The Master and Margarita is a complex, multi-layered satire of the Stalin era. Mikhail Bulgakov started writing the novel in late 1928, not long after the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s reforms. The writer who had witnessed all these continued to work on this masterpiece until his death in 1940.
The novel has the three main plot lines and is enriched with many interconnected and equally complex characters. Two of these story lines are set in the Soviet Moscow.
First one is the misdeeds of Woland and his diabolical crew that upset the Soviet system.
The second is a love story between the master and Margarita.
An illustration by Aleksandra Czudzak
The third is a twisted version of the biblical story of the execution of Jesus Christ, or more accurately, the story of the person who gave the order of execution: the fifth Procurator of Judaea, the cruel Pontius Pilate. These stories are strangely intertwined and unfold simultaneously.
An artwork by Ann Charlotte Boga
The novel starts with the arrival of Satan (or Professor Woland) to Moscow, Patriarch’s Ponds. He interrupts a conversation between Berlioz, the chairman of Massolit (an elite Soviet literary organisation) and the poet Bezdomny. They are discussing an anti-Christian poem that Bezdomny is currently working on. They start a philosophical discussion Woland starts to tell the story of Pilate to these atheists based on his experience: a version never heard before. Here also starts the story of Pilate.
This street sign in Patriarch’s Ponds is a tribute to the novel: “Never talk to strangers.”
What I find very ironical about this part is the fact that Satan ardently preaches to these atheists: even he is desperate to be believed in- a satirical reference to state atheism in the Soviet Russia. (Also, was anyone else reminded of the 1995 film The Usual Suspects?)
As Woland’s adventures fill the asylums of Moscow with the people he drives mad, Pilate loses his sanity to the regret he denies to have. Interestingly, the two seemingly irrelevant stories have some similarities. The first of these is of course Satan’s presence. However, unlike in Moscow, his presence in Jerusalem is passive; he does not intrude. This is probably because Pilate himself was demonised for centuries because of his malicious mistake; there is simply no reason for Satan to show up. The second and less important similarity is that both of the stories take place in May which hints that there are more parallels to be explored (or perhaps the idea that we are trapped in a cycle of evil?)
But we later find out that the story Woland tells is written by “the Master”. We never learn his real name; he has given the title “Master” by his lover Margarita who falls equally in love with his manuscript. The master is a writer who loses his mental stability after his book faces censorship and is refused to be published which has autobiographical references to the experiences of Bulgakov whose works were heavily censored and mostly remained unpublished for decades.
The mad Master leaves the beautiful, smart and loyal Margarita, and confides in a mental institution after burning his book’s manuscript. But “manuscripts don’t burn”; something Bulgakov believed in with all his optimism And was proven right, since we are able to discuss the book here.
Stalin admitted to have a weak spot for Bulgakov’s works; nonetheless the author was forbidden to publish in the USSR. The Master and Margarita was only published posthumously a quarter of a century later the author’s death. Even then it was crippled by censorship. Indeed, oppositions to the book continued through the decades that followed.
Yes, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the book. The theme supernatural is used to exemplify the way the Soviets offered explanations to unbelievable atrocities that surrounded them: dark magic and witchcraft are called “hypnotism” carried out by professors, previously respected men of academia, reek of criticism of Soviet propaganda at the height of Stalin’s rule.
However the novel does not only criticise the absurdity of the Soviet way of covering up one’s mess, but the most basic manifestations of morality. This is evident from the writer’s choice of the two anti-heroes of the book: the Devil himself and the dire Pontius Pilate.
Bulgakov breaks many more taboos within the novel. Everything infamous about the human nature finds itself a place: murder, slander, blackmail, envy, greed, jealousy, gross indecency… These human sins are of course a lot more threatening to the society than the imaginary crimes of demons, witches and vampires. From this point of view, the book can be considered as the pioneer of a new approach to the Gothic genre that brings back the fear of the supernatural to our modern day.
The context of this book is as rich as its contents, if not richer. Therefore it is crucial to have some background knowledge about the book before starting to read it. The website www.masterandmargarita.eu is the best website ever created for a book. It covers everything you might want to know about it: the plot lines, characters, annotations, different aspects of its context, artwork, interpretations, adaptations and a lot more. I highly recommend visiting it to find out more about the book before reading it.