‘On 18 April 1930, Mikhail Bulgakov ate his lunch in his Moscow flat and then lay down for his customary nap. However, he was soon roused by the telephone ringing, and shortly after that his second wife, Lyuba, came in to tell him that someone from the Central Committee (of the Communist party) wished to speak to him. Bulgakov assumed it was a malicious trick of some kind – such things were common at that time, a grimly antic precursor of the persecutions to come – but when he picked up the handset he heard a voice say, “Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov?” and, when he affirmed this, “Comrade Stalin will talk to you now”. Immediately afterwards Bulgakov heard a voice with a distinct Georgian accent – it was indeed the dictator on the line.
‘The back story to this deranging phone call, during which Stalin – as was his wont with certain elite Russian creative artists – toyed with Bulgakov as a cat does with a mouse, is twisted around the fate of the writer’s play The Days of the Turbins; and the historical basis of that play itself is still further entwined, so that together these three narrative strands can be read as a sort of encryption – the dramatic DNA, if you like – of the USSR during this era. The National Theatre is currently reviving the play (under its original title, The White Guard). It is only the third British production ever, and the first since the collapse of the USSR, even though The Days of the Turbins was the most popular Russian stage play of the 1930s. On the occasion of its 500th performance, in June 1934, Sakhnovsky, the deputy director of the Moscow Arts Theatre, wrote to Bulgakov saying: “The Turbins has become a new Seagull.” Even so, its author was urged not to take a curtain call after the performance, as it might be construed as “a gesture”.’
Read the rest of Will Self’s piece in the Guardian Review about Bulgakov’s play The White Guard here.