Love, Satire and a Panegyric to Freedom… Bulgakov’s Vast Masterpiece

“Any novel which portrays the devil as a comic character has to be brilliant,” my friend said. We were standing outside in London’s Barbican centre. It was night time, the moon was out and looked at in a certain light, the building had some of that depressing functionalism of the Soviet Union. The work we were talking about was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, his magical satire on Stalinist totalitarianism. The book had been on my shelf for the past twelve months, unread, but hearing this I determined to start.

The next day I sat in my garden and started: indeed the devil was a comic creation but he also had a cat. The book is not magical realism but it is something very close. Inventive and witty, loaded with intrigue and even softness, The Master and Margarita is a sublime love story and a panegyric to freedom. It is a book by which the author took the sweetest and coldest of revenges upon the ugly repression of Stalin’s brutal regime. I may not have finished it in one sitting, but I was engrossed. Its range is so vast and complicated that over a decade later it is still a book which fascinates me so readily that constantly I re-read it.

For all its greatness, the Master and Margarita is not a novel which can be appreciated to its greatest potential without a degree of social and historical understanding. Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891. During Ukraine’s post-revolution civil war he took the side of the Whites, the anti-Soviet forces. The war later became the subject of his novel The White Guard, which was featured in the Rossiya gazette until it closed before the serialisation was completed. His play, based on the novel, The Day of the Turbins ran from 1926 to 1941 with 987 performances. The Communist leader is said to have himself seen it twenty times, which lead to Bulgakov’s epithet, “Stalin’s favourite playwright”.

Despite this, the novelist was constantly thwarted by the authorities. Works such as Heart of a Dog and Diaboliad combined science fiction, the surreal and sharp satire. Soviet censors refused permission to publish The White Guard despite its theatrical success. A previous play The Run was personally banned by Stalin for glorifying anti-Soviet White generals. However, it was Stalin was who found him a job at the Moscow Arts Theatre but also allowed a blanket ban on his works’ publication. When he wrote begging to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union so that he could write, Stalin refused the request. It says so much about Bulgakov that he actually sent the letter, written out of frustration though not intended to be sent, but a lot about the Communist authorities that they played a cruel game of cat and mouse with the artist. In the scale of human misery it is pretty small, but can there be a greater anguish for an artist than to be deprived of their means of expression?

complex notions of morality banish dichotomous divides

His retaliation was The Master and Margarita, which he worked on - constantly revising - until his death in 1940. It was eventually published in 1966. Since then it has baffled and been subject to constant interpretation. There is no single key to the novel. It is neither roman à clef nor morality tale. It defies simple definition. It joltingly combines the fantastic with dirty realism as it switches from the Master and Margarita’s story to biblical characters to the absurdist antics of the devil, Professor Woland, and his minions - Azazello, Behemoth and Koroviev.

What lends the book its massive power is the savagery it releases upon Bulgakov’s foes as the devil causes brilliant havoc by punishing the cowardly. Its complex notions of morality banish dichotomous divides: real evil comes in unexpected places. It is, quite frankly, astonishing in its scale. And folded within all this is a terrible love story.  Callously treated by the Moscow literary establishment, the Master attempted to destroy his own work but Margarita stopped him and, in doing so, she destroyed their love. Undoubtedly there are huge resonances with Bulgakov’s own experiences. The book finds the Master, a broken man living in an asylum with only bitter memories of love and his former life.

Margarita’s life without the Master is one of loneliness and grief. Outwardly content in her marriage to a youthfully successful business man, inwardly she is tormented. After she encounters Wolland’s demons the narrative leads to some of the most fantastic and brilliant scenes in world literature - a naked flight across the night sky on a broomstick, accompanied by magical creatures. Whereas reality crushed the Master, Margarita - not just devoted but fearless - assumes the heroine’s role. By flying she embraces freedom to an extent the Master never could. And once more there is the peculiar message: the devil does not just punish but he looks after. The devil is that most comic of creations: the ringmaster.

human imagination can defy humanity

The Master, an ambiguous representation of the pure artist who can only live for creation, at last is given rest. However, is Margarita’s the true triumph?

Bulgakov portrays with stunning vividness then wild allegory the barrenness of totalitarianism and the mundanity of conformity then contrasts it with the power and magic of fantasy. He turns the world in which he lived upon its head. He exposes its emptiness. He envelops the reader in a world where possibility is boundless. Thus The Master and Margarita becomes the ultimate literary realisation of imagination’s possibilities. Put reality to one side, Bulgakov is telling us, because life is not just about that: it is about the impossible. For us to be fully human we have to embrace the miraculous. There is an artist within all of us. It is an inspiring message made all the greater by the antithesis of grim reality forced upon the population by their leaders.

It is impossible to distil such range simply. The Master and Margarita has one of the most daring definitions of humanity that it is possible to encounter: curious yet compelling and somehow beautiful. It is not sufficient to say that it is a cry against the idea that creativity should reinforce the state. It is not just that through artistic and imaginative freedom human can defy the state, it is that human imagination can defy humanity. And all that is wrapped around a message about love and the individual: they have to co-exist. Just as good and evil do. They are actually one.

“But would you kindly ponder this question: what would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows  disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people.”

And here is perhaps the importance of Bulgakov’s epigraph from Goethe's Faust, in which Mephistopheles says:

“I am part of that power which eternally/wills evil and eternally works good.”

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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