The Master and Margarita: A Stalinist Fantasy

Well, but with sorcery, as everyone knows, once it starts, there’s no stopping it. p. 103

Mikhail Bulgakov’s cult masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, one of the finest classics of 20th Century Russian literature, has not more than once been publicized as a criticism of Stalin’s soviet republic. The fact that it was published not until a quarter of a century after Bulgakov’s death, during Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinization,” perhaps, helped gain currency to this commonplace.

The multi-layered tale of Satan’s personal visit to Moscow, the havoc his grotesque gang wreaked, a woman’s quest to save her lover, and a revisionist account of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ’s last days, is often held up as a satirical attack against a “totalitarian” regime.

The highly unconventional novel, however, seems to rebel from such a simplistic stereotyping. Certain angles may even point to a playful endorsement of Stalin.

Eternally works good

In Master and Margarita, those punished by Satan (who appears in the novel as a magician named Woland) and his merry henchmen included corrupt officials, inefficient bureaucrats, and pretentious members of Moscow’s art community.

Among them, for example, is Styopa Likhodeev, the director of the variety theater. His crime:

‘Generally has been up to some terrible swinishness lately. Drinking, using their positions to have liaisons with women, don’t do devil a thing, and can’t do anything, because they don’t know anything of what they’re supposed to do. Pulling the wool over their superiors, eyes.’ p.114

Also punished was a corrupt barman of the Variety Theatre who hoarded “Two hundred and forty-nine thousand roubles in five saving banks… and two hundred ten-rouble gold pieces at home under the floor.” He served green Feta cheese (which ought to be white), added tap water to the tea in the buffet, and offered sturgeon of second freshness (which is, in short, rotten).

In another office, an entire staff of bureaucrats, magically turned into a choir, could not stop singing. And why? Because the manager “suffered from a mania for organizing all sorts of little clubs.” This could be read as a criticism of the regime’s systematic collective mobilization of the populace, for political purposes. An alternative would be that this little club mentioned are precisely attacked because they are outside the ambit of the party…

Meanwhile, we have the members of the Moscow literary association or Massolit in short, conversing amongst themselves, arguing: “We mustn’t be envious comrades. There’s twenty-two dachas in all, and only seven more being built, and there’s three thousand of us in Massolit.” But what do we have here actually? “Five rooms to himself in Perelygino…” And still another “has six to himself… and the dining room’s paneled in oak!”

Weren’t people like this the targets of Stalin’s terror during the 1930s? Seemed to be inscribed in Bulgakov’s writing is a wish for a sort of divine violence that would cleanse the Soviet literary officialdom of bad elements and this purge, indeed, comes in the form of Satan’s Moscow visit.

Meanwhile, doesn’t Woland’s fancy retinue perfectly fit the role of the thugs from the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the NKVD? The secret police’s invisibility in the novel (their activities are always spoken of in the most vague way) is complemented by the terrifying stunts of Satan’s henchmen: Koroviev, a former choirmaster with cracked pince nez, Behemoth, a man-sized bipedal tomcat, up to Azazello, a fanged redhead whose job in his own words is “to give some administrator a pasting, or chuck an uncle out of the house, or gun somebody down, or any other trifle of the sort.”

Perhaps, read this way, the epigram from Goethe’s Faustus at the outset of the novel gains a fuller meaning:

‘…who are you then?’
‘I am part of that power which eternally
wills evil and eternally works good.’

What we see as a reference to the devil could also be read as an allusion to no other than Stalin himself. If the devil, in the novel’s context, was an evil that worked for greater good, could not the same be said of Stalin, who after all only executed the will of historical inevitability, which had its end the foundation of a real utopia on Earth?

What are official and unofficial persons?

When we read about disappearing people, we are faced between interpreting the incidents as works of the devil or as part of ordinary Soviet reality. This is a book where most of the side characters vanish. This ambiguity is effective, for without it, we would be reading entries straight out of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

A Soviet citizen, for example, dropped from sight under the following circumstances: “In the morning a car came, as usual, to take him to work, and it did take him to work, but it did not bring anyone back or come again itself.” Another one: “Anna Frantsevna, who had suffered all the while from insomnia, again left hurriedly for her dacha… Needless to say, she never came back!”

The way the disappearances appear in the text is hilarious and pregnant with meanings: “…lodgers in other apartments told of hearing some sort of knocking all night in no. 50 and of seeing electric light burning in the windows till morning. In the morning there was also no Anifsa!”

And why all this ruckus?

…pious little Anifsa had supposedly carried on her dried-up breast, in a suede bag, twenty-five big diamonds belonging to Anna Frantsevna. That in the woodshed of that very dacha to which Anna Frantsevna had gone so hurriedly, there supposedly turned up, of themselves, some inestimable treasures in the form of those same diamonds, plus some gold coins of czarist minting… p. 104

That’s what you get for hoarding important resources that should be voluntarily donated to the State! As another greedy official later in the book would learn:

‘Money… must be kept in the state bank, in special dry and well-guarded rooms, and by no means in some aunt’s cellar, where it may, in particular, suffer damage from rats!’ p. 234

And there are still more arrests throughout the novel:

Once, on a day off, a policeman came to the apartment, called the second lodger (the one whose last name got lost) out to the front hall, and said he was invited to come to the police station for a minute to put his signature to something. The lodger told Anfisa, Anna Frantsevna’s long-time and devoted housekeeper, to say, in case he received any telephone calls, that he would be back in ten minutes, and left together with the proper, white-gloved policeman. He not only did not come back in ten minutes, but never came back at all. The most surprising thing was that the policeman evidently vanished along with him. p. 102-103

Indeed, in Stalin’s regime, being an official is no guarantee of safety from being arrested. As demonstrated by the reply of Woland’s henchman Koroviev to a suspicious bureaucrat’s question, “Are you an official person?”:

‘What are official and unofficial persons? It all depends on your point of view on the subject. It’s all fluctuating and relative, Nikanor Ivanovich. Today, I’m an unofficial person, and tomorrow, lo behold, I’m an official one! And it also happens the other way round – oh, how it does!’ p.131

This, perhaps, is where we can place Margarita’s ransacking of a literary critic’s wealthy apartment. The spectacle of Margarita, turned broom-riding witch, who ransacked the luxurious room of her lover’s tormentor is not only another example of how everything is chaotically turned upside down in the novel. It also sheds light on the permanent Bakhtinian carnivalesque reversal of relations of authority inherent in the Stalinist universe.

Could it be that the officials in the novel who “begged, implored and yearned to be locked up in a bulletproof cell” after being victimized by the devil are also allusions to the soviet apparatchiks who confessed of their own Left and Right deviations during the big show trials?

This reference to the show trials is perhaps more clearer in the case of the corrupt Nikanor Ivanovich’s dream of being interrogated in a theater where the Kafkaesque* audience “was all of the same sex – male – and all for some reason bearded” – segregated and “all sitting” like in prison.

The purges of the nomenklatura, the Slovenian sociologist Slavoj Žižek observes, is the perverted way in which “the betrayed revolutionary heritage survives and haunts the regime.” A new ruling class from within the party’s higher echelons, the corrupt and opportunistic betrayers of the authentic revolutionary legacy of October 1917, was prevented from fully emerging by the repeated Stalinist purges:

Five of Stalin’ s Politburo colleagues were killed, and 98 out of 159 Central Committee members. Of the Central Committee of the Ukraine Republic only three out of 200 survived; 72 of the 93 members of the Komsomol organization Central Committee perished. Out of 1,996 part y leaders at the Seventeenth Congress in 1934, 1,108 were imprisoned or murdered. In the provinces 319 out of 385 regional party secretaries and 2,210 out of 2,750 district secretaries died.**

* In the vein of The Trial.
** Richard Overy, The Dictators, London: Penguin 2004, pp. 1OO-1.

State of fear: Suspects being escorted into Moscow's Lubyanka prison in 1928

Suspects being escorted into Moscow’s Lubyanka prison in 1928.

Nothing, nothing, my dears!

One of The Master and Margarita’s most memorable parts, the moment of truth of the first of its two parts, is the black magic show in the Variety Theater.

In this theater scene, the devil observes the audience and comments on the unchanged character of Moscow citizens. On the surface, they are Soviet citizens, proletarian masses, and so on. Yet, beneath, they’re still the same materialistic people. The umbilical cord that attached them to the old czarist/bourgeois order has not been completely cut.

They have not yet fully purified themselves, as rendered wonderfully in Vladimir Bortko’s Russian television rendering of the novel*, of the malady of capitalist love of money:

When after the seance, as the viewers were heading home in the Moscow streets, the luxurious dresses exchanged for their own clothes from the show all disappeared, leaving the women naked, is this not a demonstration of the emptiness of our fascination with commodities, or perhaps a mockery of consumerist values? And when the paper bills distributed during the magical performance turned into something else afterwards, like in the case of this taxi driver –

‘It’s my third case today. And the same thing happened with others, too. Some son of a bitch gives me a tenner, I give him change – four-fifty. He gets out, the scum! About five minutes later, I look: instead of a tenner, it’s a label from a seltzer bottle!’ Here the driver uttered several unprintable words. ‘Another one, beyond Zubovskaya. A tenner. I give him three roubles change. He leaves. I go to my wallet, there’s a bee there – zap in the finger! p.262

– is this not also a mockery of the ultimate representation of exchange value?

In the Spectacles Commission the next day, the opposite happens. Instead of objects fantastically appearing and disappearing, the manager himself becomes invisible. “‘Nothing, nothing, my dears!… The jacket and trousers are there, but inside there’s nothing!'” It is as if the devil was naughtily illustrating: that’s what your love for commodities will turn you to!

Stalin, after all, aimed at building in one country a world outside the ambit of the oppressive and exploitative system of global capitalism. He implemented his policies with an iron will, transforming Russian society and its citizens.

This mindless drivel is, of course, all preposterous (and not in any sense a product of serious scholarly work). The Master and Margarita, as a whole, is more ambiguous – a term that also mirrors Bulgakov’s strange relationship with the Soviet leader.

Bulgakov’s play, The Days of the Turbins**, about the Civil War in Ukraine between the Red Armies and White Cossack Armies, is reputed to have been Stalin’s favorite. And while most of his written works were barred from publication, Bulgakov was left alone by the regime most of the time.

Bulgakov relatively suffered less when contrasted to the fate of his contemporaries. And he was given freedom to write throughout his last years, much like the Master and his lover Margarita who were left alone and given peace by Satan towards the end of the novel.

Manuscripts, indeed, don’t burn. In Stalin’s Russia, they’re kept in state archives…

In the end, the fact that The Master and Margarita allows for several interpretations is a testament to its greatness as a work of art. ■

* The mini-series of ten 52-minute episodes was first screened on the state television channel “Rossiya” on December, 2005. The full mini-series was once available in YouTube but has since been removed.
** The play is based on Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard.

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14 thoughts on “The Master and Margarita: A Stalinist Fantasy

  1. I very much enjoyed your take on Master and Margarita. I read it almost four years ago (pre-blogging so no review), but have been wanting to reread it ever since (if only I didn’t have such a huge and hugely attractive TBR-pile!), because I just know I will find new things in it that I missed the first time around. I highly recommend reading the book in an annotated version or one with some sort of introduction, because that way you’ll definitely get more out of the book, understanding the references and background.

    The TV-series you mentioned is available on Amazon (with English subtitles). I watched it when it was first broadcast on Russian TV (and later when it was re-broadcast on Armenian TV). I loved the series, it was very well done, capturing the spirit of the book well in my opinion. In fact, in over four years of watching mainly Russian and Armenian TV, it has so far been the one and only program I really wanted to watch and made an effort to do so (meaning: I stayed home for it).

  2. Hi, Myrthe. I’m glad to know you enjoyed this little bit of absurdity here — the product of my second reading of one of my favorite books. Indeed, unlike the first time, I found a lot of new things this time around — like, say, the Stalinist slant (which, of course, should not be taken seriously).

    I would love such an annotated edition as well as other translations (I can’t read Russian in the original). Unfortunately, I can’t afford those things now. In the meantime, the website http://www.masterandmargarita.eu offers really good commentary and annotations to the novel.

  3. then you’re a harsh critic . . . Currently reading “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi”, and Fredrick Seidel, poet . . . if you wanted to know. BTW, your essay has been up on my site all this time. Soon it will be coming down to make room for the next writer, but I may ask for another essay to post in the future . ..

  4. Perfect description, but it only applies when I think about what I write. I fawn at most works of other people. I don’t find the quality of any of my own writing good at all. I have this gloomy and pessimistic view about them.

    But really, THANKS for putting it up there.

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