Written between 1928-1940, amongst the monolithic presence of the Stalin’s regime, author Mikhail Bulgakov would not live to see his masterpiece Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita) published, a book which many refer to as one of the best novels of the 20th Century as well as the finest of the Soviet satires. The novel would not see the light of day until 1966 when it was published by Bulgakovs widow, at first as a censored version in Moscow Magazine, and finally as a book in Paris during 1967.
The novel follows Woland (the Devil), and his retinue of demonic henchmen that are comically distinctive yet terrifying, as they wreak havoc throughout the officially atheistic 1930s Moscow. This is interwoven with the story of Margarita and her paramour, the author known as the Master, along with excerpts of the Masters’ pièce de résistance which follows Pontius Pilate’s convoluted condemnation of Jesus.
Throughout the novel, Bulgakov launches a subtle polemic that lampoons the censorship and authoritarianism which characterised the way communism was imposed under Stalin, and thus experienced by Bulgakov. Written in carefully, Bulgakov touches upon the Soviet Unions’ willingness to ‘disappear’ citizens as well as the corruption and greed that results from Soviet policy. Whether it is the disappearance ‘without a trace’ of the prior occupants of Woland’s apartment or Styopa being supernaturally transported from Moscow to Yalta, thousands of miles away, the humour of these episodes starkly contrasts the dark realities of the Soviet experience. Furthermore, escaping from the derivative narrative of the Devil embodying pure evil, Woland’s objective seems to be a demonstration of how good and evil cannot exist without each other. Bulgakov looks at the meaning of both ‘good’ and ‘evil’, as well as how it translates into real life by additionally using the human characters as vessels of evil.
Despite its distinctly Russian characteristics, the genius of the book is its ability to relate to people of all cultures through the themes it explores. Having been incorporated into Russia’s national DNA along with inspiring The Rolling Stones 1968 hit ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, the true global scope of this book’s influence is clear. These themes, along with many others, are dealt with poignantly through the masterful employment of magical realism as Bulgakov incorporates chapters that seem both entirely misplaced yet logical. Thus, with a cheerful optimism, bitter evil and strong sense of imperishable love, The Master and Margarita is truly the creation of a great mind.
The Master and Margarita is available for purchase from Penguin Random House Publishing.