibly, it might not. Criticism and apparent reprieve washed over Party officials like waves tossing their victims one way then the other while the tide dragged them slowly further from the shore. False reassurance and broken promises were a matter of policy at the highest level. Even after death, a deliberate fog persisted. Thousands sentenced to “ten years [of imprisonment] without right of correspondence” were in fact secretly executed – their loved ones’ flickering hope for the future nothing more than a cruel illusion. In limbo, Bulgakov was far from alone.
So giving in to, or being inspired by, the idea of writing a play about Stalin, must have seemed like a way to send a message “upstairs”, to provoke a response (perhaps a favourable one), one that would at last tell Bulgakov: saved or doomed?
For whatever reasons, then, he accepted the commission and he did what anyone might do: he tried to reconcile the conflicting, contradictory impulses. On the one hand, he must not write anything critical of or hostile to Stalin. There are bullets waiting for men who do that. On the other, he is at heart a believer in the freedom of the individual, a humane liberal, a satirist, and his craft is crying out to be used. Surely these two cannot be married. But he tries. And, perhaps thrilled to be working again, to feel the old juices flowing, he believes that he has succeeded. Yelena records that readings of scenes to friends were met with enthusiasm. Here he is, it seems, taking on the biggest subject available, the single outstanding feature of life in this nation, the object of its cult – its leader – and, he feels, making a decent fist of it.
And meanwhile, the terror reaches full strength, a bewildering torrent of arrests, confessions, trials, and punishment. Day and night, the meat grinder does not pause. The GULAG swells with human fodder. Mass graves are dug and filled. Philatelists, engineers, students of Esperanto, artists, peasants, army officers, railwaymen, foreigners, factory workers, Party officials, all fall into its maw. The instrument of terror, the NKVD itself, is not spared: several thousand of its officers are shot. The terror becomes, in the words of Robert Service, “systematically arbitrary”. Pretence of finding actual perpetrators of actual crimes is replaced with a more direct approach. Prikaz, operational orders, simply instruct the functionaries across the USSR to round up a certain number of people who fit the bill and deal with them accordingly. There are no punishments for exceeding your quota but a shortfall is fatal.
To dabble in numbers is to enter an arena of controversy and partiality. In an on-line world, we can all find whatever estimates suit our own point of view. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to give credence to those scholars who have been to the trouble of actually researching the primary evidence (i.e. proper historians) and in turn give the most credence to those proper historians who are most cited by other people who have researched the primary evidence (i.e. other proper historians). What else can you do? Most of us weren’t actually there. But allowing for the above, a useful place to start might be the comment in Nikita Krushchev’s memoir: “ten million or more of our citizens paid with their lives in Stalin’s jails and camps”.
And then, in November 1938, with surprising rapidity, it fizzled out, this paroxysm of savagery. Perhaps it had been unsustainable: by this time, it has been reported, nearly half the urban population was on a list that should lead to arrest. Or perhaps it has simply served its purpose: all resistance to Stalin is broken. The populace is cowed and the Party, and all the institutions of state, have been made anew. Until his death, there will be no challenge to the authority of the Vohzd.
So the terror tails off (though it never disappears) and in a flourish of chutzpah, Stalin manages to blame it all on someone else: his head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov. They even give the whole episode a name, the Yezhovchina. The man himself is appointed Commissar for Water Transport, which must have seemed like a death sentence. If it didn’t, it should have. A few months later, his successor at the organ of state security, Lavrenti Beria, has Yezhov arrested and shot, then strolls round to present Stalin with a list of a hundred and fifty or so friends and family of poor old Nikolai whom he now seeks approval to liquidate. So it goes.
But Bulgakov has made progress with the play. He is ill now, dying of the same kidney disease that killed his father, but he works on and the producers are pleased with what they read. In good spirits, he and Yelena set off with designers and producers from the MAT to do research in Stalin’s home, the Soviet Republic of Georgia. They never get there. They are recalled by a telegram (“journey unnecesary”), the creative process is at an end.
What are we to make of the result of all this, the play Bulgakov entitled Batum (after the Black Sea oil town where the action takes place)?
It is, I would say, a pale imitation of his other work. How could it be otherwise? His head was not free to think, his hand not free to write. His other plays have zest and humanity, often what feels like spontaneity, at some moments as though the work has been casually thrown together. If that leads to some passages being less sure-footed than others, then it only re-enforces the notion of the author as a human rather than a soviet machine. But there is none of this in Batum. The humour is forced, the drama is linear and predictable, and the leading character (you know who) is a synthetic goody two-shoes, a boring Marxist who never sets a foot wrong but who somehow inspires and leads the dullards around him. The romance is cursory and simplistic (in contrast with the authentically complicated affairs in The White Guard, Moliere, and Last Days). In Batum, only the authority figures have any depth, but even they feel like emasculated reproductions of his previous villains. Bulgakov did what he was compelled to do: he sacrificed a quantum of his own credibility to sanitize and glorify the despot.
It was all for nothing. Stalin, an assiduous reader and theatre-goer, took pity on his favourite playwright. For him, too, there were conflicting impulses: on the one hand, he was tempted by the prospect of a play by Bulgakov, but on the other hand, a tyrant must take care of his image. In the words of Service again, Stalin “could kill artists at will, but he knew that his policies could only produce great art if he overlooked, at least to some extent, what the artists were really doing”.
Perhaps, like Bulgakov, Stalin hoped that the two impulses could be reconciled, and if so, he can only have been disappointed in the result. The play was submitted for approval, and his verdict was returned: Batum, he decided, was “a very good play… but not to be staged”. Bulgakov had delivered the play that, in a better world, he would never have written and now, for better or for worse, it would never be performed.
From Moliere, Act Four: “All my life I’ve licked his spurs and thought only one thing – don’t crush me. And now he has crushed me all the same. The tyrant!”
Bulgakov never did get the apartment.
His supporters of Bulgakov, perhaps trying to shield him from judgement, have combed the text of Batum to find hidden messages of rebellion. Well, fair enough, they may be there if you hold it up to the light and tilt it a certain way. For myself, I am not convinced, but I don’t think it matters one way or the other. I may have taken the liberty of renaming his play and subjecting it to parody, but I intend no criticism of the man. There is no need to shield Bulgakov from anything. The tyrant cornered him and toyed with him for his own pleasure. When it was over, there was time left for nothing but the end.
Or almost nothing. In the last months of his life, Bulgakov completed The Master and Margarita, his novel in which the Devil visits Moscow. So with this parting shot he added to what he had already created: an outstanding body of work, in drama and in prose, an incredible achievement under the most trying of circumstances. In 1938, he was a brave man trying to survive, both literally and artistically, and if Batum does not live up to his own standards, then what of it? For Mikhail Bulgakov, a true hero of the Soviet Union, owes nobody an apology.