What to expect when you read Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita

The talking cat

Expect the unexpected…

Admittedly, the title is somewhat suggestive of Christian Grey at a cocktail party. I am sorry to disappoint all the 50 Shades fans out there, but this is not the case. As a classic, The Master and Margarita is a definitively cerebral work of literature: I fully expected it to be one of those books that would take me months to read and, on turning the last page, I’d congratulate myself on having run an intellectual marathon, cross-eyed from the confusion of nuances that only the most educated of scholars can decode. Do not be seduced by this expectation. Whilst The Master and Margarita is certainly one of the most complex books I’ve ever read, it is also a captivating tale of love, courage and black magic.

The storyline is woven around a certain Professor Woland’s visit to Moscow. The strange “foreigner” is accompanied by a scandalous entourage of tricksters, including a huge talking cat called Behemoth, a nude witch and a fanged assassin. As the chaos they unleash roams the city, we encounter the beautiful and brave Margarita, devoted to her lost lover and prepared to pay the ultimate price to reclaim his soul.

If you know anything about Russia’s recent past, I strongly recommend you read this book. Aside from Bulgakov’s skilful characterisation and unusual style, I enjoyed the story because it reflected the time in which it was written so distinctly. Russia is a country with a fascinating history. This history has always been accompanied by a tradition of political satire and subversive literature, from Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman to popular jokes in the 1980s when queuing for hours formed a part of every Russian’s daily life during Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms – take a look at this, slightly depressing, example:

“A man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he’s had enough. He turns round to his friend and says “That’s it. I’m going to kill that Gorbachev,” and marches off. Two hours later he comes back. “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?” “No,” replies the other, “there was an even longer queue over there.”

Similarly, through the medium of fantasy and hallucinogenic imagery, Bulgakov satirises Soviet life in the late 1920s – specifically, a suffocating bureaucracy, a godless society and a brutal restraint on the freedom of speech. Soviet society was coloured by greed, suspicion and betrayal. The mention of the USSR alone conjures up images of the Great Purges and gulags, the infamous KGB and Stalin’s cult of personality. In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov focuses on the oppression of expression, telling the story of The Master, a man whose life has been destroyed by censorship. This is undoubtedly auto-biographical as Bulgakov himself spent his life battling criticism and the prohibition of his works (the uncensored version of The Master and Margarita itself was only published 1973 – 30 years after it was written). On one famous occasion, the writer wrote a personal letter to Stalin in despair, requesting permission to emigrate if the USSR could not use his creativity. He immediately received a phone call from the infamous leader asking him whether he truly wished to leave. Bulgakov’s answer was a tactful one: a Russian author cannot live outside his homeland.

Socialist realism

Thank you Stalin! – propaganda and indoctrination dominated Soviet lifestyle


Mikhail Bulgakov: a man’s creativity destroyed by an oppressive regime

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