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No doctrine was more fundamental to the Bolsheviks than atheism. They professed absolute certainty that nothing exists beyond the chain of cause and effect described by the sciences. From day one they gleefully arrested priests, defaced icons, and subjected believers to mockery or worse. “Godless”—as in the League of the Militant Godless, with its countless affiliates in factories, schools, and collective farms—became a term of high praise. It is therefore more than curious that three magnificent literary works, arguably the greatest of the Soviet period, were overtly Christian. The poems that conclude Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago include some of the most poignant Christian lyrics ever written. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes how the horrors he witnessed led him from unthinking materialism to Christian faith. And no work has inspired greater delight among Russians, or lovers of Russian literature, than Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantastic novel The Master and Margarita. (To appreciate the novel’s profundity and wit, readers should be sure to choose the translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor.)

Written between 1928 and Bulgakov’s death in 1940 when Stalinism was at its height, the novel had no chance of being published in its author’s lifetime. On two occasions, Bulgakov, fearing arrest by the secret police, burned the manuscript and had to reconstruct it later. In these grim conditions he managed to compose a delightful satire on all smug certainty, a playful romp of fearless delight, and an enthusiastic celebration of Christian belief. With its endless inventiveness, the novel conveys what Russian philosopher Mikhail ­Bakhtin called the sheer “surprisingness” of life, which Soviet doctrine and its “science” of history claimed to have overcome.

It is amazing that Bulgakov died a natural death. Descended on both sides from a family of priests, he grew up in a religious but not dogmatic Russian Orthodox household. His father, a professor of theology specializing in Western Christianity, studied the remarkable variety of Christian ideas and practices. When Bulgakov read Darwin his faith was shaken, but he regained it. His wife Elena explained that although Bulgakov “rarely” went to church, “he did believe in God” and the afterlife, which he “envisaged . . . as the ongoing experience of the spiritual state in which a man found himself, either at the time of his most terrible sin, or of his noblest undertaking. He expected to meet in the afterlife with those who had been close to him, irrespective of whether their epochs on earth had coincided or not.”

The Bulgakovs were monarchists, and Mikhail, who had studied medicine, became a doctor with White (anti-Bolshevik) forces during the Russian civil war. Two of his brothers escaped abroad. A severe case of typhus prevented Mikhail, who had published an anti-Bolshevik article, from emigrating when it was possible to do so.

Lenin’s attempt to impose communism all at once led to a famine that claimed some five million lives, and the Bolsheviks at last retreated to the New Economic Policy, which allowed a modicum of small-scale free enterprise. Compared to what was to follow, the 1920s were a time of cultural freedom, and Bulgakov soon established himself as a significant writer. The delightful stories of his Notes of a Young Doctor convey the sense of doubt that a young physician experiences when he must convey perfect confidence. His novel White Guard was soon turned into a play that became the most frequently performed in the entire Soviet repertoire. When the play was first staged, its frank portrayal of the civil war tribulations experienced by many in the audience required ambulances to be parked outside the theater, ready to minister to those emotionally overcome. Despite its celebration of a monarchist family resembling Bulgakov’s own, the play enchanted Stalin, who (the story goes) saw it a dozen times and, when it ceased to be performed, asked why.

Bulgakov’s plays and satires tested the limits even of the relatively tolerant 1920s. Unlike so many others, he never pretended to be anything but what he was. When the secret police summoned him to an interview, Bulgakov did not hesitate to say, “I have a satirical mindset. . . . I always write with a clear conscience, and I write things as I see them. The negative aspects of life in the Soviet state attract my attention because . . . I am a satirist.”

Then came what Bulgakov called his “year of catastrophe,” 1929, when his plays were banned and it became clear he could no longer publish or, for that matter, work. In despair he wrote a letter to Stalin describing his plight and asking permission to emigrate. It is hard to believe how courageously forthright he was:

To struggle against censorship, of whatever kind, and whatever the government in power, is my duty as a writer, as are calls for freedom of the press. I am a passionate believer in that freedom, and I consider that if any writer should think of trying to persuade me that he did not need it, it would be like a fish declaring in public that it did not need water. . . . M. Bulgakov HAS BECOME A SATIRIST at precisely the moment when true satire (the kind that penetrates into forbidden areas) has become absolutely unthinkable in the USSR.

Remarkably enough, Stalin telephoned ­Bulgakov and promised a suitable job in the Moscow Art ­Theatre. The plays Bulgakov continued to write were rejected as too dangerous, but for reasons no one knows, he was not shot like so many other writers. Seeing friends arrested, he began to suffer from various nervous disorders, which were treated with hypnotism.

For a dozen years Bulgakov worked on draft after draft of his “sunset novel,” which he would eventually call The Master and Margarita. He took the risk of giving private readings. Sergei ­Eisenstein, ­Nadezhda Mandelstam, and probably ­Pasternak were aware of the book, and the poet Anna Akhmatova proclaimed Bulgakov a genius. Elena promised her husband that she would someday get his novel published (“This is the purpose and meaning of my life,” she told ­Bulgakov’s brother), and in 1966 and 1967 the journal Moscow published a prudently shortened version. It is fair to say that no work of twentieth-­century Russian literature caused such a sensation or acquired so many enthusiastic admirers, even among people who do not usually pay attention to literature. I have never met a reader who did not love it.

The Master and Margarita interweaves three stories. In the one that occupies the most space, the devil, who calls himself Woland (a name drawn from Goethe’s Faust, which Woland has read), appears in Stalinist Russia accompanied by a retinue of practical jokers. They include a “retired choirmaster” wearing clownish checkered trousers and sporting a cracked pince-nez who goes by the name of ­Koroviev; a naked witch named Hella; and a black cat of monstrous proportions, the size of a hog, called ­Behemoth. Far from arbitrary, the group’s jokes are punishments that fit the crimes of the characters who cross their path. Since Muscovites all pretend to believe the same thing, Koroviev makes a group of them unable to stop singing in chorus until they are at last taken to Doctor Stravinsky’s insane asylum. A bureaucrat’s secretary is shocked to discover that her boss has been replaced by a literal empty suit who continues to answer phone calls and sign documents. (When the bureaucrat returns, he approves all the suit’s decisions.)

Woland does not at all resemble the traditional devil who tempts people to sell their souls, causes as much evil as possible, and relishes the suffering of the innocent. Woland embodies the principle of (admittedly harsh) justice. From start to finish, his merry band of pranksters devises inventive ways to reward transgressions with suitable retributions. The more Soviet officials claim to have everything under control, the more mayhem they encounter. As Woland explains in one of the final chapters to the novel’s heroine, ­Margarita, “Everything will be made right, that is what the world is built on.” The Master and Margarita depicts a world that is strangely but ­undoubtedly providential. This is one reason the book so delighted its Russian readers, who were thrilled by the way Woland matches Soviet-­era vices with fitting penalties. But the world of the novel rises above mere justice. Its plot is ultimately governed by Jesus (called Yeshua), who is the principle of mercy.

The novel opens at Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow. Berlioz, who directs the writers’ union (which ­Bulgakov hilariously names MASSOLIT), has commissioned an anti-Christian poem. He is explaining to the young poet Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev—who has adopted Bezdomny, or “Homeless,” as a proletarian pen name—that his poem showing a repulsive Jesus is ideologically mistaken because it assumes that Jesus actually existed—whereas he was, according to Berlioz, a fiction invented by Christians. Suddenly a foreign professor appears. (“I just this minute arrived,” he explains, using an idiom that in this case is literally true.) Oddly dressed, with eyes of two different colors, he insists that Jesus does exist and that he himself witnessed his interrogation by Pontius ­Pilate, which, in the novel’s second chapter, he describes in detail.

Laughing at Berlioz’s “scientific” atheism, Woland demands to know who, if there is no God, “is in control of man’s life and the whole order of things on earth?” When Berlioz replies that man himself is in control, Woland objects that to be in control “you have to have a definite plan for at least a reasonable period,” whereas humanity cannot make a plan even for “a ridiculously short period of time, say a thousand years.” For that matter, Woland informs Berlioz that he does not know what he will be doing that same evening. When Berlioz outlines his plans to chair an important MASSOLIT committee, Woland coolly informs him that he will shortly fall under a streetcar and have his head cut off.

Woland agrees with Berlioz that the five medieval proofs of God’s existence do not hold up. When Berlioz maintains that Immanuel Kant’s sixth proof fares no better, the young poet Bezdomny interjects that this Kant guy ought to be sent to the Solovki labor camp in the far north. “Precisely so, precisely so,” Woland laughs. “That’s the very place for him! As I told him that time at breakfast, ‘As you please, professor, but you’ve contrived something totally absurd!’ . . . However . . . he can’t be sent to Solovki for the simple reason that for more than a hundred years now he’s been somewhere far more remote than Solovki, and there’s no way of getting him out of there, I assure you!” In any case, Woland tells Berlioz, there is a seventh proof, which Berlioz is about to experience—when, as predicted, he falls under a streetcar and has his head cut off.

One of the leitmotifs of The Master and Margarita is the modern conceit that there exist no supernatural phenomena and ­science can explain everything. Although ordinary Muscovites are quick to credit “unclean spirits” for the extraordinary occurrences, the educated classes always have reductive materialist explanations. Yet time and again, Woland perplexes smug Soviet officials who are sure they can banish all mystery, by orchestrating events defying rational comprehension. As an economic planner, Berlioz’s uncle Poplavsky in Kiev epitomizes confidence in man’s ability to control the world. He receives a telegram: “I have just been cut in half by a streetcar at Patriarch’s. Funeral Friday 3 PM. Come. Berlioz.” “Even the smartest man would be befuddled by a telegram like that,” the narrator observes. If a man can wire that he has had an accident, then it can’t have been fatal. He might be ill enough to foresee his death, but how could he know the funeral’s precise hour? “But what are smart people for, if not to untangle things?” the narrator asks, mimicking Berlioz’s self-assured tone, which is shared by officials throughout the novel. The word “I,” Poplavsky reasons, must have come from another telegram and displaced “Berlioz” to the end. When Poplavsky arrives at Berlioz’s apartment, which he hopes to inherit, he discovers Woland and his retinue. Their inexplicable and frightening tricks persuade him to return to Kiev and forget about the apartment. Unlike most Soviet officials, who persist in denying Woland’s magic and wind up in the insane asylum, Poplavsky prudently retreats in the face of danger. Does he wonder whether he has stumbled on some secret machinations of the Soviet interior ministry?

Berlioz shared this apartment with the director of the Variety Theatre, Styopa Likhodeev, whom Woland gets rid of by sending him ­instantaneously to Yalta, 1,800 kilometers away. Since Likhodeev has just been speaking with other theater employees, no one can explain how, a few minutes later, he can be in Yalta sending telegrams.

Pretending to be a foreign professor who has studied black magic, Woland and his assistants give a show at the Variety Theatre. Ten-ruble notes fall from the ceiling onto the audience. Glamorous garments for women are conjured out of nowhere. The emcee keeps interrupting to assure the audience that there is no such thing as magic. At last, because he keeps sticking his nose into the performance, he has his head torn off. The disembodied head pleads to be returned to its body. When it is, the emcee, like so many others who encounter Woland, must be taken to the insane asylum.

At the novel’s end, Soviet investigators finally come up with an explanation for the many impossible occurrences. “And they were all explained, and one can’t but conclude that the explanations were both reasonable and irrefutable,” the author declares in the same self-assured tone. It seems that it was all the work of a criminal gang of “hypnotists with unprecedented powers, capable of appearing not where they actually were” and able to “convince whoever came into contact with them that certain objects or people were present in places where they really were not.” Ventriloquism explained the talking cat, who survived being shot because he was only a mirage all along. But if Likhodeev only seemed to be in ­Yalta, why did Yalta police affirm they had taken him into custody? The “absolutely irrefutable” answer is that the hypnotists could practice their art at a distance, even great distances.

Bulgakov is satirizing attempts to explain the supernatural in naturalistic terms and so banish mystery from the world. One might reply: Wouldn’t mass hypnotism at a distance of 1,800 kilometers with no medium be the very definition of magic, something beyond naturalistic explanations? In any case, an explanation that applies to everything explains nothing. Plenary appeals to “hypnotism”—which allow officials to dismiss the experiences of an entire population—could equally well deny any set of facts. Should a social experiment not work out as wished, just ascribe the negative result to hypnotism! (Or, as the Soviets actually did, to “sabotage” directed from abroad.) To be meaningful, scientific assertions must be falsifiable, and so these devotees of “science” are anything but scientific. Their ­theories are “irrefutable” only because they rule out counter-evidence in principle. Such a theory might explain away anything. “Mass hypnotism” allows us to dismiss what an entire population says about its experience. But then, doesn’t Marxism-Leninism (“scientific socialism”) do the same?

Berlioz’s head, conscious and separated from his body, turns up at Woland’s supernatural ball. “Mikhail Alexandrovich,” Woland says to the head, “you were always an avid proponent of the theory” that when a man dies, it is the absolute end—that “he turns into dust, and departs into non-being.” It is only just that “to each shall be given according to his beliefs. May it be so! You are departing into non-being, and, from the goblet into which you are being transformed, I will have the pleasure of drinking a toast to being!” The afterlife is reserved for those who believe in it. Woland wryly adapts the Marxist conception of justice: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need—or in this case, belief.

The book’s second story begins with Woland’s account of Pilate’s interrogation of Yeshua. Unlike in the Gospels, this narrative’s central character is not Yeshua but Pilate. The thread of the story continues in a novel written by the book’s eponymous hero, the Master, and for the remainder of The Master and Margarita we get further extracts from the Master’s novel. Interestingly enough, whereas contemporary Moscow is invaded by the supernatural, ancient Jerusalem seems utterly devoid of it—perhaps because the story is told from Pilate’s frame of reference, or perhaps because Bulgakov wished to portray Christ’s trial and execution in realistic terms acceptable to the naturalistic and materialistic assumptions of modernity, thus inverting Berlioz’s claim that Jesus is fictive.The result is a “historical Jesus” of the sort David Strauss, Ernest Renan, and others have imagined. But if their Jesus was meant to discredit Christian belief, the Master’s story affirms it. Although his account deviates from the Gospels, the main elements remain. The mystery of the resurrection is not mentioned, but neither is it foreclosed, and ­Yeshua appears in the final chapters as governor of the other world. Bulgakov seems to be saying: It is easy enough to imagine a quite different set of events occurring on the eve of Passover in Jerusalem those many centuries ago. But those events, if reconstructed on remotely plausible historical criteria, remain open to the supernatural. The fundamental tenets of Christianity remain true.

The Gospel of Pilate, as we might call this novel within the novel, not only differs from the four canonical Gospels but explains why. Yeshua fascinates Pilate, who wants passionately to save him but proves too cowardly to do so. After the crucifixion, Pilate deeply regrets what he has done. In recompense, employing indirection so as to protect himself from repercussions, he arranges for Judas to be murdered by the head of his secret police, Afranius. Pilate also instructs Afranius to circulate the story about Judas’s suicide that we know from the Gospel according to Matthew. Overcome with anguish, Pilate soon realizes that by punishing Judas he was merely trying “to deceive himself. It was clear he had lost something irretrievable that day, and now he wanted to make up for the loss with minor, inconsequential, and most importantly, belated measures.”

The Pilate narrative retells these events with hyper-realism, able to penetrate behind received tales to what really happened. Unlike the fantastical events in Moscow, the story of Pilate appears as a thoroughly true-to-life story. Whereas Soviet life is filled with irrational absurdities and bizarre events, the biblical story is all too logical in the dishonorable motivations for the central actions. In this contrast, the sacred story emerges all the more radiant and triumphant.

Afranius reports that, before dying, Yeshua asserted that cowardice is among the most terrible vices; Pilate blanches. When these words reappear late in the book, Bulgakov adds in his own voice: “I disagree . . . it is the most terrible vice.”

In both the Moscow and Jerusalem stories, The Master and Margarita probes the nature of courage. Pilate reflects that when fighting the furious German barbarians he behaved bravely. But there turns out to be more than one kind of courage, a point that Soviet experience taught several writers. It is one thing for a soldier to risk his life in the company of others; it is quite another for an individual in daily life to defy authority, or indeed to allow himself to think his own thoughts. “Courage in war and courage of thought are two different things,” observed Russian literature’s most recent Nobel Prize–winning writer, Svetlana Alexievich. “I used to think they were the same.”

Stalinism made courage in thought especially dangerous, but the pressure to align one’s opinions with those of a favored group is universal. Solzhenitsyn detected this pressure even before the Revolution. Vorotyntsev, the hero of his novel November 1916, finds himself at a meeting of Kadets (the Russian liberal party). He listens as everyone voices the proper views they all already hold. He is struck that their confidence needs constant reinforcement and that those with progressive opinions regard it as “imperative . . . to meet and hear all over again what they collectively knew. They were all overpoweringly certain they were right, yet they needed these exchanges to reinforce their certainty.” An experienced colonel, Vorotyntsev knows that their opinions about common soldiers are absurd, but for a reason he cannot explain, he finds himself expressing agreement.

“What is it,” he at last asks himself, “that always forces us to adapt to the general tone?” As if under a magic spell, this bold officer, who was courageous in battle and unafraid to point out his superiors’ mistakes, cannot bring himself to say anything “­reactionary.” Something similar happens to the heroes of Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate. Fear of reprisal plays a major role, of course, but ­Grossman’s heroes know there is something besides this kind of mortal fear. There is a fear of ­b­­eing behind the times, of being “on the wrong side of history,” and above all of being on one’s own.

Vorotyntsev at last breaks free from the “unbearable constraints, the bewitchment,” and forthrightly expresses his views. How many could do so today? Pilate does not break free until after the crucifixion, when it is too late. On the morning of the crucifixion, when it mattered, he held back from protecting Yeshua, “but now . . . he would be glad to do it. He would do anything to save the totally innocent mad dreamer and physician from death!” His most ignoble deed becomes his defining moment, and in the afterlife he, too, receives just punishment. He is condemned to suffer millennia of regret.

The novel’s third story concerns the Master and his beloved Margarita. They barely appear in the first of the novel’s two parts, and we do not learn Margarita’s name until the opening paragraph of Part II. This paragraph insists on the reality of love, genuine love that is not reducible to self-interest. “Follow me, reader!” the narrator begins. “Who ever told you there is no such thing in the world as real, true, everlasting love? May the liar have his despicable tongue cut out! Follow me, reader, and only me, and I’ll show you that kind of love!” In Margarita, Bulgakov turns toward a different refutation of Soviet materialism, the transcendence of self for the sake of another.

We first encounter the Master as a patient in Stravinsky’s insane asylum, where he tells his story to the young poet Bezdomny, whose encounter with Woland has driven him mad. Having won the lottery, the Master explains to Bezdomny, he gave up his museum job to write a novel about Pontius Pilate—the one we have been reading—and fell in love with Margarita. As soon as they met, the Master and Margarita knew they were destined for each other. She encouraged his writing. When the Master tried to get part of the novel published, he was viciously attacked for counter-revolutionary “Pilatism.” Denounced by a false friend who coveted his apartment, the Master was arrested and subjected to an unspecified but horrible punishment that has left him incapable of living outside an asylum. All Margarita knows is that he has burned his novel and disappeared.

Woland needs Margarita because he holds an annual ball presided over by a hostess who must be named Margarita and a native of the land where it is held. In hopes of learning what happened to the Master, she agrees, becomes a witch, and serves as queen of Woland’s gathering of dead sinners briefly resurrected for the occasion. As her reward, she has a right to ask Woland for whatever she wants. She requests that he show mercy to one of the sinners. But mercy, Woland explains, is not his “department”—it is Yeshua’s—and so instead of releasing the sinner himself, he gives Margarita the power to do so. When Woland again prompts her to ask for her own reward, Margarita wants nothing more than to be reunited with the Master. As she asks, she feels her want so acutely that “her face was contorted by a spasm.”

The chapter in which Margarita’s wish is ­granted, “The Extraction of the Master,” has perhaps the most pathos of any section of the novel. What the Master has gone through has left him a broken man. Woland pronounces, “Yes, they [presumably the interrogators] did a good job on him.”

Woland asks why Margarita calls him “the ­Master.” The moniker comes from her high opinion of his novel about Pontius Pilate. Woland asks to see it. Alas, the Master answers, it has been burned. Woland replies with the book’s most quoted line: Nonsense, he says, “manuscripts don’t burn,” and it miraculously reappears. Everything else in the world can burn, cities and people can perish, but literature—in Russia nothing is more sacred—lives eternally. What is more, great writers have unique access to the truth: That is why the Master has correctly divined what really happened to Yeshua and Pilate. “Oh, I guessed it, I guessed it all!” he ­e­nthuses when his account is confirmed.

Margarita requests that she and the Master be returned to their former life in the old apartment. The Master points out that much has happened since his arrest, and that someone else is living there. The past cannot be changed, even by the devil himself. True enough, Woland retorts, but records of it can be altered. The name of the false friend disappears from the apartment’s lease and everywhere else. “No documents, no person,” Woland explains in the novel’s second most famous line. It alludes not only to bureaucracy’s usurpation of real life everywhere and always, but also to the Soviet practice of making persons into unpersons. It recalls as well the double life Soviet citizens live: the glorious official one they must affirm, and the unpleasant reality they must negotiate every day. When rulers claiming infallibility fail, everyone must act as if they had succeeded, and the only sure way to do so is actually to believe it. Which is more real—official documents marked “keep forever,” or constantly disappearing real people?

In the final Moscow scene, the slapstick duo of Koroviev and Behemoth torches the building that houses MASSOLIT, the writers’ union where a “writer” is defined as someone with a writers’ union card. Then Woland and his companions, now including the Master and Margarita, mount supernatural steeds that gallop to where the ­Pontius Pilate story can at last conclude. They find Pilate seated in a state of regret so deep that he has become almost catatonic. He is accompanied by his faithful dog Banga, and we realize that their companionship represents the novel’s other story about perfect love.

Now Woland allows the Master to pen the end of his novel, which is to say, to determine Pilate’s eternal fate. The Master cries out, “You’re free! You’re free! He’s waiting for you!” Just as Margarita had asked for mercy for the condemned sinner, the Master’s declaration breaks the bonds of a tit-for-tat world.

The Master has freed Pilate from his millennia of regret, allowing him to do what he has done only in a dream: continue the conversation with Yeshua that he had ended by his cowardly ­acquiescence in the strange sage’s death. In that dream, Pilate joyfully walks with Yeshua on a moonbeam, discussing ultimate questions. “They were arguing about something complex and important, and neither one of them could convince the other. They did not agree about anything, and that made their dispute all the more engaging and endless.” For ­Bulgakov, the essence of life lies not in the sort of sterile certainty the Soviets claimed to possess, but in open-ended dialogue in which there is always more mystery, always something to provoke wonder.

Yeshua, we learn, has also read the Master’s novel, and to reward him, he sends Matthew—in this telling, his only disciple—to bid Woland take the Master and Margarita under his protection and give their souls an eternal idyllic life. When Woland inquires why Yeshua does not grant them a still greater reward by taking them to his divine light, Matthew explains: “They have earned peace, not light.” Evidently there is something higher, something that even this novel or the greatest literary imagination cannot picture: The ultimate mystery, the light, that exceeds human comprehension.

If everything were explained, if everything happened in accord with deterministic “laws of history,” there would be no room for freedom and no need for courage. Although the novel’s eponymous hero (whose name we never learn) carries the exalted title of Master, it is Margarita who embodies faith and courage. She is undaunted by Woland and willing to risk everything. And risk, we reflect, entails what Berlioz denied in the opening scene: uncertainty. Her heroism arises from a single source: her love for the Master. This is, perhaps, the “final answer,” which of course is not an answer at all, but instead a human reality that cannot be domesticated by any philosophical “system.” As we read in the last chapter of the Song of Songs, “love is strong as death.” In this novel, it is stronger.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.

Image by Umberto Nicoletti via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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