Much has been written about Joseph Stalin – his ruthlessness, his inability to trust anyone, his brutality, and, of course, the millions of people he imprisoned, exiled and executed. A huge body of research is devoted to his personality and his implementation of socialist ideas. Yet one particular literary work, insightful and original, provides a unique historical observation of his regime, one that is lacking in most history books.
Michail Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita between 1928 and 1940. These were hard years. Stalin’s regime became more oppressive, citizens of the Soviet Union were gradually being deprived of their personal rights; any expression of criticism implied immediate exile, if not a death sentence.
Bulgakov, born in 1891 in Kiev, was a medical doctor and a surgeon who later became a writer. Having grown up in a family that encouraged humanistic education, he had always been fascinated by literature, music, the theater. While serving as a doctor in the Ukraine People’s Army he was infected by typhus. Following this experience he abandoned the medical profession and decided to devote all his time to writing. His best-known work is the imaginative and fantastic novel The Master and Margarita.
This masterpiece depicts a most unusual event: during Stalin’s regime, the devil comes to visit Moscow. He is called ‘Professor Woland’; he is a polyglot and a translator, a mysterious character who insists that God exists and that the crucifixion of Christ did take place. Yet even regardless of his theological arguments he is a fascinating character: colorful, charming, enigmatic. This does not mean he isn’t the embodiment of ultimate evil – he can be as cruel and brutal as one could imagine. But he is certainly never dull or boring.
He is accompanied by three male assistants and a female one. There is the ridiculous-looking Koroviev, who can see through a man’s mind. Never violent, he sticks a needle into a man’s heart, a figurative image of his unique ability to observe hidden feelings and thoughts. Behemoth, a huge black cat walking on two legs, can charm anyone to death. Azazelo, the crudest of the three, a monster-like creature with a fang jutting out of his mouth, can perform any task impartially. The fourth member of this group is Hella, a witch-like woman, who is the devil’s junior assistant.
This diabolical bunch travels around Moscow, ridiculing various aspects of the communist regime: the literary club (what would have happened had Dostoevsky tried to enter the club? He would have been kicked out, since he didn’t have a party membership card); the common values communism is attempting to instill (in a magic show the crowd leaps to grab dollar bills falling from the ceiling); the teaching of atheism, and above all, the lack of personal freedom. The artist, Margarita’s love, is committed to a psychiatric clinic and is prevented from publishing his literary work. Margarita, a character inspired by Bulgakov’s third wife and his true love, accepts the devil’s offer to be the hostess at the ball of the dead, in return for which she asks for the release of her beloved artist.
The heart of Bulgakov’s criticism of the communist regime is not the specific arguments he makes. It is his juxtaposing of Stalin with the devil, the symbol of ultimate evil, as it evolved throughout the generations. Assuming that evil will always be part of human existence, the question of which is worse – Stalin or the devil – comes up naturally, almost unwittingly. Would we prefer the devil’s doings – arbitrary and painful, but intriguing and diversified, or Stalin’s ambition – a unified, standardized system, aimed at blurring the differences between men, creating a dull and lifeless society? By the end of the novel, the answer is self-evident.
The Soviet regime prevented the publication of the book. Its criticism of the implementation of communist ideas was clear, though party officials may not have grasped just how profound it was. Yet Stalin himself thought very highly of Bulgakov. He cherished his artistic work and saw to it that he would not suffer physically harm.
Bulgakov was not permitted to publish the novel, and his constant requests to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union were refused. In his desperation he wrote two personal letters to Stalin. His wife was horrified, saying this was tantamount to attempting suicide; people were sentenced to death for much lesser things. However, he wasn’t harmed in any way as a result of these letters.
Bulgakov worked almost until his death, dictating the last sentences of the novel to his wife. A couple of hours after his death the telephone rang in his apartment – someone from Stalin’s office wants to know if the great artist Mikhail Bulgakov had passed away. When she said ‘yes’ the line went dead.