Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: A Review, Part I

I promised to write this post a long time ago but I’ve been postponing it because I don’t think it will interest anybody except two or three exceptionally nerdy readers (I love you, fellow nerds!). Then, however, I decided that it’s my blog and I should be able to geek out every once in a while, right? Just skip it if you get very bored (and I understand that boredom is a very normal reaction here.) I’ll try to make this as entertaining as possible.

The October Revolution initially welcomed Modernist artists. They were supported, funded and celebrated by Communist leaders. Like every other major totalitarian regime of the XXth century, however, Soviet Communism clamped down on Modernism after consolidating its power. In 1935, Zhdanov, one of Stalin’s apparatchiks, met with the Soviet artists and announced to them that, from then on, the only acceptable artistic movement was Socialist realism. If you don’t know what that is, all you need to remember is that it lacks any artistic value whatsoever. Talented artists tried and often almost managed to do something useful with it but, for the most part, it was a disaster.

Stalin, however, was not a fan of realism. His favorite author was the supremely Modernist novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov. Stalin attended the performance of one of Bulgakov’s plays dozens of times. He did it in secret, of course, because his love for this Modernist writer was incompatible with the official support for Socialist realism.

Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita was blacklisted in the Soviet Union. It was impossible to buy it, so people got illegally imported copies and copied them on typewriters. The novel had a cult following in the Soviet Union. Nowadays, I don’t think there are any reasonably educated Russian-speakers who haven’t read it and who don’t adore it. Any member of the Russian-speaking intelligentsia (not to be confused with intellectuals, of course) can quote parts of it. So can I.

It is a brilliant novel. However, its ostensibly subversive nature that has kept all of the anti-Soviet dissidents swooning with delight is, in my opinion, a sham. The novel is deeply conservative both politically and in its treatment of gender roles. (Feminist here, deal with it.) When I first shared my reading of the novel with N., we stayed up arguing about it until 5 am, even though he had to go to work early in the morning. That’s how much I shocked him with my unorthodox approach to Master and Margarita.

(To be continued. . .)

3 thoughts on “Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: A Review, Part I”

  1. Ooh I’m excited about this. I haven’t read it but my brother, who has a BA in Russian and Eastern European lit, is a big fan of Bulgakov. I actually got him this book for his bday last year. 🙂


  2. I can’t wait to read the rest of the review! That type of veins of conservatism runs deep in a lot of supposedly subversive, “paradigm shifting/destroying” works, and I am glad I’m not the only one who thinks it’s worthwhile to call it out rather than shrugging shoulders about “That was the way back then!”
    Jaime is going to start reading my copy of M&M very soon, I got mine as a present from my old Russian professor at Montana, along with… a children’s “soft” book of Russian literature. It was patterned after Pat the Bunny, where the infant gets to touch and feel things in the book, only with characters from Russian literature. “Pet Behemoth’s fur! Isn’t it soft and black?”
    I try not to think over it too hard.


  3. Oooh, I am so looking forward to this! I have read it twice in English translation. I love it, as I love many other social satires from the Soviet era. But I don’t feel like I understand it as well as I would like to. So I’m excited to hear your thoughts about it.


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