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Betty Smartt Carter

"Everything Will Be Made Right"

Reading "The Master and Margarita" for the first time.

I had lunch recently with an old friend who defected from a Soviet Bloc country just before the end of the Cold War. While we were catching up, I happened to mention that I was reading Mikhail Bulgakov's posthumously published novel The Master and Margarita.[1]

"Greatest book ever written!" she said, and though I wasn't surprised, having read about the novel's enormous popularity in Russia, I still found myself at a loss. The greatest book? Not the funniest, not the most politically subversive, but the greatest?

At the time of our conversation, I was mired in a chapter where the lovely heroine, Margarita, rides a broom to a Walpurgis Night ball in Satan's apartment. Along the way she stops to vandalize the home of a literary critic who has prevented her lover, the Master, from publishing his sympathetic novel about Jesus Christ, a manuscript that Satan himself will rescue from oblivion just before he releases Pontius Pilate from … wait, what?

Even by magical-realist standards, The Master and Margarita is an odd book. Bulgakov fills the dreary streets of 1930s Moscow with Edward Gorey drawings come to life, comic demons dancing weightlessly over self-important bureaucrats (the demons include Behemoth, a pistol-wielding, card-playing cat the size of a hog). Meanwhile, Bulgakov's "Christ" narrative, set in ancient Jerusalem, pulses with real human feeling. To put it simply, this isn't Dr. Zhivago.

Still, Mikhail Bulgakov did have one thing in common with the author of that other Soviet-era masterpiece. Like Boris Pasternak, Bulgakov became a protégé of Joseph Stalin, who felt that the genius of his work put him beyond party politics. Or so he reportedly said—Stalin enjoyed a game of cat and mouse, and you rarely knew you were the mouse until that black curtain falling behind you turned out to be a well-waxed moustache. After Stalin became an unlikely fan of Bulgakov's pro-White play Days of the Turbins, he protected the writer from arrest, found him a job, and turned a blind eye to his unsavory political attitudes. Still, very little of Bulgakov's writing made it to the press or to the stage until after his death in 1940, and then for the longest time only in expurgated versions. Even a hagiographical piece about Stalin's youth was rejected by the censors.

Bulgakov considered this public silencing as real persecution, a kind of death in life for a writer. You have to wonder, though, what worse things might have happened if Stalin, slayer of millions, had suspected that Bulgakov was hiding something more dangerous up his sleeve than comic novels, plays about Pushkin and Moliere (both shut down) or even popular satires such as Zoyka's Apartment (also shut down). Throughout the worst years of what we now call "the terror," Bulgakov continued to work on an outrageous comedy that not only lampoons the madness of life in a stifling dictatorship but uses a moment in the history of Rome to illustrate that no human kingdom controls its own destiny. As went Rome, so might go the USSR.

Bulgakov's masterpiece begins on a street in Moscow, where Mikhail Berlioz, director of the official literary bureau MASSOLIT (a Bulgakovian parody of Soviet newspeak), chides an aspiring author, Ivan Ponyryov, for a poem he has tried to publish about Jesus Christ. It doesn't even matter that Ponyryov's poem is insulting to Jesus. To Berlioz, even to suggest that Christ existed is outrageous.

While Berlioz bloviates, an odd-looking foreigner materializes and introduces himself as "Professor Woland." Woland is delighted to learn that most Muscovites are now atheists. "Allow me to thank you with all my heart," he says, looking anxiously at the windows of the city where the watching sun is reflected. But then Woland assures the other two that Jesus did actually live.

Woland—who, we discover from Faustian clues, is Satan—begins a tale in which the procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, tormented by a blinding headache, must decide whether to send an innocent man to the cross. Yeshua Al-Nozri's supporters have deserted him, but he doesn't appear to hold that against them, nor does he seem capable of defending himself. Pilate feels compelled by the man's innocence and apparently mad faith in the goodness of mankind, but in the end he releases the political revolutionary Bar-Rabbas instead of the guiltless Yeshua. "Cowardice is the greatest human vice," the dying Yeshua rasps from the cross as his only disciple, the clueless Matthew Levi, looks on from a distance.

These Jerusalem chapters occur at intervals in the Moscow narrative that takes up the greater part of the novel. In chapter 13 we finally meet "The Master," our nameless hero who encounters the poet Ivan in a psychiatric hospital and tells him his story. Once, with the worshipful assistance of Margarita, the Master wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate. A publisher turned it down but then treacherously printed part of it in a newspaper without his permission. Official critics denounced the Master and ruined him; enemies accused him of "Pilatism." The broken man burned his manuscript in despair and fear.

But now Satan, lord of chaos, has come to atheist Moscow, and pandemonium is breaking out everywhere. Moscow bureaucrats try to stay on message, even when one of them literally becomes an empty suit. But it's hard to keep Muscovites calm when theater directors are mysteriously transported to Yalta, rubles vanish, women run half-naked in the streets, and state employees break out in spontaneous song. Woland arranges to put on a show of "black magic," which Soviet authorities try to spin as an educational event; the magician will reveal his tricks and all will learn that magic (and by extension the supernatural) does not exist. But the devil won't be cowed by a bunch of petty bureaucrats. When the master of ceremonies asks him to reveal his secrets, Woland simply removes the man's head from his shoulders; blood flows, people scream, the head returns to the body. The champagne of anarchy has been uncorked.

Eventually, Woland will rescue the Master's novel, mainly as a favor to Margarita, who plays hostess at his ball on the night of the full moon. "Everything will be made right," says Woland. "That is what the world is built on."

Before Bulgakov's novel was officially published, copies circulated in samizdat. For Russians who had lived through the terror, when government seemed as terrible and far-reaching as the Roman Empire in the first century, it must have been wonderful to read such words. What could give more comfort than the thought that the people and institutions we fear are temporary? Even tyrants are actors on a stage—unable to control their own destinies. Just as truth lies beyond the stage lights, eternal truth lies beyond the temporary horror of a totalitarian state. Bulgakov illustrates this near the end of the novel as the Master and Margarita, flying toward the moon with Woland and his retinue, see the demons lose their disguises and become their true selves.

Some devout readers have squirmed at Bulgakov's powerful Satan and weak, essentially human Jesus. For me, Woland isn't such a stretch. If your faith can tolerate the Book of Job (or if you've grown up a Calvinist), you can probably handle the idea of a devil forced to carry out God's will. In his love of show trials and disregard for anyone's rules except his own, Woland reflects Stalin, or at least the arbitrarily helpful Stalin that Bulgakov had to deal with. He is the prince of a world still tormented by lesser demons, the wicked disruptor of mankind, and also just another character in the story.

But Yeshua is another matter. It's true that Bulgakov doesn't give him much. Jesus comes off as your ex-doper creative-writing teacher, or that guy who works at the guitar store. He's kind, and he's a little crazy, and it's hard to see why anybody would take him seriously, let alone send him to a torturous execution.

The German critics may have something to do with this stripped-down Christ—or maybe we can blame it on Charles Darwin. Bulgakov, son and grandson of Orthodox theologians, found modern arguments against religion compelling. He rejected God in his early adulthood but returned to some level of faith when sickness and life under the Bolsheviks became unbearable. "Maybe [God's] not needed by the bold and brave," he wrote in a 1923 diary entry, "but for such as myself, it is easier to live with the thought of him."[2] It's interesting that an assault on the person of Jesus Christ in the Soviet journal Atheist may have been the germ of The Master and Margarita. In another diary entry (reprinted in Ellendea Proffer's excellent notes in the afterword of the Ardis edition of the novel), Bulgakov described his reaction to the anti-Christian propaganda in the magazine:

I was stunned. Not by the blasphemy, although it is boundless, but that is merely a superficial aspect. The essence of the matter lies in an idea which can be proved by citing the actual documents: Jesus Christ is depicted as a swindler and a scoundrel, and the attack is focused on him. It is not difficult to see whose work this is. This is a crime like no other.

It wasn't difficult in Bulgakov's context to connect this demonizing of Christ with the treatment of hapless victims of the Soviet state: people betrayed by cowardly and greedy neighbors and officials. That greed could be over something as banal as an empty apartment in an overcrowded city. Even Russians who didn't actively cooperate with evil struggled with the guilt of not standing up for the good. Where could you find absolution for hunkering down to survive while your neighbors disappeared in the night?

It seems to me that Bulgakov concentrates on Yeshua's innocence and powerlessness in order to connect him to other victims of human tyranny. Too guileless to defend himself, Bulgakov's Yeshua goes to the cross like a Russian to the gulag. As a reader, you're forced to lay aside a traditional Christian's comforting thoughts (that Christ could have saved himself, or that he knew he would rise again) and see him as just one of us, an ordinary human being who died alone for no good reason and could easily have been forgotten rather than worshiped. Even for a Christian who doesn't strain the Scriptures through some odious myth-filter, there's value in looking at things in this pre-resurrection way—if only for a moment. Yeshua here is the guiltless man that Pontius Pilate lacks the courage to defend; the Master, too, is afraid to expose his novel to the critics and in that sense "own" the condemned Christ.

As a registered Sunday school teacher, I feel the need to point out here that the world is still full of oppressed people with few champions—some in far-off totalitarian states, some close by but rarely seen and even more rarely considered. The reasons we don't stand up for them are often the old ones: greed and cowardice, along with a willful blindness to evil that doesn't threaten us personally. But nothing lasts forever, not even this comfortable spot where we sit hoping that tyrants will never catch up to us or our children.

Ultimately, because Mikhail Bulgakov's book about Satan is a weirdly Christian story, it's Yeshua who will intercede for the Master and also for Pontius Pilate, "cruel fifth procurator of Judaea." When she sees the ancient soldier still waiting for absolution on a lonely mountaintop, Margarita says, "Twelve thousand moons for that one moon long ago. Isn't that too much?"

"You need not plead for him Margarita," says Woland near the close of this truly great novel, "because the one he wants to talk with already has."

Betty Smartt Carter writes fiction and teaches Latin in Alabama.

1. There are several English translations of the novel. The version I read was translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor (Ardis, 1995).

2. Manuscripts Don't Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov: A Life in Letters, edited by J. A. E. Curtis (Ardis, 2012).

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