Bulgakov wasn’t Stalin’s favorite writer for nothing. His Master and Margarita is a paean to Stalin. The Devil is the benevolent protagonist of the novel. He wreaks havoc but always ends up punishing the bad guys and rewarding the good ones. There seems to be a lot of criticism of the Soviet reality in the novel. What many people fail to realize, though, is that it’s the kind of criticism that was not only allowed but also encouraged by the regime.
When we watched a Soviet movie and saw a character wearing glasses, we immediately knew that he was the villain of the film. People of intellectual professions were vilified during Stalin’s era. This was a very simple and effective manner of channeling popular resentments at acceptable targets. At the time when Bulgakov was writing his novel, the word “engineer” was synonymous with the Enemy of the People. One thing that was worse was being a literary critic. If engineers were imprisoned and forced to work for the state, literary critics were simply exterminated. (Bakhtin saved his life by writing egregiously stupid Communist explanations of classic works of literature.)
And who were the evildoers in Bulgakov’s novel? Right you are, the chi-chi fru-fru literary critics. And the bureaucrats, of course. Stalin created the huge class of bureaucrats and then pretended like they had appeared from nowhere and every problem in the Soviet society was caused by them.
The novel is also both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. As pretty much every single Russian writer, Bulgakov was an anti-Semite. The Jews in his novel are the ones guilty of murdering Christ in spite of Pontius Pilate’s attempts to resist them and save Jesus.
Jesus, however, is also an extremely unattractive character. He is weak, pathetic, and pretty stupid, too. And he is a lot less powerful than the Devil. At the end of the novel, Jesus has to beg the Devil to humor him and do what he wants. The Devil agrees but only because he wants the same thing to happen. Bulgakov’s Biblical episodes are the most effective anti-religious propaganda anybody could have come up with.
There can be no doubt that even though Stalin never officially accepted this novel, he appreciated Bulgakov’s efforts. Bulgakov was invited to be present during the torture of his fellow writers by the secret police. In his diaries, his wife described how much fun the writer had had as he observed the degradation of other writers at the hands of torturers. (My advice is: never read anything about the lives of your favorite writers. You are bound to find information that will put you off them forever.)
Now, let’s talk about gender. The 1930ies were an amazing moment for Soviet women. They were encouraged to get higher education, they all worked, had brilliant careers, were as active as men in the public life. The image of a strong, resourceful, intelligent woman appeared in all of the movies and novels. Just all of them. Damsels in distress, silent sexual objects, pathetic victims were gone. Stalin’s own wife suffered because people ridiculed her for being just a housewife. And even Stalin himself couldn’t (and wouldn’t) do anything about it.
In Master and Margarita, however, the image of a useless, helpless, silent woman reappeared. Margarita has no profession, no friends, no interests, no life. She is a wife of a rich man whom she doesn’t love. She cheats on him but never leaves him because she needs him to keep her in style. The poor sucker works all day and all night long to maintain a woman who spends her time with a lover.
Margarita is passionately in love with Master, a talented writer. She doesn’t leave her husband for him, though. Remember, this is a society where nobody frowns on divorce (yet) and leaving a rich husband to follow your heart is celebrated (I have oodles of proof, if you don’t believe me). Margarita stays with her rich husband waiting until her lover publishes his novel and becomes rich and famous. Then, she will finally come to live with him permanently. Love is a great thing but she needs for somebody to buy her expensive clothes and perfume. I mean, this is a woman who has a servant whose role is to ensure that Margarita never even has to pick up her own underwear that she scatters around her room. Love or no love, she can’t live with a poor man.
In the novel’s culminating scene, Margarita strips naked to please the Devil and to welcome his guests at his annual ball. She spends hours completely silent, being ogled and kissed by hundreds of guests. Then, the Devil helps her reunite with her lover and she follows him into eternity.
All I can say is that if I had grown up being constantly offered Margarita-like images of women in books and movies, I would be a very different person today. Instead of writing this review, I’d probably be crying somewhere in a corner because my husband hasn’t noticed how I diced the carrots for the soup in an inventive new way.
So you can just imagine me interrogating poor N. during week 2 of our relationship at 4 o’clock in the morning, “So you are saying you admire this Margarita person? This is the kind of woman you are looking for? ‘Cause let me tell you, buddy, I ain’t it! I have a career. I have friends. I have hobbies.”
Master and Margarita is a great novel. Let’s not, however, make it into some subversive piece of writing because it definitely was not. If you want subversion from Bulgakov, read his brilliant Heart of a Dog. It was published in 1925, long before Bulgakov started kissing Stalin’s ass. It’s just 72 pages, too. Of course, it’s still anti-Semitic but that’s Russian literature for you.
OK, this wasn’t that painful, was it? The geek out is over now.
P.S. Fair warning: if you are planning to plagiarize this review and hand it in as a book report or an essay, your teacher will eviscerate you. This is not the accepted opinion about this novel. Just read it yourself, it’s really good.