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The Master and Margarita: Devilish happenings in Stalinist Moscow

By Vikas Datta,

Ancient Greek playwrights invented this literary device but the Romans gave it the name we know – deus ex machina (God from a machine) to untangle a plot which seems irrevocably stuck by lowering a god on to the stage to resolve it. But what if this service is performed by the devil, but one who is a “part of that force which wills forever evil and works forever good”?

That happens to be the fundamental premise of Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s (1891-1940) masterpiece “The Master and Margarita”, easily one of 20th century’s greatest novels, capable of various interpretations and having a huge cultural influence.

Take it as an uproarious slapstick or better, a trenchant satire targeting aspects of its Stalinist-era Soviet setting: bureaucratisation (and repression) of culture, stridently combative atheism, while people’s vanity, gullibility and, of course, greed – especially for consumer goods, a feature of our times too as it was then – making this reading relevant even now.

It can also be read as an account of Jesus the man, or, more deeper, a profound allegory with powerful undercurrents of faith, love and redemption and, above all, a message of hope for the resilience of human creativity, in just three words.

The tale, set in the Easter week, starts in the posh Moscow area of Patriarch’s Ponds, where an urbane foreigner Woland (startlingly having one black eye and the other bright green), joins a conversation between literary bureaucracy chief Mikhail Berlioz and enthusiastic modern poet Ivan Ponyrev “Bezdomny” (Homeless), expressing curiosity about the Soviet denial of religion and the supernatural. He mocks Berlioz’ atheism, and warns him (unsuccessfully) of his impending death.

When this happens, Bezdomny realises they are in the presence of Satan, but his attempts at warning result in his committal to a lunatic asylum. It is here he meets the Master, a nameless writer whose novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ is blocked by censors. It remains unpublished but is still vigorously attacked, prompting him to set it afire and become emotionally alienated.

Interspersed are chapters from this novel about Pilate, Judaea’s Roman governor and Jesus (here called Yeshua Ha-Notsri, as in Hebrew) in 1st century Jersusalem. Pilate, who has to try Jesus, recognises his goodness as well as a spiritual affinity but has to sentence him and reluctantly but resignedly accepts his execution (though he later has the betrayer punished).

The rest of the first part deals with exploits of Woland and his retinue – comprising a huge black talking cat Behemoth (with a penchant for vodka, sarcasm and firing pistols), singularly-garbed ex-choirmaster Koroviev/Fagotto, the menacing Azazello and stunning vampiress/succubus Hella – as they expose the vanity, greed and gullibility of people in a subversively, funny show at the Variety Theatre and engage in other hijinks.

The second part sees the appearance of Margarita – who, trapped in a stifling marriage, fell in love with the Master but now believes him dead after he withdrew from the world. She is offered by Woland to become a witch and host the Devil’s Midnight Spring Ball (where the guests are notorious figures of history but also has ‘Waltz King’ Johann Strauss conducting the orchestra), and agrees. But first Margarita, one of the most feisty heroines ever seen in print, has to control her unleashed passion, which – in one gloriously uninhibited scene – sees her violently trash the apartment of a critic who condemned the Master’s work.

As a reward for hosting the ball, she is offered a wish but, instead of asking something for herself, seeks reprieve for a young woman condemned to eternally relive her crime. This is granted, but she is given another wish, this time for herself, and achieves reunion with the Master.

However, their poverty-stricken life leaves both Woland and Yeshua unsatisfied and they arrange a different fate for the couple – in a limbo-like exclusive “paradise”. Woland and his team also leave, but not before Behemoth and Koroviev trash a hard-currency shop and the literary society’s restaurant in a gloriously exuberant burst of mayhem, leaving the bemused authorities to make sense of all the strange happenings.

Peace is also ensured for Bezdmomy, who abandons poetry for history, and Pilate, with the Master telling him (and finishing his novel): “Go, he is waiting for you”, freeing the Roman, and his loyal dog, from his insomnia-laden, lonely perch in timeless space, to walk up the moonbeam path of his dreams to Yeshua.

And, yes, the message of hope alluded to above. The book was written between 1928 and 1940 – a time witnessing unprecedented attacks on literary expression, chiefly in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. But in the book, when the Master, asked about his novel, asserts he destroyed it, Woland demurs, plucks out a packet out of the air and hands it to him,

“Rukopisi ne goryat (Manuscripts don’t burn),” he says.

(Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])