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. . .)