This post began when I read an article about Vladislav Surkov in the London Review of Books, entitled ‘Putin’s Rasputin’ by Peter Pomerantsev. You can read the whole article here.
Surkov, a former theatre director and PR man, is described by Pomerantsev as ‘Putin’s chief ideologue and grey cardinal’ and says he is also known as the ‘puppetmaster who privatised the Russian political system’
‘In his spare time Surkov writes essays on conceptual art and lyrics for rock groups. He’s an aficionado of gangsta rap: there’s a picture of Tupac on his desk, next to the picture of Putin. And he is the alleged author of a bestselling novel, Almost Zero.
‘The novelist Eduard Limonov describes Surkov himself as having ‘turned Russia into a wonderful postmodernist theatre, where he experiments with old and new political models’.
Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.
This fusion of despotism and postmodernism, in which no truth is certain……
…which reminded me immediately of the work of one of my favourite novelists Mikhail Bulgakov. His take on the absurdity, humour, suffering and violence of the Russia of his day and of the pomposity of power meant that virtually none of his works were published openly in his lifetime. Fortunately much of his great work is now available in good translations.
His masterpiece is ‘The Master & Margarita’ which I read when I was in my late teens and reread just recently. Its a magnificent work of the imagination made up of intertwining tales.
The first concerns the Devil’s visit to Moscow. His sidekicks include a human-sized black cat that talks. They create complete havoc, mischief and mayhem and their exploits are fantastical, hilarious, scary and astonishing by turns.
Then there is is a book within a book, a retelling of the biblical story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate, his sentencing and crucifixion and the strange remorse of Pilate – a beautiful and vivid piece of writing.
There are many different translations. Michael Glenny’s (cover above) seems to be rated as one of the best. The cover (left) is from the original edition I had, which fell apart over the years. I kept the cover.
Bulgakov began writing this book in 1928 and continued working on it until his death in 1940. The first uncensored version was not published in the Soviet Union until 1989. It was first published in the West in the 1960s and perfectly chimed in with the mood of that time. It became a cult book of the period.
These two are also great:
‘Heart of a Dog’, written in 1928 was first published by Grove Press in New York in 1968;in Russia until 1987. It concerns a mad professor who implants a human heart and pituitary gland into a dog with bad results. Pavlov was doing real-life dog experiments at the time. This is the Picador Classic edition, translated by Mirra Ginsburg (1999)
‘Black Snow’ is Bulgakov’s hilarious fictionalised portrait of Stanislavsky and one of his productions which Bulgakov wrote after his experiences working at the Moscow Arts Theatre, a post personally arranged for him by Stalin. This is the 1999 Harvill Press edition translated by Michael Glenny.
As chance would have it my friend Lin gave me a copy of this extraordinary sf novel ‘The Fatal Eggs’ by Bulgakov which has only recently seen the light of day. A professor discovers a strange ray which has an extraordinary effect on living cells. Panic and mayhem ensues. Bears comparison to H.G. Wells (a writer Bulgakov admired) and Karel Čapek’s strange novel ‘War with the Newts’ [See Previous Post: LARSEN, MISHIMA & ČAPEK]
In this edition there is a very interesting foreword by Doris Lessing about the relationship between Stalin and writers in general, Bulgakov in particular. She writes:
‘I have believed for a long time that Stalin wanted to write but had no talent. It would account for his obsession with literature. He personally oversaw everything published in the Soviet Union.’
One should mention the publisher Hesperus Press who ’are committed to bringing near what is far – far both in space and time’ They publish short classic works, around 100pp pages in length, by both great and unknown authors, works that are little-known in the English-speaking world, in fresh translations. Interesting stuff.
Bulgakov remains a potent figure in the Russian underground imagination as I discovered when I visited Moscow in 1988 as a rep for Greenpeace at the first Soviet and Eastern bloc record fair [See Previous Post: ARCHIVE: GREENPEACE MUSIC for more details.]
It was that trip where I met musicians and artists, one of whom gave me these amazing illustrations for ‘The Master & Margarita’ These are four from a larger set. I’m afraid I have no notes of the artist’s name
This is the original programme leaflet from a production of ‘The Master & Margarita’ by the Four Corners Theatre Company at the Almeida Theatre in London in July/August1992.
Viktor Pelevin, one of the great cult novelists of modern Russia, is a modern-day Bulgakov. Highly recommended. I read three or four of his books including these two some years back. Time for a reread.