Boris Dralyuk at the Times Literary Supplement:
One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us a serious Soviet historian, he would have been able to tell us many interesting things about Molière, and about his times”.
This incident captures a central tragedy of Bulgakov’s life: almost all his efforts to win official acceptance, if not approval, were stymied by his inability to produce – and at times even deduce – what was asked of him. The fate that befell the seemingly innocuous Molière biography also befell a number of his plays, including The Last Days, about Alexander Pushkin – timed to coincide with the 1937 commemoration of the centenary of the poet’s death – and Batum (1939), about Stalin’s youth. The Bulgakovs were informed that Batum “received a harshly negative review up there (in the Central Committee, probably)” for making fiction out of a romanticized Stalin; it was also seen as “representing a wish to build bridges and to improve attitudes towards [the author]”.