Mikhail Bulgakov was a Ukrainian doctor who gave up medicine in 1921 at the aged of thirty and, living in Moscow, devoted himself to literature. He wrote absurdist, fantastical, grotesque comic plays, and novels such as A Dog’s Heart and The Fatal Eggs. He mocked the Soviet belief that science would solve all human problems and that society could progress to utopia and showed a magnificent disdain for this ethos of certainty. He deployed a prose style of boisterous nonsense to confront the new dour utilitarianism.
The great Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) studied medicine at university, and after graduating in 1916 was sent to be the sole doctor at an isolated hospital in the depths of the remote countryside. In the early part of the war, instead of conscripting them into the army, young civilian doctors were assigned to small provincial hospitals all over Russia. In his virgin white coat, he single-handedly administered to the local peasants. He treated gout, delivered babies, carried out rudimentary amputations and tried in vain to stop the spread of syphilis. His highly suspicious agricultural patients, of little education, mistrusted his techniques and ignored his advice. His first stories (A Young Doctor’s Notebook) were set in this outpost. They are tales of a modest, modern man of science fighting back archaic superstition. The educated doctor fighting an elemental force of unreason, ignorance and prejudice. They were written in the first person using the realistic narrative prose style of a late nineteenth century liberal. Continue reading
The phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” in Russia is a rallying cry for oppressed writers and books that are considered dangerous by the authorities. Soviet government efforts to confiscate and eradicate unauthorised literature was thwarted by authors using various methods between the 1920s and 1970s: secretly circulating samizdat copies, the memorising of texts, the hiding of manuscripts, making and secreting carbon copies, the smuggling of microfilm versions out to publishers in the West. Several classics of world literature have survived to tell their tale, among them Solzenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, Grossman’s Life and Fate and Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago.