Mikhail Bulgakov spent nine difficult years working on The Master and Margarita, writing eight different versions and only completing the final manuscript shortly before his death in 1940. The novel is a fierce satire of Stalinist Russia, a love story of cosmic dimensions, and a story of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, given its explosive subject matter, The Master and Margarita wasn’t published until 27 years after Bulgakov’s death. The serialised publication in 1967 of a censored version of the novel caused a literary sensation in Soviet Russia for its daring engagement with a taboo subject, Christianity; its rich, outrageous black comedy; and the outlandish behaviour of its supernatural characters—Satan disguised as the foreign Professor Woland and his retinue of two grotesque demons, a gigantic black cat and a beautiful, naked woman. The novel opens on a strange spring day at Patriarch Ponds, a park in inner Moscow. Two Communist Party literary hacks—Berlioz, the editor of a highbrow literary magazine, and Bezdomny, a poet—walk together discussing the poet’s latest work, an anti-religious poem about Jesus commissioned by Berlioz. Like all good Soviet citizens, they are committed atheists, and Berlioz is concerned that Bezdomny has made Jesus too convincing in his poem, as if he really existed, when the point of the poem is to show he is pure myth.
‘There is not one oriental religion,’ said Berlioz, ‘in which an immaculate virgin does not bring a god into the world. And the Christians, lacking any originality, invented their Jesus in exactly the same way.’
But Patriarch Ponds (named ‘Patriarch’ after the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution under ruthless attack in the 1930s) sets the scene for the sudden arrival of a character from this outlawed theology—Satan: ‘He looked slightly over forty. Crooked sort of mouth. Clean-shaven. Dark hair. Right eye black, left eye for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short—a foreigner.’
When the man—who describes himself as a professor of black magic and tells them he was with Pontius Pilate during his interrogation of Jesus—predicts an improbable event that rapidly comes to pass, Bezdomny is terrified and tries to warn the people of Moscow and his fellow writers that a mad professor and foreign spy is on the loose and will wreak havoc unless he is caught. For his efforts, Bezdomny is bound in tea towels and carted off to a psychiatric clinic. Here he’s visited by a dark-haired man with restless eyes from the neighbouring room who calls himself ‘a master’, and the two men discover they’ve been locked up because of Pontius Pilate. The Master then tells his extraordinary tale about falling in love with a beautiful woman who urges him to finish his novel about Pilate, which she believes is the work of a master. He does, but ‘When I emerged into the world clutching my novel, my life came to an end.’
With brilliant dexterity, Bulgakov weaves together the three strands of his story: the tale of the Master and his lover, Margarita; the story of Pontius Pilate and his failure to act courageously (a story written by the Master, narrated by Satan, read by Margarita, dreamt by Bezdomny); and the surreal nightmare of the satanic invasion of Moscow. In the last of these strands, greedy, petty officials are transported or imprisoned on a whim, their apartments invaded, their lives destroyed, as the terror wreaked by Stalin’s regime is turned on the instruments of state (including one of Moscow’s literary clubs at whose hands Bulgakov suffered). Bulgakov writes with dazzling, knife-sharp precision and wild originality, with a violence that lurks even in the love scenes. When the Master and Margarita meet, ‘Love leaped up out at us like a murderer jumping out of a dark alley. It shocked us both—the shock of a stroke of lightning, the shock of a flick-knife.’
Mikhail Bulgakov was born in 1891 in Kiev, Ukraine, in the Russian Empire, into a theological family (his father was a theology professor at the Kiev Theological Academy). He studied medicine at Kiev University and following his graduation in 1916 joined the White Army as a doctor, but in 1920 gave up medicine to work as a journalist. The following year, aged 30, Bulgakov moved to Moscow to devote himself to literature. He worked as a freelance journalist, writing comic pieces for newspapers and journals, but found little success with his novels in an increasingly repressive Soviet regime, of which his work was sharply critical. His first novel, The Heart of a Dog, was not published in his own country until 1987. His novel about the Civil War, The White Guard, was published in serial form in 1924 but the last instalment never appeared because the journal was closed down for failing to toe the Communist Party line. Bulgakov briefly became a successful playwright, but in 1929 his plays were banned. Even his adaptation for the stage of The White Guard, which was reputedly among Stalin’s favourite plays, was eventually banned.
Forced into isolation and poverty, Bulgakov was so frustrated by the impossibility of getting his work published in the Soviet Union that he wrote to Stalin requesting permission to emigrate (his brothers had emigrated to Paris). In response, Stalin personally telephoned him to offer him a post as literary consultant at the Moscow Arts Theatre, which he accepted. At this time he met Elena Shilovskaia, and they were married in 1932 (she was his third wife; he was her second husband). He started work on The Master and Margarita and it is said that the beautiful intrepid Margarita was modelled on Elena. Eight years later, Bulgakov died in despair, leaving his great unpublished indictment of his times and fervent call for love and compassion, not power, to shape human lives—The Master and Margarita. As Yeshua (Jesus) tells Pilate:
‘Among other things,’ continued the prisoner, ‘I said that all power is a form of violence exercised over people and that the time will come when there will be no rule by Caesar nor any other form of rule.’
In 2005 the first Russian film version of The Master and Margarita was made, to be screened as a 10-part television series. Directed by Vladimir Bortko, the film had to be made secretly in the Crimea because Bulgakov’s story now risks offending an entirely different section of Russian society: the Church. As Father Mikhail Dudko (head of the Secretariat for Church and Society) told the Guardian: ‘We Christians know four gospels, and in Bulgakov’s book we see a kind of fifth: a gospel narrated by Satan, [who is called] Woland in the book. And the interpretation is in Satan’s favour. Our reaction to such an interpretation can be nothing but negative.’ Nevertheless, The Master and Margarita is Russia’s favourite book.