Research article
Issue: № 3 (7), 2016


This article considers three readings of Bulgakov’s play ‘Ivan Vasilievich’. The first occurred in 1930s when the play was banned by Soviet censors. At that time, it would have contained much symbolism and meaning for the readers, who, like those in the play, were trapped in an oppressive dictatorship. A second reading – an interpretation of ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ occurred when the comedy ‘Ivan Vasilievich changes profession’ – based on Bulgakov’s play was filmed by the Soviet director Leonid Gaidai in 1973. Through this reading symbols and allusions drawn by Bulgakov became known to millions of Soviet citizens. A third reading considers the contemporary Russian language speaker, who today quotes Bulgakov’s and Gaidai’s lines from ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ and its’ adaptation in day-to-day life. This article will hereafter refer to these phrases as ‘winged phrases’ – they have taken flight from their original source and embedded themselves in vernacular speech.


For over 30 years Mikhail Bulgakov’s work, due to its perceived political content, was shunned by Soviet critics. Today he is arguably not only one of the most approachable writers with text translations worldwide, but also one of the most quotable authors of Soviet times. Many of his written phrases have found their way into contemporary Russian speech either directly through his books or through film adaptations. This article analyses three readings of Bulgakov’s play ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ – from the time it was written to its’ adaptation and finally to usage of ‘winged phrases’ from the play in contemporary Russian. As the text travelled through time, it ran, as can be described by Dimock (1997), ‘into new semantic networks, new ways of imputing meaning’ [5, p. 1061]. In the discussion that follows, different time periods of ‘Ivan Vasilievich’s’ existence and their comparison will be discussed with focus on the reader’s appreciation of the text.

1. ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ in 1930s: what is the true face of power?

Soon after ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ was written in 1935, two contrasting readings occurred: one was at the meeting with actors and directors of the Moscow Theatre of Satire when the play was predicted to become a stage success^{1}. But a very different second reading occurred by Soviet censorship bureaucrats, who evidently found fault with the play, as they banned it.

The questions raised by Bulgakov in ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ were brave ones to present in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. In ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ Bulgakov explores dream and fiction – techniques and themes already well-established and refined in his previous works. Using a time machine invented by the engineer Timofeev, Bulgakov temporarily sends a nondescript Soviet office block manager Bunsha along with thief George Miloslavskii into Ivan the Terrible’s imperial court in 16th century Moscow. At the same time, Ivan himself is transported into a communal Soviet apartment of the 1930s. As Goncharova-Grabovskaia (2006) points out, Bulgakov ‘shows the epoch of Ivan the Terrible, the life and customs of which in many aspects are similar to the system of state power inherent to the 30s of the twentieth century’ [4, p. 282].

Bunsha is a typical representative of the lower level of totalitarian power. He is not very endearing or smart; in truth, he is thoroughly unattractive. As the play progresses, Bunsha and the thief Miloslavskii – acting on behalf of Ivan the Terrible – give away the entire Russian Kemska district to the Swedish Ambassador. Bulgakov presents Soviet readers with the provocative statement that any immoral, forgettable ‘Bunsha’ together with a thief like Miloslavskii can easily rule the country if given power.

On ideological and aesthetic grounds, Bulgakov’s work was judged not to match the requirements of the new Soviet literature. Socio-political questions raised by Bulgakov were destined to be rejected by the ideological critics and censors of the day: the complexity of tragic nuance in the text, which metaphorically presents hidden sides of Soviet reality of the 1930s, the time machine itself as a metaphor for escape from the tragic reality of being a literary outsider in a rapidly changing country. Such potential readings were deemed dangerous for the State.

2. ‘Ivan Vasilievich changes profession’ (1973): laughter through tears

Since 1970 Bulgakov’s literary works have served as a magnet for filmmakers. Their fictional and often fantastic nature invited different readings in adaptations by numerous directors. The play ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ is known today principally through Leonid Gaidai’s comedy ‘Ivan Vasilievich changes profession’ filmed in 1973 with film script written by Vladlen Bakhnov and Leonid Gaidai. As suggested by Elistratov (2010) this is the case when ‘the text by force of circumstances came to “its popularity” in particular through the cinema’ [1, p. 7]. Through this adaptation Bulgakov’s original story has transformed into one of the most watched and most quoted Soviet comedies.

Almost 40 years after ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ was written by Bulgakov, after the death of Stalin, the years of Khrushchev’s Thaw and Brezhnev’s Stagnation, the Soviet public was eager to respond critically to the allusions drawn by Bulgakov many decades previous in the play. The play found a road to its new audience possibly because of Gaidai’s reputation as one of the most prominent directors of his time (although sadly, Gaidai shared something of Bulgakov’s fate, as his talent was not officially recognized by the Soviet authorities).

Gaidai remains broadly true to Bulgakov’s themes while also projecting them on to Gaidai’s audience in ways the 1970s viewer would more immediately connect to. For the film as for the play, the centre of ‘Ivan Vasilievich changes profession’ retains Bulgakov’s proposition of the wrong men in power. His adaptation represents a multidimensional space, where various forms of art coexist and argue. ‘Ivan Vasilievich changes profession’ includes dialogue with contemporary and classic cultures: the late 19th century Repin painting of Ivan the Terrible killing his son hangs on the wall in one scene; elsewhere, allusions to contemporary events of Brezhnev’s Stagnation period would have been familiar to the film-goer of the day. It can also be argued that on a phonetical level, Bunsha’s speech resembles that of a Brezhnev-era Soviet leader: it might in this sense be seen as an irreverent comparison of the insignificant and venal bureaucrat Bunsha with the contemporary political leaders of the USSR.

3. ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ todaytext, film script and ‘winged phrases’ coexisting

Just like other Gaidai films and Bulgakov texts, ‘Ivan Vasilievich changes profession’ remains popular in everyday speech by native Russians. But again, the reading changes – this time through a triangular interaction between the original text, the famous film adaptation and the propensity for popular phrases to take on their own meanings and nuance in vernacular speech.

An internet opinion poll conducted in 2003 by the newspaper Novye Izvestiia and mail service unveiled the 10 most popular quotes from Soviet and Russian films. Number one position was occupied by a quote from Gaidai’s ‘Ivan Vasilievich changes profession’:

‘I demand continuation of the banquet!’ (‘Я требую продолжения банкета!’){^{2}},

This is Gaidai’s transformation of Bulgakov’s original line ‘I demand continuation of the dance!’ (‘Я требую продолжения танца!’){^{3}}. In the book and film, Bunsha acting as Ivan the Terrible utters these words so that a particularly enjoyable experience will continue. Today the phrase is quoted in the sense of ‘let’s not stop, continue!’ [1,  p. 322].

Many contemporary ‘readings’ or ‘applications’ of ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ appear based on an appreciation of Bulgakov’s text through Gaidai’s adaptation, which in turn has been accessed by modern audiences through the vernacular use of some of the most quoted ‘winged phrases’. Bulgakov’s text appears to be not a textual, but rather a linguistic object that exists to a considerable degree in the ‘winged phrases’ format in today’s Russian mind. Many popular lines have no connection to Bulgakov’s play at all and were created by Gaidai. In turn, the lines from Gaidai’s adaptation are transforming into spoken language not necessarily though Gaidai’s film or Bulgakov’s text. According to Kozhevnikov, young Russian speakers confess that ‘only recently, after watching an old national film, they discovered the source of well-known phrase, proverb and so on, which they earlier counted as a favorite joke of their parents or aсquaintanсes’ [3, p. 7].

According to various sources, Gaidai’s adaptation of ‘Ivan Vasilievich’ provided Russian language with between 120 and 162{^{4}} ‘winged phrases’ humorously quoted in daily life and in written language, mainly in the press. Comparative analysis of both the play’s text and film’s script shows that absolute majority of the ‘winged phrases’ from ‘Ivan Vasilievich changes profession’ belongs to Bulgakov or are a result of ‘collaborative input’ by Bulgakov and Gaidai – that is, where the original Bulgakov line is transformed, but is still recognizable. The collective memory of numerous generations, who are now quoting Bulgakov’s and Gaidai’s texts created in USSR – the country which no longer exists – has brought cultural and historical meaning that Bulgakov put into his text into 21st century Russia. In this way, the text remains faithful to its literary ‘Master’.


In the case of Bulgakov’s ‘Ivan Vasilievich’, a play script has an ability to morph to film and to ‘winged phrase’. What will be of particular interest in this example is how the play will transform again in the future. Will future Russian speakers stay connected to Soviet literature and cinema? To find an answer, perhaps, engineer Timofeev’s time machine is required – if it wasn’t just his dream.


1 See Ivan Vasilievich, Bulgakovskaia entsiklopediia, 2016, viewed 1st June 2016, <>
2 See Bakanov, K 2005, Banket prodolzhaetsia, viewed 4th June 2016, <>
3 Quoted from Bulgakov, M 2016, Ivan Vasilievich, viewed 5th June 2016, <>
4 Based on data from, Жить, как говорится, хорошо! А хорошо жить – ещё лучше! Афоризмы из кинофильмов / Сост. Титова А. Н. – М.: Центрполиграф, 2009. – 509 с. and Кожевников А. Ю. Большой словарь: Крылатые фразы отечественного кино. – СПб.: «Издательский Дом “Нева”»; М.: «ОЛМА-ПРЕСС», 2011. – 831 с.


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