Four sisters and two brothers: What happened to Mikhail Bulgakov’s family

May 24

On 15 May 1891 (3 May according to the Julian Calendar) in Kiev, church historian Afanasy Bulgakov and his wife, teacher Varvara, had their first son. They named the boy Mikhail, after the patron saint of Kiev, the Archangel Michael. The family gradually grew larger, with the birth of four girls and two more boys.

Musically gifted, educated and well-read, the Bulgakov children were raised with love and care. The siblings supported each other throughout their lives; they helped one another through troubles, had terrible fights and missed each other a lot when apart. Read the life stories of Bulgakov’s six younger brothers and sisters in this publication co-authored by and the Mosgortur travel agency.


In 1892, the Bulgakov family had their second child, a daughter named Vera. She sang in a choir, adored theatre and performed in every drama performance at the Bulgakov family home on Andriyivskyy Descent (Andreyevsky Spusk) in Kiev and at their country house in Bucha. Home performances were a family tradition.  As his younger sisters remembered, it was Mikhail who always wrote the scripts.

In accordance with their father’s wishes, all the Bulgakov girls studied at a Lutheran school based at the St Catherine’s Church in Kiev, commonly called a German school. After graduation, Vera entered the Froebel Education Institute that trained private tutors for pre-school children and kindergarten teachers.

The Bulgakov children, Mikhail, Vera, Nadezhda, Varvara, Nikolai, Ivan and Yelena

During WWI, the young woman worked at a Saratov hospital with her older brother. Mikhail was a doctor and she worked as a nurse. Vera returned to nursing during the Great Patriotic War relying on her brother’s mentorship from her younger years. The writer was very close to Vera until his other sisters grew up. He shared his dreams with her and trusted her with the manuscripts that he sent to Kiev while he was doing a military service in North Caucasus.

The Bulgakov children, Mikhail, Varvara, Nadezhda, Vera, Nikolai, Ivan and Yelena in the garden at the family’s country house in Bucha

In 1921 he wrote to her:

“I’m sorry that I can’t send you my plays. First, they are cumbersome; second, they are not printed but typewritten, and third, they are nonsense. With this letter, I am sending you my latest feuilleton, Education Week, a completely ridiculous piece full of local humour. I wish I could send you something different but it has not been a productive time.” (a quote from The Bulgakov Encyclopaedia by Boris Sokolov)

Vera married Nikolai Davydov, the great-grandson of prominent poet and partisan Denis Davydov, whom she met in the early 1920s. The couple moved to Moscow. They never had any children. Vera’s life had a tragic end. In the 1960s, she suffered from a serious mental disorder and could no longer recognise anybody. Her husband took care of her. After he died in 1971, the family put Vera in a mental institution in the Moscow Region where she spent the rest of her life.


Mikhail Bulgakov’s second sister was born a year after Vera. She was a powerhouse, a live wire and was in charge of all family events. In 1912, Nadezhda moved to Moscow where she studied history and linguistics at the Higher Courses for Women founded by historian Vladimir Guerrier. The study programme included an extensive module on law so the young woman received a versatile education.

Nadezhda eventually became Mikhail’s closest sibling. She kept a very detailed journal that she wanted to use as the basis of a biography of her brother. Nadya was the one sister to whom young Mikhail told about  his dream of becoming a writer and whom he showed his first attempts at writing.

Nadezhda and Mikhail Bulgakov

In 1917, Nadezhda married philologist Andrei Zemskoi, a Moscow University alumnus. A year after the wedding, they moved to Samara where Nadezhda became a teacher. The couple had three daughters, Yelena, who died as an infant, Olga and another Yelena, named after the deceased first daughter. In 1921, the family returned to Moscow and moved into Flat 50 at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. Later that year, Mikhail Bulgakov also returned to the city and in the autumn, moved in at the same address.

Varvara and Nadezhda Bulgakov

Nadezhda Zemskaya ’s whole life was dedicated to teaching. In different years, she was a school director and worked at the Vladimir Potyomkin Moscow Institute of Education. In 1931, when her husband was arrested for counterrevolutionary activity and sent to Siberia for five years, Nadezhda lost her job as a school director and was evicted from her tied apartment and moved into a bunkhouse, with her two children. She visited her husband in exile twice and in 1934, she managed to get a review of his case, thanks to the literary critic Isaac Nusinov, who vehemently criticised her brother’s works. Zemskoi was acquitted one year before the end of his sentence. For a long time, Mikhail Bulgakov could not forgive his sister for her friendly relationship with his enemy. His third wife, Yelena, could not forgive Nadezhda either. In her 1933 journal, Yelena wrote:

“Nadezhda visited. It turns out, she is friends with Nusinov, the same critic who meticulously attacked The Days of the Turbans a while back and generally dissected Mikhail’s works – in particular, he wrote a very hostile article for the Literature Encyclopedia.”

Nadezhda was at her brother’s side when he was dying and begged him for his permission to write family memoirs. But Bulgakov would not be persuaded. She later recalled her brother’s preemptory words: “Who wants to read about an uncle’s visit and the toys he brought? You need to know how to write. It must be written by a person who knows about journalistic style, the principles of journalism and the principles of creative writing.”

Nadezhda Zemskaya lived a long life and died of heart disease at the age of 78.

Nadezhda Bulgakova


Bulgakov’s mother’s favourite child, also named after her, was affectionately called Varyusha by the family. Cheerful and pretty, she was a skilful guitar and piano player and a singer. After secondary school, Varvara began a professional piano course at the Kiev Conservatory but she only completed three years of study. In 1917, the young woman married a Baltic German officer, Leonid Karum.

Varvara openly expressed her feelings for her husband while he had more practical reasons for marrying her. “Varenka attracted my attention in the first place because of her excellent reputation and her social circle. Also, I believed that it would grant me membership of a society of intellectuals. Varenka was a daughter of the late Theological Academy professor,” he admitted in his autobiography titled My Life: A Story Without Lies.

Varvara Bulgakova

Karum did not get along with his wife’s oldest brother from the very beginning. Mikhail Bulgakov was irritated by his brother-in-law’s pedantry and constantly-changing political beliefs. Karum showed up at his wedding to Varvara wearing a red armband, symbolising the new power in Ukraine. It was a moment that decided everything for Bulgakov who supported the White Movement. If the two men ran into each other on the street, they never said hello and pretended they did not know each other. Later Mikhail based one of his characters on Karum. It was Captain Sergei Talberg, a villain from The White Guard. The family had a falling-out. Mikhail’s sister could never forgive him for such an insult. In 1925, she started a fight with him, after which they were never on speaking terms again.

Here is how Bulgakov’s second wife, Lyubov Belozerskaya, recalled the event:

“We had a visit from Mikhail’s sister Varvara who was the model for the character Yelena in The White Guard and then The Days of the Turbans. She conducted herself like a furious princess. She was offended on behalf of her husband who is depicted in the novel as a villain named Talberg. She did not exchange a word with me and left. Mikhail was confused.” (The Bulgakov Encyclopaedia by Boris Sokolov)

Varvara Bulgakova with her children

Varvara moved around a lot with her husband who served in the military regardless of who was in power at the time. She studied German part-time at the Moscow Higher Foreign Language Courses. She also finished accounting courses and continued to practice music. At various times, she worked as a German translator and teacher, a private music tutor, and a nursery teacher. When in 1931 her husband was once again arrested and exiled to Novosibirsk, Varvara sold their flat in Kiev, took her daughter and followed Karum. Leonid taught German at the Novosibirsk Medical Institute and was later promoted to head of the foreign language department while Varvara was a German teacher at a teachers’ college until 1954.

Twenty years after moving to Novosibirsk, she died of sclerosis, in a mental hospital.


Yelena, or Lyolya as her family called her, was the youngest child. While her older sisters resembled their mother, she looked very much like their dad. Short and dark-haired, with grey eyes, the young woman stood out from her tall blonde sisters. Her health was poor but nevertheless, she was a cheerful and chirpy child. Lyolya was a good student and, after graduating from school in Kiev in 1923, she was accepted into the Philology Department of Moscow University.

She would often visit her brother and his first wife. It was in their house that she met Bulgakov’s friend, the writer Valentin Katayev. The young people fell in love – but Mikhail was against their romance because of his friend’s modest financial means. When Katayev asked for Yelena’s hand in marriage, Bulgakov rejected his proposal. The patriarch of the Bulgakov family had already passed away and Mikhail had taken on his role. Nadezhda spoke to Yelena and soon the young woman stopped seeing Katayev. The two writers eventually broke off their friendship.

Yelena Bulgakova

As a distraction, Nadezhda introduced Lyolya to her husband’s friend, linguist Mikhail Svetlayev. In February 1925, Yelena got married and moved in with her husband.

Lyola was a school librarian while Svetlayev taught at the Moscow Education Institute and worked on Russian language textbooks with Nadezhda’s husband, Alexei Zemskoi. After their daughter Varya was born in 1929, the family moved to a communal flat in Maly Karetny Pereulok where they were visited by Yelena’s sisters with their families. Varvara’s daughter Irina Karum wrote in her journal:

“The Svetlayev household was very hospitable and always frequented by guests. When my mother and I visited Moscow, we stayed with the Svetlayevs. Our whole family from all over the city would come over, with their husbands, wives and children. The Bulgakov family were a noisy, quick-witted and joyful bunch.”

Yelena always stayed connected to her brother. She maintained a relationship with all of Mikhail’s wives, took care of him when he fell ill and visited him almost every day during his last year. The Svetlayevs did not have a phone in their flat so they communicated with their family via postcards and letters.

Yelena Bulgakova

From 1941, Yelena and her daughter lived in Novosibirsk with Varvara. Yelena taught Russian and literature at two institutes. In 1943, Lyolya returned to Moscow and was soon diagnosed with heart disease. She died of a stroke at home with her husband by her side at the age of 52. 

Nikolai and Ivan

The lives of Bulgakov’s two younger brothers were closely intertwined. Like Mikhail, Nikolai and Ivan, who were born just a year apart, studied at the Emperor Alexander Gymnasium – although Ivan did not graduate because of the outbreak of the revolution. Nikolai followed in his brother’s footsteps and in 1918 he was admitted to the medical school of the St Vladimir Imperial Kiev University (now Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev). He studied there for only two months before all educational institutions were closed.

Nikolai and Ivan joined the White Army. They met again in Crimea in the early 1920 where they served in two separate military units defending the peninsula under the command of General Yakov Slashchyov (he served as the model for the General Khludov character in Bulgakov’s Flight).

After leaving Crimea with the Russian South Armed Forces, the Bulgakov brothers ended up in the Gallipoli camp (near the Greek town of Gallipoli). After the camp was disbanded in 1921, the brothers parted ways. Ivan followed the army to Bulgaria where he married a Russian émigrée.

Nikolai Bulgakov

Nikolai went to Zagreb in Croatia where he enrolled in a medical school again. After finishing his studies, the young man stayed on at the department of bacteriology and his research was soon noticed by French professor Félix d'Hérelle who invited Nikolai to Paris in 1929. It was there that Nikolai became a world-renowned scientist and a prominent doctor and microbiologist. Soon after moving to France, Nikolai married a daughter of a Russian professor and emigre. In 1941, as a subject of Yugoslavia, he was arrested by German invaders and assigned to be a physician at a detention camp near Compiegne. Nikolai was a member of the French Resistance for which he later received an order from the Yugoslavian government. In 1966, Nikolai Bulgakov was awarded the highest order of merit in France, the Legion of Honour, for his scientific work.

In 1930, Ivan Bulgakov also arrived in Paris. He moved to France with his family at the invitation of his brother. A skillful balalaika player since childhood, Ivan joined a band at a Russian restaurant where he worked for the rest of his life. In 1931, he wrote to Mikhail:

“I am a musician now. I play balalaika, solo and with a band. I am married and have a daughter, Ira. She is seven years old. I really want to stay in touch with you – as long as it does not interfere with your life and work. I have been writing myself – many things, mostly poetry and some prose. I would love to share it with you. It is easier for me now that I am close to Kolya. I used to feel lonely and isolated from everybody.” (from The Bulgakov Encyclopaedia by Boris Sokolov)

In 1934–1935, Mikhail Bulgakov applied for permission to travel to France but his request was refused. He had not seen his brothers once since 1919 when he joined the army. For the remainder of his life, they communicated only by letter.

Nikolai and Ivan both died at the age of 68 and were buried at the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery in Paris.


If you continue to use our website, you are agreeing to accept the use of cookies on your device. Cookie files ensure the website’s efficiency and help us provide you with the most interesting and relevant information. Read more about cookie files.
Accept ccokies