In the late 1930s, during the throes of Joseph Stalin’s repressive regime, Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov lay in bed suffering from kidney disease and furiously writing what would become one of the most famous satires of the Soviet Union, “The Master and Margarita.”
Despite his painful and debilitating illness, Bulgakov finished the book—about a trip to the Soviet Union by the Devil—just four weeks before his death in 1940, a fact that got two researchers wondering whether he had been using some sort of medicine to ease his pain while writing.
The curious duo—Pier Giorgio Righetti at the Polytechnic University of Milan and Gleb Zilberstein at sensors firm Spectrophon—analyzed 10 random pages of the famous manuscript and found traces of morphine at levels that ranged between 2 and 100 ng/cm2. They also detected a metabolite of morphine called 6-O-acetyl morphine and three protein biomarkers of nephrotic disease, Bulgakov’s kidney ailment (J. Proteomics 2015, DOI: 10.1016/j.jprot.2015.11.002). Bulgakov probably left behind evidence of his drug use from sweat on his fingertips and/or saliva used to turn pages, Righetti explains.
To analyze the manuscript, the team applied to its surface a layer of two beads commonly used in chromatography: strong cation exchangers, for removing charged proteins, and crushed-up hydrophobic beads, for capturing hydrophobic molecules. The researchers then removed the beads from the paper and analyzed them with GC/MS. Thanks to contacts in the Moscow Police, the team was able to compare its samples with morphine standards from 1940s Russia, Righetti adds.
“I can very easily see the technique applied to other types of objects, graphic arts, sculptures, and paintings,” comments Matija Strlic at University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage. “Traces are always left behind by the artist that could be analyzed and thus shed light on the artist’s life and struggles,” he says.
Strlic would, however, like to see further studies proving that the method doesn’t cause any unforeseen long-term damage to valuable pieces of cultural heritage. He wonders, for example, whether some of the beads used to remove chemical traces from the manuscript might have penetrated and remained behind in the paper’s fibrous structure and what long-term effect this might have on the document.