Which are the essential Russian novels? Quite a few undeniable contenders come to mind right away: Fathers and Sons, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, Dr. Zhivago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But among serious enthusiasts of Russian literature, novels don't come much less deniable than The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov's tale of the Devil's visit to Soviet Moscow in the 1930s. This "surreal blend of political satire, historical fiction, and occult mysticism," as Alex Gendler describes it in the animated TED-Ed video above, "has earned a legacy as one of the 20th century’s greatest novels — and one of its strangest."
The Master and Margarita consists of two parallel narratives. In the first, "a meeting between two members of Moscow’s literary elite is interrupted by a strange gentleman named Woland, who presents himself as a foreign scholar invited to give a presentation on black magic." Then, "as the stranger engages the two companions in a philosophical debate and makes ominous predictions about their fates, the reader is suddenly transported to first-century Jerusalem," where "a tormented Pontius Pilate reluctantly sentences Jesus of Nazareth to death."
The novel oscillates between the story of the historical Jesus — though not quite the one the Bible tells — and that of Woland and his entourage, which includes an enormous cat named Behemoth with a taste for chess, vodka, wisecracks, and firearms. Dark humor flows liberally from their antics, as well as from Bulgakov's depiction of "the USSR at the height of the Stalinist period. There, artists and authors worked under strict censorship, subject to imprisonment, exile, or execution if they were seen as undermining state ideology."
The devilish Woland plays this overbearing bureaucratic life like a fiddle, and "as heads are separated from bodies and money rains from the sky, the citizens of Moscow react with petty-self interest, illustrating how Soviet society bred greed and cynicism despite its ideals." Such content would naturally render a book unpublishable at the time, and though Bulgakov's earlier satire The Heart of a Dog (in which a surgeon transplants human organs into a dog and then insists he behave as a human) circulated in samizdat form, he couldn't even complete The Master and Margarita before his death in 1940.
"Bulgakov’s experiences with censorship and artistic frustration lend an autobiographical air to the second part of the novel, when we are finally introduced to its namesake," says Gendler. "The Master is a nameless author who’s worked for years on a novel but burned the manuscript after it was rejected by publishers — just as Bulgakov had done with his own work. Yet the true protagonist is the Master’s mistress Margarita," whose "devotion to her lover’s abandoned dream bears a strange connection to the diabolical company’s escapades — and carries the story to its surreal climax."
In the event, a censored version of The Master and Margarita was first published in the 1960s, and an as-complete-as-possible version eventually appeared in 1973. Against the odds, the manuscript that Bulgakov left behind survived him to become a masterpiece that has inspired not just other Russian writers, but creators like the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, and (in a perhaps less than safe-for-work manner) H.R. Giger as well. Perhaps the author himself had some premonition of the book's potential: manuscripts, as he famously has Woland say to the Master, don't burn.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.