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Mikhail Bulgakov

Collaborators starts with the writer Mikhail Bulgakov (played by Alex Jennings) waking from a nightmare in which he is being chased around his small apartment by Stalin (Simon Russell Beale). Tripped and lying on the floor, Bulgakov is about to be killed by the scary dictator, looming over him with a heavy typewriter and threatening to bring it crashing down onto his head, when he is awoken from this slapstick scene by his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), who asks routinely, as if her husband dreams this every night, “Did he catch you?” “No. No, he didn’t,” Bulgakov replies. “I was too quick for him. Grabbed the typewriter, jammed his fingers in and typed ‘You bastard’ all across his knuckles.”

John Hodge’s play is a dark and grotesque comedy about the cat-and-mouse relationship between Stalin and the satirist Bulgakov, author of The White Guard, Stalin’s favorite novel, who nonetheless remained a persecuted figure in the proletarian culture of the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Known for his screenplays of The Beach and Trainspotting, Hodge came to the idea of Collaborators when he was working on the script for a film version of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin
1 and found a reference in that book to Batumi, Bulgakov’s play about Stalin’s early years commissioned by the Moscow Art Theater to celebrate the dictator’s sixtieth birthday in December 1939. With artistic license and some fantasy, Collaborators tells the complicated story of the writing of that play.

More than many Soviet writers, Bulgakov had good reason to both fear and love Stalin. Born in Kiev in 1891, he belonged by blood and temperament to the prerevolutionary intelligentsia. His father was a lecturer at the Kiev Theological Academy, his mother was a teacher; and both his uncles on his mother’s side were doctors, a profession he would join on his graduation from Kiev University in 1916. By the time he turned his hand to writing in the early 1920s, Bulgakov’s world had been abolished by the Soviet regime.2 But he remained defiant. His white starched collar, bow tie (worn by Jennings), and monocle were a provocation to his critics, who denounced his work as “counterrevolutionary.”

Bulgakov came to fame with The White Guard (1925), a sympathetic portrait of a White intelligentsia family, the Turbins, living through the civil war in Kiev, which he adapted as a play, The Days of the Turbins, for the Moscow Art Theater. In the mid-1920s, when Soviet literary policy was lax enough to encourage satirists, Bulgakov wrote Heart of a Dog (not published in the Soviet Union until 1987), an allegory on the experimental nature of the Revolution in which a doctor transplants the organs of a dead man into a dog, with comic and catastrophic consequences. After several readings of the manuscript to friends in 1925, Bulgakov’s apartment was searched by the police in April 1926, who confiscated the story along with the writer’s diaries. From 1927, when censorship began to bite, Bulgakov published nothing in the Soviet Union. In 1929 his three plays in production (The Days of the Turbins at the Moscow Art Theater, Zoika’s Apartment at the Vakhtangov Theater, and Crimson Island at the Kamerny) were all banned following a vicious press campaign against his work. “His talent is as obvious as the socially reactionary nature of his works,” wrote the critic Richard Pikel (who went on to become an employee of the NKVD) following the ban. “The withdrawal of Bulgakov’s plays represents a sanitary cleansing of the repertory.”3

In desperate financial straits and at the end of his tether, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin on March 28, 1930. He knew the Soviet leader liked his work and hoped that he would come to his rescue—at least that was the intention of his “secret friend” and future wife (from 1932) Yelena Sergeevna, who had connections to the Moscow political elite through her husband, General Evgeny Shilovsky, who was highly placed in the Soviet military establishment. According to Yelena Sergeevna, Bulgakov had decided to kill himself if he did not get a favorable reply from the Soviet leader. In a long and plaintive letter, bitter and at times hysterical in tone, Bulgakov gave a full account of the persecution and harrassment he had suffered under the regime:

When I carried out an analysis of my album of cuttings, I discovered that there had been 301 references to me in the Soviet press during my ten years of work in the field of literature. Of these, three were complimentary, and 298 were hostile and abusive.

He asked to be allowed to emigrate with his wife Liubov Evgenevna or, failing that, to be given work in the theater as a director, or as an actor or extra, or, “if I cannot be an extra, then I request to be given a job as a stage-hand.”4


On April 18, 1930, Bulgakov received a phone call from Stalin. It was four days after the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky had committed suicide, partly, it appears, out of despair at the denunciations of his work in the Soviet press, so perhaps the call was prompted by a concern to avoid having another famous writer kill himself. Told by Bulgakov of the conversation afterward, Yelena Sergeevna wrote down its essence in her diary:

“We have received your letter. And read it with our comrades. You will have a favourable answer to it. Perhaps we should really let you go abroad. So we’ve made you very tired of us?”

“I’ve been thinking a great deal recently as to whether a Russian writer can live outside his native land, and it seems to me that he can’t.”

“You’re right. I don’t think so either. Where do you want to work? At the [Moscow] Art Theatre?”

“Yes, I would like to. But I spoke about it and was refused.”

“Well, put in an application there. I think they will agree…”5

[Stalin then expressed a desire to meet Bulgakov.]

“Yes, yes, Iosif Vissarionovich, I really do need to talk to you.”

“Yes, well we’ll have to find time and meet, without fail. Meanwhile I wish you all the best.”6

The call left Bulgakov with the impression that he had Stalin’s patronage and protection. The immediate result was that he was appointed an assistant director at the Moscow Art Theater. The Days of the Turbins was revived in 1932 and ran without interruption until 1941. Stalin went to see it fifteen times. He was clearly obsessed by the play (he told the actor Nikolai Khmelyov that he dreamed about its central character). What intrigued him most was the way Bulgakov had endowed the Turbins with romantic and heroic qualities while demonstrating the historical necessity of their submission to the Soviet regime. Stalin drew political lessons from the play. “Don’t forget,” he wrote to the Soviet dramatist Vladimir Bill-Belotserkovsky, “that the main impression on the audience is favorable to the Bolsheviks: If even such people as the Turbins are forced to lay down arms and submit to the will of the people, to admit their cause is lost, that means that the Bolsheviks are invincible.”7 Victory was sweeter when the enemy was strong.

The play’s success protected Bulgakov from the arrests of the 1930s. Yet he had a growing list of unperformed and unpublished works, including several drafts of his great novel, The Master and Margarita, a brilliant Faustian satire in which the Devil visits Moscow in the person of a magician, with a band of sorcerers and a supernatural cat, easily seducing the city’s literary apparat. As Bulgakov knew, it could not be published as long as Stalin was alive. His play Molière, The Cabal of Hypocrites, scenes of which are played out on the stage of Collaborators, was premiered by the Moscow Art Theater in February 1936, six years after it had been written, but was axed after only seven performances in response to a Pravda editorial denouncing it. The drama was about the destruction of Molière by a dark cabal of critics with the connivance of the king, the playwright’s tyrannical patron, but it reflected on Bulgakov’s own position under Stalin’s tyranny:

MOLIÈRE: Tyrant! Tyrant!

BOUTON: Who are you talking about, master?

MOLIÈRE: About the King of France!

BOUTON: Be quiet!

MOLIÈRE: About Louis XIV! Tyrant!

BOUTON: It’s all over. We’re both as good as hanged.

MOLIÈRE: Oh, Bouton, I nearly died of fear today. He was a golden idol, and his eyes were like emeralds. My hands were sweating, everything began to swim in front of my eyes, and all I knew was—that he was crushing me! Idol!8

As his situation became more precarious, Bulgakov looked to Stalin once again. He desperately wanted to continue the conversation they had started on the telephone, and took it as a rejection that the promised meeting had not materialized. He wrote more letters to Stalin. In one unfinished draft he begged him to become his “first reader”—a reference to the role assumed by Nicholas I as the personal censor of the poet Alexander Pushkin—but did not send the letter (perhaps because he realized how dangerous it was to compare Stalin to the most reactionary of all the tsars).

On November 7, 1935, the eighteenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Bulgakov even stood among the crowds to catch a glimpse of Stalin in Red Square. Like many writers at that time, Bulgakov was in awe of the Soviet leader. The cult of Stalin was at its peak, and even the most sober writers were caught under its magical spell. In April 1936, the writer Korney Chukovsky recorded in his diary how he and the poet Boris Pasternak, sitting in the sixth or seventh row at a Komsomol congress, had reacted to the sight of Stalin on the podium:


To see him—just to see him—was happiness for us. He was talking all the time to [Maria] Demchenko [a kolkhoz activist]. And we were envious—lucky her! We watched his every move with reverence. I never thought I was capable of such emotions. Pasternak and I kept whispering to each other in rapturous expressions about him, and we cursed Demchenko for blocking our view.9

In 1936 Bulgakov started collecting “materials for a biography of I.V. Stalin,” as he labeled the notebook in which he kept them. It was connected to his plan to write a history of the Soviet Union for secondary schools to win a competition that had been announced with a huge prize of 100,000 rubles for the best textbook. Details about Stalin’s private life had previously been a carefully guarded secret, but with the beginning of his cult the official hagiography was released in small doses. Bulgakov’s interest in Stalin’s early years was almost certainly sparked by the publication, in 1935, of Lavrenty Beria’s History of the Bolshevik Organizations in the Caucasus, in which the future NKVD chief depicted “Koba” (as Stalin was then known) as the supreme leader of the revolutionary underground. Beria made much of Stalin’s short stay in the Black Sea town of Batumi, where he organized a local cell and, in 1902, a single demonstration that was at the center of Bulgakov’s play.

According to Yelena Sergeevna’s diary, Bulgakov decided to write Batumi on February 6, 1936. Two weeks later he signaled his intention to the Moscow Art Theater’s director (suitably enough, during a performance of Faust). On January 28 Pravda had attacked Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The article (“Chaos Instead of Music”) was a warning of the regime’s intention to force all Soviet artists to conform to socialist realist conventions, and was soon followed by the Pravda editorial attacking Molière. In these circumstances it seems clear that Batumi was conceived as an act of self-defense. The theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who spoke out in defense of Shostakovich, was subjected to denunciations of a feverish intensity (he was later arrested, brutally tortured by the NKVD, and then shot; his wife was stabbed to death by unidentified assassins who broke into their Moscow apartment). Others, like Pasternak or Osip Mandelstam, composed artificial verses praising Stalin in a desperate attempt to save themselves.

The Moscow Art Theater was keen to curry favor with Stalin. In the autumn of 1938 there were several attempts to get Bulgakov to sign a contract for the play. But he had not forgiven the theater for dropping Molière. Simulating reluctance, he haggled for a better apartment, but then agreed to write the play in time for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday on December 21, 1939.

Batumi was neither performed nor published in the USSR until 1988. At that time, under Gorbachev, Bulgakov was being rediscovered by the Soviet public, and his popularity was at its height. Batumi seemed a “shameful episode in Bulgakov’s career,” in the words of the literary critic Ellendea Proffer,10 who first published the play in the West.11 It was written off as obsequious hagiography, hackwork explained only by the pressure felt by Bulgakov.

That is how it is presented in Collaborators, where hammed-up scenes of it are performed as a second play (alongside Molière) within the play. In John Hodge’s fantasy Bulgakov is commissioned to write a play on Stalin’s youth in the NKVD. At first he is unwilling, but he capitulates when its agents threaten to arrest his wife and then promise to restore Molière to the Moscow Art Theater’s repertoire. Set up in an office in the Lubianka, Bulgakov finds it hard to write (“It’s difficult to get a real insight into the man”); but help comes in the form of a phone call from Stalin, who summons the writer to a secret bunker underground and suggests collaborating on the play. The scenes that follow are hilarious. Beale is brilliant as a “comic Stalin,” with his lame hand and limp and West Country yokel tones (guaranteed to make the English laugh) imitating the dictator’s Georgian accent in Russian. But there is an edge. Through their laughter the audience is drawn toward Stalin, as Bulgakov is, so that they become collaborators too.

The mood darkens in the second half of the play when the fantasy becomes absurd and Bulgakov, exchanging roles with Stalin, signs off on his Politburo files. Disbelieving the NKVD’s arrest lists, Bulgakov orders “further enquiries,” thereby precipitating more arrests, so that he becomes the inadvertent author of the Great Terror. As theater this works brilliantly, but only at the cost of historical accuracy: Bulgakov never met Stalin, had no involvement in politics at all, and, in writing Batumi, may not have meant to be as flattering to the dictator as people once believed.

The deputy artistic director of the Moscow Art Theater, Anatoly Smeliansky, is one of several critics to argue that Batumi was not simply hagiography. Bulgakov worked hard on it, according to his wife’s diary, and he was upset by the suggestion that it had been written to ingratiate himself with the authorities. According to Smelianky, Bulgakov meant to draw a parallel between the prisons of the Stalinist regime and those of Nicholas II, in which the young Stalin was a prisoner. The subtext of the play compares Stalin to the Antichrist (a theme developed in The Master and Margarita), for example, in a scene when Stalin tells the legend of a “black dragon who stole the sun from the whole of mankind”; or in another, when, like Christ on his way to Calvary, he is beaten on his way out of the prison by the guards, on the orders of the governor, who says of Stalin: “Oh, you demon from Hell!”12 As the critic A. Colin Wright has suggested, the first guard’s words to the beaten prisoner, “Here, take that!…That’s for everything!,” could be read as Bulgakov’s revenge against the dictator.13

This seditious subtext of Batumi may have gone unnoticed by Stalin, but there were more obvious offending passages. In one scene Stalin’s fortune is told by a gypsy who says that, while he will be a great man, “it won’t turn out by any means as glorious as you think.” In another, a policeman describes Stalin to the prison governor as having “an average build. An ordinary head” without distinguishing features, a joke repeated by a police colonel who says: “The appearance of the aforementioned personage doesn’t make any particular impression.” The rebellious nature of this scene rests not only in depicting the Great Leader as a fairly average revolutionary, but in echoing the famous words of Leon Trotsky, who described Stalin before 1917 as “a gray blur.”

Bulgakov, it appears, had tried to play a double game with Stalin—outwardly appearing to promote his cult, while secretly defying him. Stalin was too clever and suspicious to be fooled. He said Batumi was neither to be published nor performed, arguing, according to one source, that “all children and young people are the same. There is no need to put on a play about the young Stalin.” Yelena Sergeevna was also told that

the play had met with a harshly critical reception at the top. It was unacceptable to turn a figure such as Stalin into a fictional character, and it was unacceptable to place him in made-up situations and put made-up words in his mouth.14

Bulgakov was notified of the decision by telegram on August 14, 1939. He and his wife were traveling by train to Batumi with colleagues from the Moscow Art Theater to research the staging of the play. “Need for journey cancelled. Return to Moscow,” the cable read. Bulgakov was devastated by the news. He feared arrest. Meyerhold’s arrest, only a few weeks earlier, had been weighing on his mind. On the journey back to Moscow Bulgakov complained of a blinding pain behind his eyes—an advanced symptom of the nephrosclerosis from which he died on March 10, 1940.

Hodge has placed Bulgakov in made-up situations and put words into his mouth. But there is a line he gives to Stalin that rings true. It comes at the very end, when Stalin tells Bulgakov that the play will never be performed:

The truth is: it was all about you, Mikhail, all about you from start to finish. Killing my enemies is easy. The challenge is to control their minds. And I think I controlled yours pretty well. In years to come, I’ll be able to say: “Bulgakov? Yeah, we even trained him. We broke him, we can break anybody.”

Indeed, Stalin later said, “Our strength is in having trained even Bulgakov to work for us.”15

Stalin had the power to destroy anyone, but with some writers, perhaps with those he most admired, he preferred to toy. He liked to feel his power over them. In 1952 the Soviet leader chaired a meeting in the Kremlin to judge the Stalin Prize. It was more or less agreed to give the prize to Stepan Zlobin’s novel Stepan Razin, but the Politburo member Georgy Malenkov objected that Zlobin had behaved badly in the war because he had let himself be captured by the Germans. In fact, as everybody knew, Zlobin had behaved with extraordinary courage; he had even led a group of resistance fighters in the concentration camp where he was held.

After Malenkov had made his statement there was a deathly hush. Stalin stood up and paced around the room, passing by the seated Politburo members and the leaders of the Writers’ Union and asking out aloud, as if to himself, but also for them to consider, “Shall we forgive him or not?” There was silence. Stalin continued to pace around the room and asked again, “Shall we forgive him or not?” Again there was silence: no one dared to speak. Stalin went on with his pacing and asked for a third time, “Shall we forgive him or not?” Finally he answered his own question: “Let’s forgive him.”

Everyone had understood that the fate of an innocent man had been hanging in the balance: either he would win the Stalin Prize or he would be sent to the Gulag. Though all the writers at the meeting were at least acquainted with Zlobin, no one spoke in his defense, not even when invited to do so by Stalin. In the words of one of them, Konstantin Simonov, “In our eyes it was not just a question of whether to forgive or not forgive a guilty man, but whether to speak out against a denunciation” made by a figure as senior as Malenkov, a denunciation that had evidently been accepted as truth by Stalin, for whom the question was whether to forgive a guilty man.

Looking back on this event, Simonov came to the conclusion that Stalin had always been aware of the accusations against Zlobin, and that he had himself deliberately nominated his book for the Stalin Prize so that he could stage this “little game.”16 Knowing that there would be nobody with the courage to defend Zlobin, Stalin’s aim had been to show that he, and only he, decided the fate of men.