This post is a review of the short story that ended Mikhail Bulgakov’s career: No. 13 The Elpit Workers’ Commune. Why did this story end Bulgakov’s career? In answer to that, here’s a quote from The Master and Margarita, where the Master learns through literary op-eds that his writing has been black-listed:
The articles, please note, did not cease. I laughed at the first of them. But the more of them that appeared, the more my attitude towards them changed. The second stage was one of astonishment. Some rare falsity and insecurity could be sensed literally in every line of these articles, despite their threatening and confident tone. I had the feeling, and I couldn’t get rid of it, that the authors of these articles were not saying what they wanted to say, and that their rage sprang precisely from that.
I know a few writers and the vast majority censor themselves to some degree. They do this to keep the book deals coming, or to protect themselves professionally. One thing I’ve noticed though, is that the more they “censor themselves”– which in the USA is really just a euphemism for pervasive State censorship– the more bitter and angry they are. They can’t express themselves honestly. They’re like stunted, twisted trees. And when it comes to ‘choose sides’ in any debate, these stunted authors side with whomever they view as most powerful, spewing their frustration through personal attacks onto people from the opposing side.
This behavior is ugly and ignoble. It’s unmanly. However, such attacks serve two purposes. They distract the weak-minded from what’s really important about the issue at hand. It’s not just establishment-beholden writers who behave this way. Take, for instance, Hayden’s attack on “hackers” in the wake of Ed Snowden: “twentysomethings who haven’t talked to the opposite sex in five or six years“.
Secondly, these attacks are an emotional release for people frustrated at their own impotence. I view establishment writers, journalists or any other flavored shill on the same level as vandals, animal abusers and parking-lot brawlers. They’re immature people who haven’t yet decided to take responsibility for their own emotional health, and ultimately, for their own happiness. They vent their frustration onto “safe” and inappropriate targets. If you choose slavery, whose fault is it that you’re a slave?
In No. 13 The Elpit Workers’ Commune Bulgakov made it clear that he wasn’t going to be a slave. In consequence, it was clear to the literary establishment that Bulgakov had to be contained. Here’s a quote from contemporary critic and head of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, Leopold Averbakh, on No. 13 and the other stories in Bulgakov’s collection Diaboliad:
We need satire, but this satire must be filled with the pathos of our cause, and it is only from the pen of a satirist who lives and breaths our fight, who understands it, that Soviet satire can be born!
Bulgakov’s stories must make us leap anxiously to the alert. A writers is emerging who does not even dress himself in fellow-traveler’s colours. Not only our critics and bibliographers but also our publishers must be on their guard, and Glavlit– even more so.
Averbakh, like so many early Bolshevik attack-dogs, was eventually disgraced and eaten by his own revolution. Bulgakov: I toadaso.
What’s No. 13 about? Keeping the heating on. “No. 13 The Elpit”, a luxuriant, pre-revolution apartment building, has been commandeered as a worker’s hostel. The apartments, where banksters, playboys and generals once caroused with their mistresses, spies and abortion doctors, have now become home to hundreds of the dispossessed and uneducated. The only thing that remains the same is Elpit’s maintenance staff.
It takes all the cunning and corruption of the imperial-era manager to get a steady supply of heating oil in order to prevent Elpit’s pipes from bursting. It takes all of his draconian bullying– bullying that would make the Okhrana blush– to keep the workers from lighting fires on the parquet and burning each other alive.
But even the corruption of Elpit’s imperial-era manager is not enough to keep a roof over everyone’s head in Soviet times. Eventually, a foolish peasant woman breaks the rules, lights a fire, and sends scores of people to a violent, fiery death.
And that’s what got under Averbakh’s skin. The story of Elpit is totally believable. Even die-hard revolutionaries couldn’t disagree with Bulgakov’s assessment of Soviet society: corruption was worse than before and the people being ‘helped’ couldn’t help themselves. The problem with Bulgakov is that instead of throwing up his hands and saying “God’s Will”; his criticism snaps back on Averbakh’s patrons. Unforgivable sin.
Out of all the stories in Diaboliad, No. 13 The Elpit is the most effective because it’s so grounded in reality that there’s nowhere left for government apologists to hide. Bulgakov has disarmed them through truth and black comedy. No apologist can win against an argument that sexy. Of course, Diaboliad was Bulgakov’s first and last real book published in the Soviet Union during his lifetime. During his lifetime.
Postponed publication was a sacrifice Bulgakov was willing to make because truth-in-writing was more important to him than flattery. Truth-in-writing was so important that Bulgakov made the redemption of Bezdomnie, an establishment poet who casts off slavery, the primary thread of Master and Margarita.
The good news is that there’s hope for writers who’ve poisoned their own pen through self-censorship. They can choose to stop. They can take up the responsibility of free men everywhere and speak their minds. They can, like Bezdomnie, stop writing bad poetry.