A Modern Russian Masterpiece: “The Master and Margarita”

Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the most popular books among Russians in the 1990s was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, first published in late 1966 and early 1967 – 26 years after the author’s death. As I traveled to Russia and visited many university campuses during this period, I often asked Russian students: “What is your favorite book?”  I was astonished at how many times I heard, “Why, of course, The Master and Margarita!”   I know several Russian students who have read this book more than twenty times.  Can you imagine?  Do you know any American college student who has read any modern novel more than five times?  The affection for Bulgakov is deeply rooted.  One young Russian literature professor told me: The Master and Margarita is a perfect book.  You cannot subtract one word from this book.  You cannot add one word to this book. It is perfect!”

The Author: Bulgakov

First some background on Bulgakov.  Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891, the son of a professor at the Kiev Theological Academy.  He was trained as a medical doctor, but abandoned his medical practice after two years in order to devote his life to writing.  He chose to remain in Russia after the revolution of 1917, accepting Bolshevik rule but not actively supporting the Communist regime.  Bulgakov was one of the first Russian writers to be censored by the Communist authorities.  By the mid-1920s, his novels and plays were banned, barred from both publication and theater performance.  Although he is one of Russia’s greatest writers of the 20th century, Bulgakov did not see a single line of his work published during  the last thirteen years of his life.

Despite the censorship and the humiliations that accompanied it, Bulgakov labored for twelve years on his greatest work, The Master and Margarita.  Although ill and often suffering from nervous exhaustion, he wrote ands rewrote this novel without any hope that it would be published – at least in his lifetime.  He died in 1940.  Twenty-six years later, Bulgakov’s crowning achievement was finally published in Moscow and it immediately became an international best-seller.  Now, more than thirty-six years after its publication, the book’s influence continues.  What is there about this book which has led to such lavish praise and such heated debates about its meaning?

The Storyline

The Master and Margarita is a complex novel which masterfully weaves together three different plots.  The first plot is about Satan’s visit to Moscow in the person of Professor Woland, a professor of black magic who, together with his accomplices, wreaks havoc on the capital city.  In the chapters which tell the story of Woland’s adventures in Moscow, Bulgakov cleverly ridicules life under Communist rule with its crass materialistic philosophy.  The second plot is the story of the confrontation between Pontius Pilate and Yeshus Ha-Notsri,  a figure resembling Jesus but with enough differences from the Gospel narratives to leave some doubt.  These four chapters, dispersed among the thirty-four, are worth the price of the book, in my judgment.  The third plot is indicated in the book’s title and concerns the relationship between a weak passive young man and his girlfriend.

A Brief Sampler

The first chapter opens with a meeting between the editor of an important Russian literary journal and a young poet who writes under the pen name of Homeless.  The two meet in a park to discuss a project in which the journal editor has commissioned the poet to write a long anti-religious poem denying the existence of Jesus.  After awhile, they are joined by a stranger (Satan in the person of Professor Woland) who rudely interrupts their conversation.

 “Forgive my importunity, but I understood that, in addition to all else, you  don’t believe in God either?” Woland asks in a hushed voice.

 “No, we do not believe in God.” Berlioz (the editor) replies.

 “You are atheists?” asks Professor Woland, throwing himself back against the  park bench.

 “Yes, we are atheists,” Berlioz responds.  “In our country atheism does not  surprise anyone.  Most of our population is intelligent and enlightened, and  has long since ceased to believe the fairy tales about God.”

 The conversation continues about proofs of God’s existence until Professor  Woland says: “But what troubles me is this: If there is no God, then, you  might ask, who governs the life of men and, generally, the entire situation  here on earth?”

 The young poet Homeless hastily responds: “Man himself governs it.”

 “Sorry,” the stranger responded mildly, “But in order to govern, it is, after all,  necessary to have a definite plan for at least a fairly decent period of time.   Allow me to ask you, then, how man can govern if he cannot plan for even so  ridiculously short a span as a thousand years or so, if, in fact, he cannot  guarantee his own next day?”
The first chapter concludes as Professor Woland leans over and whispers to Berlioz and Homeless, “And keep in mind that Jesus existed . . . There is no need for points of view. . .  He simply existed, that is all. . .  There is no need for proof, either.”

A Sign of Hope

I agree with Calvin College professor Edward Ericson’s judgment, despite some opposing views by other literary critics, that “The Master and Margarita is Mikhail Bulgakov’s spiritual – specifically Christian – testament.”  The bottom line is this: only fools believe that they live in a world without God.  Bulgakov creatively uses the reality of Satan to prove the existence of Jesus.  No wonder the Communist Party banned this book for so long!

I find much hope in the fact that this book was a favorite of Russian university students in the 1990s, but I am less sure about its popularity now.  It is in the richness of Russia’s literary heritage, with its deep Christian spirituality, that a moral foundation can be rediscovered upon which the New Russia can be built.  Western secularism is no answer.  An enlightened and revitalized Christian faith, separated from the power of the state, is the best hope for Russia’s future.

* Revised text: originally published in August 1994.