The Master, Margarita, and I: Paul Goldberg on the Third Rail of the Russian Classic
“Our relationship has required much maintenance and has not been harmonious.”
I was seven—too young to appreciate Bulgakov—when, in November 1966, the journal Moskva first serialized a heavily censored version of The Master and Margarita.
Bulgakov’s Moscow is my Moscow. Zemlyanoy Val, my street, is a few trolleybus stops away from his—Sadovaya. On evening walks of nearly six decades ago, I listened to my awe-struck parents talk about the seemingly unpublishable masterpiece of a forgotten writer improbably seeing the light of day.
The Master and Margarita quickly became one of the most-read works of Russian literature, and its popularity seems to expand even as readers acknowledge not being able to understand much if any of it. I sympathize. Though this novel drew me in at a young age, and though I re-read it often, our relationship has required much maintenance and has not been harmonious.
The Master and Margarita weaves together three stories: (1) the appearance of Satan in Moscow in the early 1930s, (2) a love story between the Master—a writer hounded by critics—and Margarita, an unhappily married woman, and (3) the Master’s novel about Pontius Pilate, the Gospel according to Bulgakov.
The version of The Master and Margarita that was served up to my parents had been scrubbed by censors, who eliminated 14,000 words—about 12 percent of the manuscript. Passages that went away included Satan’s salty remarks about the New Soviet Man, references to unexplained disappearances of residents of a certain Moscow apartment, and vignettes involving Roman secret police. Scenes featuring nude Margarita, a vision built around forced requisitioning of gold, and a scene where a portly Soviet bureaucrat is turned into a flying pig that gets piloted by a naked girl similarly had to go.
Being an émigré and clinging to language might explain my persistent pursuit of The Master and Margarita. No one writes like Bulgakov. Even after multiple re-readings, every now and then I feel compelled to set down the book for a moment of silent appreciation of his surgeon’s precision, his humor, his contempt, his sadness, his fury.
The Moscow adventures of Satan and his merry pranksters have always carried the book for me. The Pilate chapters are okay, sort of, but the language feels stilted by comparison. Often, I skipped the Pilate chapters in re-readings. The love story, too, is okay, but not strong enough to stand alone once you start to undo the novel’s three-strand braid.
If I tried to comprehend every book I love, I’d have no time to write. I didn’t know how to begin to internalize the Pilate chapters—and felt no urgency to do so. This changed five years ago, when I began work on The Dissident, a novel set among the Moscow intelligentsia in 1976. It was clear to me that The Master and Margarita would figure prominently in my characters’ vodka-infused discussions that stretched into the night.
Being there, my characters would see that a decade earlier The Master and Margarita had dealt a deadly blow to state-mandated atheism and led to spiritual rebirth, both Christian and Jewish. More importantly, in the context of The Dissident, The Master and Margarita acquired practical and strategic value. My characters needed to rely on this text as they structured a Faustian relationship with the KGB, seeking literary guidance for managing a relationship with the latter-day Satan.
To develop a holistic understanding of The Master and Margarita, I wanted my characters to dig deep into the entirety of the novel, including the Pilate chapters, the strand of the narrative that failed to ignite my love.
In the seventies Russia, a new kind of citizen scholar was starting to emerge—a Bulgakoved, a person who probes the texts and memoirs to find hidden meanings, inevitably concluding that Bulgakov’s fiction is deeply rooted in real-life events. In The Dissident, I give this obsession to Oksana Moskvina, a quintessential muscovite, whom we meet at her wedding, in the opening scene. Oksana is an English teacher and a samizdat activist who risks her freedom as she retypes and distributes banned texts.
I finished a draft of The Dissident without leaving the US. Then, in the summer of 2019, I traveled to Russia. I needed to look up the addresses of places I had already described and, for Oksana, to figure out how Bulgakov’s theology in the Pilate chapters squared with Russian Orthodox Christianity.
I can confirm that mysterious events can occur when one asks well-formulated questions about Bulgakov.
On the first afternoon in St. Petersburg, at an outdoor stall on Nevsky Prospect, I found a slim book titled The Master and Margarita: With Christ or Against, by Protodeacon Andrey Kuraev. Literally the first book I saw after landing contained direct answers to questions I spent years formulating. Did I find that book, or was it the other way around? Was that what you call a Bulgakov moment? Was Mikhail Afanasyevich, wherever he is, engaging in dialogue, or am I crazy?
Paging through With Christ or Against, I noted that the bookseller’s stall was located across Nevsky from the Kazan Cathedral, which once housed the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. The purpose of that defunct museum (which, alas, I visited years earlier) echoes the events that take place in Chapter 1 of The Master and Margarita, where Satan, upon appearing at Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds, engages in discussion with two Soviet litterateurs, who proceed to tell him unequivocally that neither God nor Satan can possibly exist.
Kuraev’s book caused me to develop an addiction to his blog and his lectures, which I found on the web. It’s quite a sight to watch this bearded, bespectacled Bulgakoved in priestly garb explain the Pilate chapters, and by doing so, demystify the novel. Per Kuraev, The Master and Margarita couldn’t have happened had Bulgakov not been exposed to the fundamentals of theology, the subject his father taught at the seminary in Kiev.
Though probably not a Russian Orthodox Christian, Bulgakov was appalled by Soviet anti-religious propaganda. The young ignoramus poet we meet in Chapter 1 is based on Demyan Bedny, the author of an especially idiotic poem about Christ, and the conversation in Chapter 1 comes straight out of that poem:
Here is the truth about the New Testament:
Never was there a Jesus Christ.
No one to die, no one to rise from the dead,
No one to write the gospels about.
After the revolution, Bedny, whose name means “impoverished,” lived in the Kremlin, along with other revolutionaries and intellectuals. Alas, an episode of particularly objectionable debauchery led to his exile from the walled fortress. Hence, Bulgakov hilariously christens his fictional ignoramus poet Bezdomny—homeless.
Until I found Kuraev’s book, I was unaware of another important poem, a response to Bedny’s moronic verse. That anonymous poem, which is sometimes attributed to Sergei Esenin, was confiscated from Bulgakov’s residence at a secret police search in 1925.
Here are a few excerpted lines:
I often ask: Why was He executed,
Why did He sacrifice His head?….
Was it because He tore Himself to bits,
Because He felt the pain of everyone around,
And blessed them, feeling love
For little children and filthy prostitutes alike?
In The Dissident, I leave it to Oksana to argue that The Master and Margarita is the source of their country’s spiritual rebirth. Alas, in my novel, Oksana makes this point before an audience that consists of Jewish refuseniks, and her intimation that their desire to leave for Israel was triggered by a vaguely Christian author is met with indignation.The three strands of the novel are woven into one whole: Moscow, Jerusalem, and love.
Bulgakov’s Christ-like character in The Master and Margarita doesn’t raise the dead, doesn’t walk on water, doesn’t turn water into wine. Once executed, he dies with customary finality.
Christian numerology appeals to Bulgakov. I don’t believe it’s an accident that the Master makes his appearance in Chapter 13. Thirteen is an unlucky number, being what you get when you add Judas to the number of apostles.
I am unambiguously Jewish, but I did graduate from an Episcopal high school, where I learned about something called “the three-part table.” The Holy Trinity—the idea that God consists of three components—Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit—is a central element of many Christian denominations, and some, my teachers of theology included, maintain that the rule of three also reverberates through the universe.
If Christian numerology appeals to you, you might note that water exists in three states: liquid, solid, and steam. Similarly, an egg consists of a shell, an egg white, and a yolk. In Hegelian philosophy (as well as in Marxism), you encounter the trio of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and in Freudian psychology, you get id, ego, and superego. You can play like this all day, or if you think this is poppycock, you can channel your efforts into compiling a list of things that don’t come in threes.
I don’t know about the rest of the universe, but the rule of three seems to hold up nicely in The Master and Margarita.
The three strands of the novel are woven into one whole: Moscow, Jerusalem, and love.
Bulgakov cites three versions of the story of selling one’s soul to the Devil: Goethe, Marlowe, and Gerbert of Aurillac, a.k.a. Pope Sylvester II.
In Chapter 1, Satan says that he has arrived in Moscow to study a manuscript of Gerbert of Aurillac, the first known Faust-like seller of the soul. A reader might argue that The Master and Margarita is the fourth Faust, but since the storytelling in Chapter 1 is just beginning and, as far as Bulgakov knows, may not be completed, I declare that the tripartite rule holds.
Bulgakov presents three severed heads, too. One head, belongings to Bezdomny’s editor Berlioz—is severed in a streetcar accident at Patriarch’s Ponds. (Comrade Berlioz is named after the composer and one of the librettists of La damnation de Faust.)
The other two heads are hidden. One is Homunculus, artificial intelligence that lives in vitro, whose creator, Faust’s sidekick Wagner (from Goethe’s version), is mentioned fleetingly, in discussion at the Moscow writers’ club, which is named—not by accident—after the Aleksandr Griboyedov.
The third severed head in the novel was once worn by Griboyedov himself. In his day job, the author of Woe From Wit, a comedy in verse, served as Russia’s ambassador to Tehran. There, in 1829, a mob broke into the embassy, killing Griboyedov, beheading him, and proceeding to drag his decapitated body around Tehran. Meanwhile, the ambassador’s severed head was kept on display in a kabob seller’s stall. Both pieces of Griboyedov were ultimately reunited, placed in a coffin, and sent home, inspiring Bulgakov to play hilarious games with Berlioz’s severed head.
Apropos Faust, in his wonderful little book, Kuraev reminds us why Satan is in the business of acquiring human souls. Being a fallen angel, he lacks creativity, which man possesses. He finds us entertaining.
By way of an epilogue, as Kuraev’s fan, I learned that in April 2023 he was defrocked by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. The robed apparatchik whom Pope Francis has described as “Putin’s altar boy” cited Kuraev’s “destructive antichurch activities.” These seem to have included speaking out against pedophile priests, objecting to prosecution of members of the feminist rock and performance art group Pussy Riot, and criticizing the role of the Russian Orthodox Church for its unequivocal support of Putin’s government and the invasion of Ukraine.
The priest, it seems, is a proponent of harmful ideas espoused by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.
The Dissident by Paul Goldberg is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan, Inc.