The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Master and Margarita cvr

Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel will come as a surprise to those who assume that fiction produced during the Soviet period conforms slavishly to the tenets of socialist realism, as defined by the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers.  On the contrary, The Master and Margarita defies genre, and its meaning remains elusive, which is why its richness has ensured its survival when so many of Bulgakov’s contemporaries who toed the party line have been forgotten.

Defining it is an impossible task: is it symbolic, an allegory of political life in a repressive regime, is it a wish-fulfilment fantasy, or an extended meditation on the nature of good and evil and moral responsibility?  Is it a riposte to dialectical materialism and a Marxian view of social structures?  It is all of these things and it cannot be contained by single interpretations (so don’t expect one here).  It seems to owe as much to the adventurous experiments in art and drama that occurred during the early years of the revolution, before the state imposed a strict ideological orthodoxy, as it does to literary antecedents.

The book intertwines several stories: a satirical portrait of Moscow including what can only be characterised as the state visit of the Satanic Woland and his retinue, creating mischief as they tour the city; the story of Pilate in Jerusalem (or rather Yershalaim) and his meeting with Jesus (Yeshua Ha-Notsri), including the latter’s crucifixion and its aftermath; and, introduced surprisingly late in the narrative, the story of Margarita and the man she calls The Master.  Despite the title, Woland is the figure who has the most agency and makes the greatest impact.

Bulgakov’s Woland is unlike the popular conception of the Devil.  He appears to be a likeable chap but has an edge of menace under his urbane exterior and displays a ruthless streak when he chooses.  He has supernatural powers, including the ability to predict precisely the outlandish circumstances of a death, transport a person to Yalta, and appear and disappear at will.  He can be cruel, but he is more a trickster figure than a personification of evil.  As his gang rampages round the city the authorities choose to interpret these goings-on in prosaic terms, such as mass hypnotism.  Bulgakov is saying that the human mind is capable of rationalising phenomena that do not fit within our everyday frameworks, so it could be argued that he came up with the idea of cognitive dissonance decades before Leon Festinger.

Woland inhabits a Manichean universe in which goodness and badness are necessary as the background against which moral choices can be made, but it is not a world of just deserts.  The good are rewarded, though sometimes inconvenienced as well, the bad may be punished, often excessively, but it is not a straightforward system because life is not like that.  He can exhibit compassion, which would have contrasted favourably with the typical behaviour of the NKVD.

Bulgakov tweaks the nose of Soviet atheism at the outset by having Woland contradict Berlioz and Ivan when they parrot the official line on religion, telling them that Jesus and Pilate were real individuals.  But the Pilate sections are presented as a straight historical account, shorn of religious references, indicating that Christianity is a superstructure erected by later commentators.  As Bulgakov depicts it, Jesus lived, but the gospels are totally at odds with the facts, having been twisted by Matthew.  (A stage production I saw recently in Cambridge had the same actor play Woland and Aphranius, Pilate’s chief spy, which was an interesting piece of casting; Woland says he was present, so why not in the guise of Aphranius?)  The emphasis is on realpolitik in the Roman Empire that is not so far removed from Soviet politics.  It is a novel about being true to one’s principles when facing adversity, but it also shows how those principles can be reinterpreted later to suit the agenda of others.

Also failing to stay true to his principles, the master is broken because he is separated from his beloved and has disavowed his novel, which he has burned because of his treatment by the literary establishment.    Separated from the wellspring of his life, his unwillingness to fight further for what he believes in sees him living in a mental hospital.  By contrast Margarita, the stronger of the pair, never loses her faith in him.  For her true love she is willing to give up the shallow life she enjoys with her husband in their spacious well-appointed apartment, a sacrifice because we know from other comments Bulgakov makes about Moscow’s housing shortage that such comfort is rare.  She is prepared to fight for what she believes in, to the extent of making a bargain with the devil if it will help her in her quest to be reunited with the master, so after her flight (in both senses) into the unknown she returns to Moscow to become the queen at Woland’s ball.

Despite the fantastic elements the novel has semi-autobiographical elements, a plea for the artist to be given creative freedom, even if that means living in straitened means in a basement.   It is easy to forget that Bulgakov was not a native Muscovite but was Ukrainian, though he lived in Moscow from 1921, a background that gave him an outsider’s view of his adopted city.  He posits a way to manage the horrors of the Stalinist period: through the imagination.  In a monolithic culture that cannot be changed politically, the best that can be achieved is to carve out a space where fantasy can be given free rein.  The risk, as Bulgakov found, and as the master learns as well when he tries to have his manuscript about Pontius Pilate published, is that the response to works that fall outside the cultural norms is suppression and denigration.  Yet these individual efforts can still have an effect eventually, as happened in 1966 when a version of the book was finally published to public acclaim, over a quarter of a century after Bulgakov’s death.

The Master and Margarita is a Russian doll that has a post-modern feel: Pilate is created by the master (who can ultimately give him peace) but the master is created by Bulgakov.  The master knows how his book will end, and these are the words that ends Bulgakov’s book as well.  Bulgakov becomes the master, yet in disposing of his characters as he chooses he has much in common with Woland the arch-manipulator, or rather, because ultimately Woland is constrained in his actions by being part of a greater scheme, Bulgakov is superior to Woland because he experiences no constraints – at least within the confines of his imagination.

Bulgakov’s lightness of tone contrasts with the grim circumstances under which his book was written.  At the same time his flights of fancy tell us as much about the difficulties of life in Moscow for its ordinary citizens and its intellectual elite as a realist novel would.  Humour, often slapstick, is aimed at the Muscovite pseudo-intellectual literary elite (a suit without a body with no will of its own) which it is clear Bulgakov despised.  The mental institution where the master and Ivan are held is a place of calm and rationality compared to the madness of the city.

Despite the humour, fearfulness permeates the book, in both the modern and ancient settings.  In that sense they are not so far apart, Stalin the counterpart of the distant Caesar.  Meanwhile Jesus, a proto-Communist who is killed as an enemy of the establishment, can be contrasted with Stalin, an avowed Communist who murders for what he sees as the interests of the establishment.  Moscow is shown to be a dangerous place, people disappearing, Berlioz dying horribly as he is going to report Woland to the authorities, the ease with which unwanted callers can be got rid of by saying that the person they wish to see has been arrested, then asking the callers for their names.   Bulgakov shows that contrary to belief, a socialist system has not changed human nature for the better.  People still have the same attitudes and weaknesses they had under capitalism: greed, vanity, selfishness and stupidity.

Even so, the novel displays the quality of mercy, most notably Margarita’s appeal on behalf of Frieda, forever tormented for having killed her baby.  All the strands of the novel are transcended by the love between the master and Margarita, one that seems hopeless but which prevails in death.  Woland shows compassion to the master and Margarita, allowing them to live together in peace in their ‘eternal home’, a sociable afterlife of intellectual stimulation that must feel like heaven to a writer.  There is pathos, but it is never sentimental.

Is the novel ultimately optimistic or pessimistic?  There is a sense that the world remains the same whatever barbarities take place, yet things do finally turn out well, though we may have to wait for the afterlife, where eventually all is forgiven.  The master and Margarita, however, are exceptional individuals and it cannot be assumed that their fates are representative of all; what about the mass of humanity?  We can only hope that we too are vouchsafed an ‘eternal home’.

Bulgakov was friendly with another writer who had his share of difficulties with the Soviet government and who like Bulgakov appealed directly to Stalin for help: Yevgeny Zamyatin.  Michael Glenny in his introduction to an English translation of Zamyatin’s We, first published in 1970, reproduces Zamyatin’s lengthy letter to Stalin, dated June 1931.  In it he writes:

‘…just as the Christians once invented the devil as the most convenient personification of every kind of evil, so the critics have made me into the devil of Soviet literature.  Spitting at the devil counts as a good deed, and everyone who could has spat at me.’

It is entirely possible that Bulgakov knew the contents of this letter, and one wonders whether Woland is Bulgakov’s revenge on a system that cast both Zamyatin and himself as devils and tried to ruin their careers.  The Master and Margarita had a rocky road to publication, mirroring the master’s book about Pilate in being destroyed and resurrected.  In the end the master’s book is completed, against all the odds, and similarly, thanks to his wife, so was Bulgakov’s.  A theme in The Master and Margarita is that the greatest sin is cowardice, and  its existence is proof that Bulgakov was no coward.

M&M Amsterdam

Showing my admiration for the book, Amsterdam June 2014


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