Stalin treated Mikhail Bulgakov like a hoarder would treat a puzzling, slightly offensive objet-d’art: the dictator didn’t quite know what to do with the author, but it was part of his pathology not to let go. Bulgakov, whose greatest works would mostly surface after his death, suffered one humiliating blow of censorship after another, until he was completely banned. Even though he kept all his sallies at the Soviet government in a hermetic little drawer. Even though he wrote flatteringly about Stalin (“BANNED! Suspected sarcasm!”). Nothing mattered. There was simply too much THOUGHT going on in his writing. In frustration, Bulgakov wrote a letter to Stalin, demanding publishing freedom or the right to leave the U.S.S.R., which basically makes him the Charles Bronson of literature.
One can imagine getting that phone call from the Kremlin: “Hey! It’s me! Broseph Stalin! Yo, Mikey, what’s this I hear about you wanting to defect? Why you busting my balls like that? Can’t let you flee the country – it makes me look bad. Can’t let you publish your subversive books – it makes me look bad. Can’t kill you after you’ve written all these nice things about me – well, I CAN – but it makes me look bad. You’ve seen my cool coat, you’ve seen my mustache. I take care of my appearance. You KNOW I am not a man who enjoys looking bad. So how are we gonna solve this little predicamentum here?”
It is very possible to read “A Country Doctor’s Notebook,” written in the 1920s, and not think about any of that: the stories mostly avoid the Russian Revolution of 1917, with one exception that seems practically designed to court favor with the (at the time) new-ish regime. On the surface, they’re very funny anecdotes about an initially naive doctor dispatched to a remote Russian village (although the comedy is “black as Egypt’s night.”) The effect is that of after-hours talk at a doctor’s convention: “You won’t BELIEVE the abscess I popped today!” Like those “Job Hazard” stories from Reader’s Digest, with considerably more references to venereal diseases.
But they get progressively darker. Surgeons must develop a callous for the scalpel. Innocence doesn’t last long in an operating table. When even syphilitic babies show up at the clinic, (they’ve shared spoons with disease-carrying adults) you can sense Bulgakov’s stand-in giving up on whatever illusions about life a young person might entertain. The human gives way to the clinical. He begins to feel like he can’t cure diseases; he can only push them aside so a new disease can take over.
Which is not a bad description of the transition from Tsarism to Communism.
The masterpiece here is “Morphine,” an absolutely harrowing account of the progress of addiction. It must have been startling in the 1920s, for its clinical insights and for its sympathy, although not for its honesty (Bulgakov is all like: “So I have this FRIEND who…” and you’ll be like: “Sure, a ‘friend,’ wink wink.” )
The stories have been adapted, under the title “A Young Country’s Notebook” for a squirm-inducing, hilarious mini-series starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe and Jon “Don Draper” Hamm.
RATING: COOL! for the bulk, MASTERPIECE!!! for “Morphine.”