Out of the Wings

You are here:

Cartas de amor a Stalin (c.1998), Juan Mayorga Ruano

English title: Love Letters to Stalin
Date written: c. 1998
First publication date: 1999
First production date: September 1999
Keywords: art, art > theatre, history, identity, ideology, ideology > politics, power > inter-personal/game play, power, power > use and abuse
Genre and type: magic realism, tragedy

On 18 April 1930, the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov received a personal phone call from Stalin. The two men talked about the censorship of Bulgakov’s work, but ultimately nothing was resolved. Cartas de amor a Stalin (Love Letters to Stalin) imagines the devastating effects of that phone call on the writer, as it explores the complex relationship between power and art.


In a small apartment in Moscow, the playwright Bulgakov spends his time writing letters to Stalin. Bulgakov’s work has been censored, and he is desperate to convince Stalin either to allow him to write as he pleases, or to let him leave the Soviet Union for good. His wife Bulgakova does all she can to support him. She performs as Stalin, hoping that the role-play will help her husband write the most persuasive letter possible. But Stalin has still not replied to Bulgakov, and Bulgakova is growing impatient. She wants her husband to put his energies into creating new plays, even if they cannot be performed, rather than writing pleading letters to a dictator who will probably never respond.

But Bulgakov’s letters may not have been as ineffective as Bulgakova believes. In scene 2, while Bulgakova is once again performing as Stalin, the phone rings. Bulgakov answers it, and we listen as he appears to speak to the actual Stalin on the phone. Stalin proposes that the two men meet. Before the meeting is arranged, however, the phone line goes dead. This moment of frustrated communication marks the beginning of Bulgakov’s retreat into his own imagination. While Bulgakova tries to find a practical way for them both to leave the Soviet Union, Bulgakov spends his days beside the phone, waiting for Stalin to ring back and confirm a meeting. The phone never rings, and we begin to wonder if Bulgakov imagined the whole thing. And indeed, Bulgakov soon starts to see and hear an imaginary Stalin. This Stalin can only be seen by Bulgakov and the audience, but never by Bulgakova. At times, Stalin seems to be on Bulgakov’s side, helping him craft the ‘perfect letter’ to send to the actual dictator. At other times, the imaginary figure is harsh and capricious, offering Bulgakov spurious reasons why he is unable to authorise the writer’s request to go abroad.

As the play progresses, Bulgakov becomes even more distracted by his conversations with Stalin. He hardly notices when his friend and fellow writer Evgeny Zamiatin calls to say goodbye. Zamiatin has also written a letter to Stalin. Unlike Bulgakov, however, he has been granted permission to leave the Soviet Union. Bulgakov continues to sit by the phone and write letters. But these letters are never sent, and just lie strewn around the stage. Eventually, Bulgakova finds a way to leave the country. She urges Bulgakov to come with her, but he is still waiting for the phone to ring. In the end, Bulgakov falls silent, despondently listening to his imaginary Stalin pontificate on censorship. There is, however, a small glimmer of hope. Before she leaves her husband forever, Bulgakova picks up his last play and takes it with her. Perhaps, then, Bulgakov’s voice will live on through his art, even though he himself remains a prisoner to his imagination - fixated on his letters, on his fictional Stalin and on the phone that never rings.


Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940)

Mikhail Bulgakov was a novelist and playwright whose work was censored repeatedly under Stalin’s regime. Theatres refused to stage his plays and he was forbidden from leaving the country. Nevertheless, Stalin did approve of some of his dramas, including Days of the Turbins and helped him find work in theatres, including the Moscow Arts Theatre for a time. This ambivalent relationship between dictator and artist reflects the ‘cat-and-mouse-game’ that Stalin played with a number of playwrights and novelists, and is itself reflected in the relationships between Stalin and Bulgakov in the play (Curtis 1991: 112). Bulgakov is probably best known for his novel The Master and Margarita. He in fact died before completing this work, and it was not published until 1973 by his third wife. Love Letters to Stalin has an echo of this posthumous publication, as Bulgakova leaves at the end taking Bulgakov’s last play with her.

The letters to Stalin and the phone call

Cartas de amor a Stalin (Love Letters to Stalin) was inspired by a book of letters that Juan Mayorga came across by chance. The letters were all addressed to Stalin, written by the Russian authors Mikhail Bulgakov and Evgeny Zamiatin (1884-1937), requesting that he lift the censorship of their work. Mayorga was particularly struck by the fact that all but one of the letters were written by Bulgakov. Mayorga uses some of the actual letters in his play.

The momentous phone call that precipitates Bulgakov’s retreat into his own imagination is based on an actual phone call between Stalin and Bulgakov that took place on 18 April 1930. Stalin asked Bulgakov whether he did indeed wish to leave the Soviet Union, to which Bulgakov replied that no writer could live outside their homeland. For the rest of his life, Bulgakov was filled with regrets about how he had handled this phone call.

  • Curtis. J. A. E. 1991. Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov. A Life in Letters and Diaries. Woodstock, New York, The Overlook Press

Critical response

Cartas de amor a Stalin (Love Letters to Stalin) is an award-winning play. It opened the prestigious Centro Dramático Nacional’s 1999 season in Madrid, and was very well received. The play has been translated into many languages and performed in a range of places including South America, the United States and a number of European countries.

  • Mayorga, Juan. 1999. Cartas de amor a Stalin, Primer acto, 280, 65-88

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2000. Cartas de amor a Stalin, Signa: Revista de la Asociación Española de Semiótica, 9, 211-55

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2000. Cartas de amor a Stalin. Madrid, Fundación Autor, SGAE

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2002. Cartas de amor a Stalin, CELCIT: Dramática latinoamericana, 102. Available for free download at http://www.celcit.org.ar/publicaciones/dla.php [accessed February 2011] (Online Publication)

Useful readings and websites
  • Bulgakov, Mikhail. 2004. The Master and Margarita, trans. Michael Glenny. London, Random House Vintage

  • Curtis. J. A. E. 1991. Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov. A Life in Letters and Diaries. Woodstock, New York, The Overlook Press

Similar plays

(Similar plays are automatically suggested by our system based on similar fields such as genres and types or keywords.)

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 1 April 2011.

Tag this play

You must be logged in to add tags. Please log in or sign up for a free account.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment. Please log in or sign up for a free account.

  • King's College London Logo
  • Queen's University Belfast Logo
  • University of Oxford Logo
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council Logo