Why You Should Read The Master and Margarita: An Animated Introduction to Bulgakov’s Rollicking Soviet Satire

Which are the essen­tial Russ­ian nov­els? Quite a few unde­ni­able con­tenders come to mind right away: Fathers and SonsCrime and Pun­ish­mentWar and PeaceAnna Karen­i­naThe Broth­ers Kara­ma­zovDr. Zhiva­goOne 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 StonesPat­ti 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.

Look­ing for free, pro­fes­sion­al­ly-read audio books from Audible.com? (This could include The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta.) Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free tri­al with Audible.com, you can down­load two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta, Ani­mat­ed in Two Min­utes

Pat­ti Smith’s Musi­cal Trib­utes to the Russ­ian Greats: Tarkovsky, Gogol & Bul­gakov

Why You Should Read Crime and Pun­ish­ment: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Dostoevsky’s Moral Thriller

Why Should We Read Ray Bradbury’s Fahren­heit 451? A New TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion Explains

Why You Should Read One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude: An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Watch the Sur­re­al­ist Glass Har­mon­i­ca, the Only Ani­mat­ed Film Ever Banned by Sovi­et Cen­sors (1968)

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.

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