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

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.

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. . .)