Mikhail Bulgakov, most readers and critics would concur, is the most widely loved and perhaps the greatest Russian writer in the Soviet period of fictional prose and drama. Some might be more deeply affected by Andrei Platonov’s harrowing prose, others impressed by the elegance of Vladimir Nabokov or the prophetic fantasy of Yevgeny Zamyatin, but nobody could render the intervention of the demonic into a corrupt and degraded world so comically and so frighteningly as Bulgakov did in his two major novels (Black Snow and The Master and Margarita) and his short stories and plays. Like many great writers, Bulgakov has his flaws: not all readers feel the saccharine love affair between the Master and Margarita belongs in the same novel as the apocalyptic progress of the satanic Professor Woland; he also liked to hound his oppressors (officials, theatre directors, ideologists) with disproportionate satirical force. Other readers are disconcerted by Bulgakov’s implicit ideology: loyal to the values of the pre-revolutionary educated classes, he seems to have had little hesitation in making a pact with Stalin – the great demon, by destroying lesser demons, protects Bulgakov as an artist, just as Louis XIV shielded Molière and Tsar Nicholas I did for Pushkin.
Some of the ambiguities in Bulgakov’s work are explained by his biographers. In certain aspects he resembled Anton Chekhov (for whose work he had no great fondness). He trained as a doctor but abandoned medicine – as much out of horror at the risks and lifestyle as out of a