Thinking about “Notes on a Cuff” by Valery Gordeev


The story “Notes on a Cuff” was written by Bulgakov for 2 years, from 1922 to 1923. The work is autobiographical and is dedicated to the complex relationship between the author and the Soviet regime. The publication of the Notes became a daunting task since no publisher could be found who was ready to publish them in full. Bulgakov’s desire to see the “Notes” published in one book never came true. This work was bought from him by the Berlin publishing house “Nakanune”, promising to release it in 1923, but did not release it at all. Bulgakov writes about this: “At first it worried and upset me very much, and then I became indifferent.” The full text of the work has not reached us, but only excerpts published in magazines in 1924 with significant cuts and heavily censored.

“Notes” is an important source of information about Bulgakov’s stay in the Caucasus and the first months of his life in the capital after his return from the Caucasus. They clearly show his original style and the first glimpses of themes, motives and images of the more mature Bulgakov. This story is most interesting because for the first time a demonic element appears in it, which is present, albeit episodically, but already asserts itself as a permanent creative element that will pass through all the writer’s work, from the first attempts to “The Master and Margarita”, which is a veritable encyclopedia of demonology.

In Bulgakov’s work, the category of the diabolical must be understood as a kind of a broader category of the magic – the central element of Bulgakov’s work. The use of a magic element is a literary device: that is, through magic transformations, witchcraft and tricks Bulgakov conveys the obvious absurdity and irrationality of many aspects of the social structure of the new Soviet regime. Also, magic is used by the writer to express irony and satire.

Since childhood, possessing the ability to invent wonderful  stories, Bulgakov assigned the supernatural the most honourable place in his poetic world. Therefore, in most of his works, the Devil is constantly present, moving from one plot to another, with various distinctive features. Particularly rich in devilish images is an excerpt called “The Moscow Abyss. Duvlam”, where the narrator describes his arrival in Moscow. The dominant colour here is black. In the passage, there are no clearly outlined individual devilish figures, but gradually the scene itself takes on demonic and hellish features: “In the darkness, grey bodies pass and the black abyss of the city turns green.” Green and black are the colours of the Ruler of the World, that is, Satan. It is in the “Notes” that Moscow becomes a demonic city, previously it was Petersburg.

Thus, in the “Notes”, so far in time and in philosophical richness from Bulgakov’s masterpiece, we see some of the motives of the future novel: polemics against the conformism of literary circles; an allusion to the concept of space, which, surpassing three-dimensionality, reveals the possibility of a fourth dimension. And, finally, there is the narrator’s definition of “insane”. And most of all in the microcosm of the Notes, as later in the macrocosm of The Master and Margarita, the reader is fascinated by the author’s amazing closeness to the world in which everyday life is easily destroyed by fantastic elements.

From the “Notes” we see that Bulgakov is unable to accept the new government and its cruel laws. The author is sincerely afraid of the future fate of the country and, at the same time, he understands that he has no opportunity to change the situation.