Bulgakov’s World: The meaning of “The Master and Margarita”

Growing up in Russia and spending my youth there, I’ve read “The Master and Margarita” for the first time back in high school. It was a part of the Russian Literature class program.

I thought about the novel but struggled to find its meaning back then, and I kept coming back to the book, again and again, every few years. I’ve read it again several months ago but this time I decided to look for some explanations. I was happy to find the course of lectures by Marietta Chudakova who is an expert on Soviet literature and the works of Mikhail Bulgakov in particular. She created a very detailed and content-rich lecture available on arzamas.academy, where she explained the meaning of “The Master and Margarita” in Russian. This post is a translation of this very lecture. If you are interested in learning more about it in English, you can purchase the book called “Mikhail Bulgakov: The Life and Times” she wrote.

PART I. “MANUSCRIPTS DON’T BURN”: FIRST IDEA BEHIND THE NOVEL

Artwork by Irina Goryacheva aka Heather Hermit

Mikhail Bulgakov was born on May 15, 1891, in Kiev (current capital of Ukraine), Russian Empire in the family of a Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Academy Professor (father) and a former teacher (mother). Bulgakov grew up in a very religious atmosphere; both of his grandfathers were clergymen in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bulgakov, however, decided to study in the Medical Academy. His father died when Mikhail graduated in 1916. By that time Bulgakov was even further away from religion. After serving as a surgeon at Chernovtsy hospital, he was appointed as a provincial physician to Smolensk province. His life in those days is reflected in A Country Doctor’s Notebook. He has switched several hospitals in the next few years to come. He worked as a doctor through the October Revolution of 1917 and a few years after.

In February 1919 he was mobilized as an army physician by the Ukrainian People’s Army and was assigned to the Northern Caucasus. There, he became seriously ill with typhus, which he barely survived. That was when he last saw his family. After the Civil War, during the rise of the Soviets, most of his relatives emigrated to Paris. Bulgakov was refused to leave Russia because of his illness, even though he was invited by the French government as a doctor.

At that time Bulgakov has abandoned his career as a doctor for that of a writer. He also moved to Moscow with an intention to stay there.

With Communists in power since 1917, the idea of religion and Christianity as a whole becomes more and more distant. The new government had denounced faith by closing down churches and put a ban on religious movements. Slogans such as “Virgin Mary gave birth to Komsomolets (member of the Young Communist League)” appeared on Christmas in 1923. The existence of Jesus Christ was in question, which had touched and saddened Bulgakov deeply. In 1928, he went to his roots as a believer and started “The novel about God and Devil” later known as the first version of “The Master and Margarita”.

Slogans such as “Virgin Mary gave birth to Komsomolets (member of the Young Communist League)” appeared on Christmas in 1923.

Bulgakov had a hard time finding a job, holding such unpopular views, nor he could get any of his plays to be staged in Moscow theaters. In March 1930, Bulgakov has taken a risk and sent his famous desperate Letter to Stalin, in which he had asked Soviet Government to let him leave USSR or to help him find work in Moscow. He also wrote that he had burned the novel about God and Devil to show Stalin he was willing to cooperate. The letter was typed by Elena Shilovskaya, Bulgakov’s mistress. He had indeed burned the novel, but not entirely. One-third of it was left untouched. When Elena asked him why wouldn’t he burn entire book, he replied: “Then nobody would ever believe that the novel existed.”

According to Chudakova, the first version, which she was able to recover, had had a single chapter about Pontius Pilate, unlike in the modern version which has several. Characters of Master and Margarita didn’t appear the novel yet.

PART II. SECOND VERSION OF THE NOVEL: INTRODUCTION TO VOLAND AND MASTER.

Artwork by Irina Goryacheva aka Heather Hermit

What happened after the Letter to Stalin was sent, one would ask? Stalin telephoned Bulgakov shortly after:

Stalin: “Maybe I should let you leave USSR? Are you really that tired of us?”

Bulgakov: “I think that none of the Russian writers can live without his motherland”

Stalin:”Yes, I also think the same”

Deep inside Bulgakov did not believe that Stalin will get back to him after the letter and therefore was not ready for a call. Stalin was a very intimidating person and once on the phone with him, Bulgakov got scared that he could be arrested for his will to live and think free and decided to back down by saying that he believes the writers should live and work in their homeland.

Following this call however in April 1930, Bulgakov gets a job as an assistant of Theater Play Producer at Moscow Art Theater. When his own plays are still not to be in production, Bulgakov realizes that he did not get anything in return from Stalin for agreeing to stay in USSR.

Comes 1931 – still, no plays of Bulgakov have been approved for showing. Bulgakov is struggling to make ends meet and comes back to “The novel about God and Devil”. This time Bulgakov introduces Master and Margarita.

As all of Bulgakov’s novels are very personal and autobiographical, “The Master and Margarita” is not an exception. There are usually 2 main lines in his work:

  • First Line – based on Bulgakov’s real life experience and events
  • Second Line – usually not real and rather grotesque where characters are “traveling” from novel to novel

After events of 1931, the two lines cross-path one another in “The Master and Margarita”:

1.The relationship between Writer and Government;

2. The relationship between God and Devil.

Let’s look closer:

  • The novel is about tragic life of a writer – autobiographical – Master = Bulgakov
  • Voland receives new function and portrays Stalin more and more. Irreversible deal of Master and Voland = Irreversible deal of Bulgakov and Stalin
  • Pontius Pilate – also pictures Stalin – Pontius lets decimation of innocent Yeshua Ha-Notsri = Stalin doesn’t provide innocent Bulgakov the treatment he deserves

In May 1931 Bulgakov writes the second Letter to Stalin asking to let him travel to Europe but receives no answer.

When Elena asked him why wouldn’t he burn entire book, he replied:”Then nobody would ever believe that the novel existed”.

In September 1932 Bulgakov and Yelena Shilovskaya reunited after 15 months of separation. Elena had finally got divorced and started living together with Bulgakov. Manuscripts don’t burn and Bulgakov keeps working on a novel.

By the end of 1932, Stalin attends one of the Moscow Art Theater plays and asks the director why there are no plays of Bulgakov are being produced. This gives a green light to the theater and Bulgakov’s plays are put in motion.

November 16, 1933 – the novel had almost been finished, 506 pages have been written.

Where the name Master came from?

In 1933 Bulgakov meets Anna Akhmatova, another key writer of Stalin’s times. Anna was telling Bulgakov about her recent conversation with Boris Pasternak who had a call with Stalin as well. The call was related to Osip Mandelstam who was currently sent away to Stalin’s prison camps. Stalin used to manipulate people by making them say things out loud that they would often regret. Stalin would then use the word against that person. In the call to Pasternak, Stalin asked him about Mandelstam: “What do you think about Osip? Don’t you think that he is a Master?” Stalin wanted Pasternak to confirm that Osip is a Master so that Stalin could then sent Pasternak away as well.

The word “Master” was taken from Stalin’s vocabulary at that time and was used in the novel ever since. Bulgakov had to write the novel so that Stalin would approve it’s print and production and wanted to use as many words from “Stalin’s language” as possible – this was his plan.

The last chapter of “The Master and Margarita” is written in October 1934 but the novel still needs to be edited. Bulgakov writes in his diary: “Finish before I die”.

PART III. STALIN AND BULGAKOV: ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN “THE MASTER AND MARGARITA”

Artwork by Irina Goryacheva aka Heather Hermit

In 1934 Bulgakov leaves the novel for a while to work at the Theater.

1935 – 1936 were good years for Bulgakov and many of his plays were shown in Moscow Art Theater.

However, after Bulgakov’s play “Moliere” was on play, Moscow Art Theater staff started to write unpleasant articles and reports about him and his work which led Bulgakov to leave the theater. He tried his luck in Bolshoi Theater but have encountered the same resistance.

1937-1938 – Bulgakov is back to “The Master and Margarita”. He finally finishes it by the end of 1938 but editing is yet to be done. The novel is deeply auto-censored by Bulgakov as he is preparing to show it to Stalin for approval to print. Due to his illness, Bulgakov will be able to edit only the first part of the novel before hi dies; the second part of it stays as is (note from the blog post author: Have you noticed that it is more difficult to read the second part of the book?).

1939 – Bulgakov starts having open readings of “The Master and Margarita” among his friends – everyone is his circle warns him that Voland’s character is nothing else but Stalin’s portrait and that it may not end up to well.

Bulgakov, however, keeps pressing forward and uses the following lines as an epigraph to the novel to confirm his relationships with Stalin:

“… who are you, then?”
“I am part of that power
which eternally wills evil
and eternally works well.”
– Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Yes, Stalin is a dictator but sometimes he does good things such as allowing Bulgakov to stay in Moscow and helping him to get the job at the Moscow Art Theater. Bulgakov wants Stalin to know that and further draws his image even as an image of Jesus Christ:

“Your novel was read…” – says Voland to Master (meaning that it was read by Yeshua Ha-Notsri)

Bulgakov wants Stalin to read his novel and almost forecasts the desired future by placing Yeshua Ha-Notsri and Stalin on the same spot.

Furthermore, we can identify two ways of reading “The Master and Margarita”:

1. Master = Bulgakov;

2. Master = Second Coming of Jesus Christ (that Moscow citizens didn’t realize) = Yeshua Ha-Notsri.

After Master disappears, Moscow feels empty but he is not coming back. Easter with no resurrection!

Everyone around Bulgakov was realizing the danger he is in but he kept moving forward with the novel.

PART IV. SOVIET REALITY OF 1930 IN “THE MASTER AND MARGARITA”

Artwork by Irina Goryacheva aka Heather Hermit

The novel is full of Soviet period parallels and reality starting with character’s prototypes and finishing with the way of life in those times.

One of the questions was still not answered up until now:

Why Margarita made a deal with Voland?

As you could guess, Margarita is a prototype of Elena Shilovskaya (first Bulgakov’s lover and wife later) and in order for us to find the answer to our question, we need to look at Elena’s life further.

Prior to marriage with Bulgakov, Elena was married to Evgeny Shilovsky who was a Soviet Lieutenant General. Like any other person with high-level status, Evgeny was constantly under Soviet Security Services (KGB) radar to make sure he is not plotting anything against Stalin. As a result, the entire family of such person was automatically under surveillance as well and this is how Elena Shilovskaya got involuntary involved.

In order to keep an eye on all the people KGB were interested in, they would recruit so-called “informers” among regular people. It could be your neighbor, your friend or even your relative. If someone didn’t want to be an informer once contacted by the KGB, this person was simply tortured and often murdered. This is a tough reality of those times and that is why it is hard to blame informers for them agreeing to become one – they were simply feared for their life and life of their families. An informer was supposed to listen to the conversations of the people they would follow and then report to KGB on the same day.

“… who are you, then?”
“I am part of that power
which eternally wills evil
and eternally works good.”
– Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It is believed that after Elena Shilovskaya got divorced and married Bulgakov, she was approached by the KGB to become an informer on Bulgakov. As much as she didn’t want to become one, she had no choice and had to literally play with fire until the end. She agreed on it to save Bulgakov – at least she was able to control what to report to KGB. Similar to what we see in “The Master and Margarita”: Margarita makes a deal with Voland to save Master.

Another interesting Soviet reality showcased in the novel is the apartment #50 where Voland had been staying during his visit to Moscow. This apartment is a prototype of Lubyanka which is the popular name for the headquarters of the KGB and affiliated prison on Lubyanka Square in Moscow.

You can also see many instances in the novel where people were punished for keeping money in international currencies at home – this was also not allowed in the Soviet Union. It is hard to imagine all of it in the modern Russia yet it was a brutal reality of Stalin’s regime.

PART V. RESURRECTION OF “THE MASTER AND MARGARITA”.

Artwork by Irina Goryacheva aka Heather Hermit

“The Master and Margarita” was first published in 1966, 26 years after Bulgakov’s death.

Nobody knew anything about Bulgakov and his life and all of a sudden such controversial novel appears in one of the Moscow reading magazines.

Interest to Bulgakov’s figure immediately rose at the time. Marietta Chudakova was the one who started to work on Bulgakov’s biography and study the novel. She conducted over 100 interviews with friends and family members of Bulgakov while they were still alive in the late 60th, early 70th and made it her life mission to tell the world about Bulgakov.

Marietta’s countless publications, lectures, and articles serve as a great example of her love for author’s life and work.

POST SCRIPTUM (FROM THE BLOG POST AUTHOR).

  • Mikhail Bulgakov died from nephrosclerosis (an inherited kidney disorder) on 10 March 1940. He was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. His father had died of the same disease, and from his youth, Bulgakov had guessed his future mortal diagnosis.
  • All the places mentioned in the novel exist in real life in Moscow. Here is the Patriarch’s Pond where Berlioz and Ivan Bezdomny first met Voland:
Picture source ntv.ru

Korovin and Begemot sitting on the bench on Patriarch’s Pond:

Picture source House on Mayakovka Hotel

Traffic sign on Patriarch’s Pond says: “Don’t speak to strangers”:

Picture source Wikimedia Commons
  • In September 1921, Bulgakov settled in apartment number 50 on the fourth floor with his first wife Tatyana Nikolaevna Lappa. The apartment is located on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street, 10 – the very same apartment where Voland and his escort used to live during their visit to Moscow.
Entrance to Bulgakov’s House (Museum in Moscow)

In “The Master and Margarita”, Bulgakov didn’t situate the building at number 10, using instead the number 302-bis, to denounce the complexity of the Soviet administration in his time. Bulgakov’s House which serves as a museum is located there today. The museum was established as a private initiative on May 15, 2004. I visited the museum during my trip to Moscow in 2013 and have few pictures to share 🙂

Entrance to the Museum:

On the way up to apartment #50:

Inside the apartment #50:

Sculptures of the novel characters by Zurab Tsereteli located behind the “House of Books” building at New Arbat Street in Moscow (at least they were there in 2013):


*** All the artwork used in this post including featured image is created by Irina Goryacheva aka Heather Hermit. ***

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