Monday, April 29, 2013

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940)

The aftermath of Stalin's regime left a trail of destruction in its wake, both structurally and psychologically; although Bulgakov finished writing The Master and Margarita in the 1940's it wasn't officially published until the 1960's when The Era of Stagnation under Brezhnev was just beginning, creating an atmosphere of vapidity that made an interesting counterpoint to Bulgakov's novel. Under Stalin, Russian life was filled with a grim sense of helplessness and unpredictability, friends and family were encouraged to report unpatriotic behavior on their loved ones, neighbors would accuse neighbors of anything simply to be able to take over another room and expand their apartments;  the climate under Stalin was filled with suspicion and dread. At any moment a loved one could disappear into the Gulag Archipelago, perhaps never to be seen or heard from again. 

In 1946, the Soviet Union passed the Zhdanov Doctrine, dividing the world into two camps, that of the imperialistic world headed by the United States, and the democratic, headed by the Soviet Union. The main principle of the Zhdanov Doctrine was summarized by the phrase "The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best." Meaning, that for Soviet artists and writers and the intelligentsia they could either conform to the party line or they would suffer the repercussions...

The Master and Margarita follows three interwoven narratives. The first being that Professor Woland (i.e. Satan) and his retinue and the havoc they reek on Moscow. It is a satire of the demonic vs. the literary powers and the imposed normalcy of Soviet life under the Great Terror of the 1930's. The professor is introduced interrupting a discussion between a poet and an editor that work for a Soviet anti-religious propaganda magazine, they are disputing the existence of Christ. Woland, who saunters up holding a cane with the head of a poodle, (one of the many references to Faust's Mephistopheles) after a few pleasantries begins to dismantle their arguments against the plausibility of the Christ story and the existence of God. As a representative of the "other world" Woland argues that God must exist, without heaven there can be no hell, or rather God exists because the evidence of Satan is inarguable. He then begins his foray into Muscovite life, upending the predictable and followed by a posse of buffoons reeking havoc and disorder on all they come into contact with, specifically the literati.

One of Woland's arguments for the Christ story, is that he was there, so therefor it must have happened; an argument that tends to confirm the suspicion of his insanity rather than the veracity of his theory. He then begins a narration about Pontius Pilate, thus introducing us to the second narrative. The Pontius Pilate narrative hinges on one of Bulgakov's aphorisms, "Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.." Arguing that it was simply cowardice that caused Pilate to agree to the death sentence for Yeshua,  who seemed little more than a pacifistic philosopher. Although neither Stalin or Caesar make appearances in the narrative in person, they are omnipresent in their imposed inarguable will that has become the measure of morality and the construct of reality. During his brief encounter with Yeshua, Pilate becomes certain that this man, while perhaps possessing some supernatural power, is not harmful in the slightest. But when Yeshua says something that does not conform to the party line :

"Among other things", the prisoner recounted, "I said that all authority is violence over people, and that a time will come when there will be no authority of the Caesars, nor any other authority. Man will pass into the kingdom of truth and justice, where generally there will be no need for any authority."

Pilate, after hearing this blasphemy against party doctrine, has no choice but to hand Yeshua over to be murdered, while a murderer, Barabbas, is released to go free. Apparently murder is less of a threat than controversial philosophies. After Yeshua is led away to be crucified, Pilate is overcome with the shame of his cowardice. He must then spend two thousand years in limbo reliving his shame and muttering the same mantra under his breath over and over again.

"He says that even the moon gives him no peace, and that his is a bad job. That is what he always says when he is not asleep, and when he sleeps he dreams one and the same thing: there is a path of moonlight, and he wants to walk down it and talk with the prisoner Ha-Nozri, because, as he insists, he never finished what he was saying that time, long ago, on the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan. But alas, for some reason he never manages to get on to this path, and no one ever comes to him. Then there's no help for it, he must talk to himself."

The third narrative is about the writer, representing the intelligentsia, responsible for writing truth and upholding the triumph of poetry, imagination and the free world over the terror of oppression. This writer, the master, has been struggling with a manuscript about Pontius Pilate for years, he has begun over and over and has finally been driven to madness, leaving all he has behind him, including the beautiful Margarita, his helpmate and companion. He has checked himself into an asylum, where he waits for the confidence to challenge the rule of terror that has strangled the artists and writers around him, he waits in limbo for his salvation.

The characters of the Master and Margarita are based on Bulgakov and his second wife, Elena Sergeevna, who like Margarita, was married to a high ranking official. Elena and Margarita encourage the writers to survive, they believe in them and in the importance of their work. While the master is hidden away in the asylum, Margarita makes a bargain with Satan in order to find the master and restore him to his little basement where they have spent many countless hours together working on their manuscript,  for it is as much hers as it is his. Margarita is the true heroine of this book, representing true love and personal courage, willing to defy everything that comes between her and the master, whether it is societal conventions, party politics or the constrictions of reality. She embarks on a journey into the bowels of hell, becomes the Queen of Satan's ball and must give up her identity, as she is stripped of her own being in exchange for the body of a witch, and all this to pursue the master, so that she might help him to finish his story and find rest.

When finally, Woland has agreed to give both the master and Margarita peace, he takes them on a journey where they must first leave all that they are and have behind and that culminates with the meeting of the object of the master's obsession, Pilate.

"The master seemed to have been expecting this, as he stood motionless and looked at the seated procurator  he cupped his hands to his mouth and cried out so that the echo leaped over the unpeopled and unforested mountains: "You're free! You're free! He's waiting for you!"

Releasing Pilate from his two thousand years in limbo to finally finish his discussion with the philosopher, while simultaneously discovering peace for himself in limbo where the artist will finally be free, surrounded by the stillness and peace not granted to him in life.


  1. I read that about five years ago, because I had a crush on a girl who was studying Russian Literature. :-P I liked the book, but also remember being a bit put off by the different tones in the parallel narratives: The parts featuring Azazello in Moscow are swift, comical, and farcical; but the parts featuring Jesus are somber, melancholy, and disturbing. I don't think I ever fond a way to reconcile the two modes.

  2. I know what you mean. After reading and falling in love with Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov is somewhat shocking. The buffoonery is a little over the top and at first all the oblique references seemed sly and super intelligent...but after awhile seemed somewhat incoherent. What I appreciated about Solzhenitsyn is there is no reading between the lines. His narratives describe a harsh reality that is baffling to even comprehend, and yet people survive and ultimately I think that's what his narratives champion, survival. I'm not really sure what Bulgakov championed. It seemed like he was struggling to be honest in a hostile and unappreciative environment and maybe that's what the Master and Margarita is about at its most distilled level? The hero needs someone to pick up the pieces and put him back together? I actually have no idea. At first I loved this book and was blown away that I had never heard of Bulgakov...and by the end I felt sort of nonplussed and a little burnt out. How'd the crush turn out? Did you at least end up having some good discussions? :-)

  3. We had a few good discussions, but it went nowhere, so I gave up :P


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