For my blog post of the week, I wanted briefly look at censorship in 1960’s Soviet Russia and how censorship effected The Master and Margarita, a book by that many consider to be one of the greatest pieces of literature of the 20th century.
It was clear that artistic expression was in a dire state during this time period. Gregory Freeze writes of the 1966 show trial of Andrei Sinivaskii and Iulii Daniel, two dissident writers who had published satirical works abroad. Their “anti Soviet” works lead them to being sentenced to seven and five years of hard labor respectively. Their imprisonment lead to sixty three Moscow writers writing “an open letter of protest… and another two hundred prominent intellectuals sent a letter to the Twenty-Third Party Congress demanding that the case be reviewed” (Freeze 438). Similarly, the Limits of Expression 17 moments module highlights the twenty year banning of Kira Muratova’s Brief Encounters for “moral objections” (quite ambiguous, no) and the November 4, 1969 ouster of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for completing his final manuscript for Gulag Archipelago, which detailed the atrocities that occurred in Stalinist prison camps.
Keeping that all in mind, I found that fact that The Master and Margarita ended up emerging from this period very surprising. The book was a scathing satire of Soviet life written Mikhail Bulgakov, who had started writing the book in 1928 but soon abandoned the book because, I would assume, he enjoyed living. He actually burned the first two versions of the novel in 1930, and didn’t start working on it again until 1932 after a visit to Leningrad with his wife, Elena Sergeevna (Pevear Introduction xix). When Bulgakov died in 1940, he gave the unfinished work to his wife. Elena Sergeevna worked to diligently to finish the novel, but it wasn’t until 1966 that she was finally able to get the work published in the Moskva, a small monthly magazine.
The magazine published the book in two parts. The second release, which appeared in the Jan. 1967 issue, was received in a way that I would liken to Harry Potter. People were holding large group readings, quoting favorite passages, and were just giddy with excitement. The book “was a contradiction of everything wooden, official, imposed” ( Pevear Intro xvi).
The book itself is a masterfully written (my translation, the one pictured above, was awesome) commentary on religion, morality, and greed in the Soviet Union. I will do try and fit in a super quick summary. The book starts out with the Devil, who disguises himself as a professor, visiting modern day Moscow (set in the 1930s). The first two people he meets are a poet, Ivan Ponyrev (also known as Ivan Homeless) and a literary magazine editor, Beriloz, who both, like most people in Moscow, don’t believe in God. The Devil tries to convince the two that Jesus does exist by delving into the story of Pontious Pilate. He then tells Berlioz that he will soon slip onto the tracks of a tram-car and die. Berlioz, of course, starts calling the dude crazy, but that is exactly what happens. Someone spills sunflower oil causing Berlioz to slip on the tracks and die.
Ivan tries to run away and is followed/harassed by two of the Devil’s henchman: A man in a red and white checkered suit named Koroviev/Fagot and a large black cat named Behemoth, who enjoys wine and guns. Ivan tries to tell people what happened to him and his friend and ends up in a mental hospital.
( Here they are posing. #squadgoals)
I can’t really say that the devil was portrayed as evil, but he and his crew do go around doing some messed up things. For instance, he goes Variety Theatre to preform some black magic, and makes Behemoth tear off the master of ceremony’s head (don’t worry the person was kind of a jerk and he gets his head back. But he eventually quits his job because everyone won’t stop making fun of him for losing his head). This leads, quite hilariously, to people trying to explain away what happened (i.e. everyone was hypnotized).
This is getting long so I’ll try and wrap it up. The Master and the Margarita are the names of the two “heroes” of the book (and are modeled after Bulgakov and his wife). The two are fall in love with one another, causing Margarita to leave her husband. The Master writes a book about Pontius Pilate that he burns after critics trash it. They do this not because the book is bad, but rather because it will benefit them professionally. He is then kidnapped by the secret police and sent to a mental hospital. Margarita is all distraught and is going to kill herself, when the Devil’s cronies show up. They give her some cream that turns her into a witch, and she flies off to trash the apartment of one of the critics who trashed her lover’s book.
She then attends a ball held by the devil, which is attended by deceased assassins and kings and other colorful characters . The devil eventually reunites the two lovers. The two end up dying due to being poisoned and go off with the devil.
I wrote this because I found this book to be an amazing read. It was funny, in the darkest way possible, and more exciting than you would expect a Russian classic to be. At one point in the book, the Devil tells the Master to complete his book. When the Master says that he burned it, the Devil tells him that “manuscripts don’t burn” and recites some of the words in the book before handing him a copy of his manuscript. The phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” became a famous rallying cry for the intelligensta. It came to represent how the spreading of ideas and art would not be suppressed, even if the Soviet government continued to try to do so.
This post was nominated for “Student Choice.”
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print
Bulgakov, Mikhail, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, and Boris Fishman. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Master and Margarita. NY, NY: Penguin, 2016. N. pag. Print.
April 3, 2017 at 12:19 pm
Wow this was an interesting read. I liked how you compared its release to Harry Potter’s release. I can definitely remember waiting by the door for my copy to arrive so I could read it in a single day. I haven’t read the book but, (like you said it definitely doesn’t sound like a normal Russian classic work) I definitely want to check it out now. Great post!
April 3, 2017 at 9:24 pm
Oh, the Harry Potter comparison is spot on! I so enjoyed reading this. The illustrations are lovely, as is that video. Can you put the links to the sources at the end or in the captions of your post? I’ve always thought it was intriguing that a fantastical re-telling of Faust with a twist and a bizarre cat could be so compelling. But it is — just the kind of imaginative, creative provocation that the authorities (any time, any place) can’t abide. Also, I didn’t realize there is a new translation out by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Must get it!
April 3, 2017 at 11:49 pm
This was a fantastic post. Having read previous Russian authors, this book sounds like a huge change of pace. Its very cool how a line from this book became a rallying cry against censorship. I am very interested to read the book now!
April 4, 2017 at 12:50 am
This was a very fascinating article. It is really amazing that such a literary work would be published in the Soviet Union in the first place. It really doesn’t make much sense since this book was the Harry Potter of its day and it created a rallying cry for the intelligentsia of the Soviet Union. It would be fascinating understand more of how the censorship process worked, especially because it seems like it didn’t for the manuscript.
April 29, 2017 at 10:54 am
So this was the first Russian novel I ever read years ago. Pevear and Volkhonsky have become the rather prolific duo in their translations, though at this point it’s to such an extent that there’s some pushback by Russian lit professor at Northwestern Gary Saul Morson (The Pevearsion of Russian Literature). I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly with the criticism… translation is a tricky business and someone is always going to disagree with this or that choice, and one can always go to the original when in doubt. I wrote a little earlier in the semester about Bulgakov’s other really well-known work, Heart of a Dog, which was also made into a great film. Dr. Milman-Miller, Russian professor here at VT, told us about reading circulated copies of this novel. I think your comparison to the hype Harry Potter received is exactly right, as others have mentioned.