Mikhail Bulgakov was a writer who had the misfortune to simultaneously be in and (dangerously) out of step with his time and place. Originally a doctor by trade (whose early service with the Red Cross left him in the kind of chronic pain that ends in self-medicating via morphine) Bulgakov found himself trapped in a nation that often appalled him after the Bolshevik triumph in the Russian Civil War.
Whilst his family escaped to Europe, Bulgakov was to remain in Russia for the rest of his days. He was frequently outraged by the depredations of the new regime. Naturally choleric his refusal to temper his caustic parodies of the brutal bureaucracy of the Soviet Union saw him frequently blacklisted. Whilst this would frequently mean that he was unable to support himself as a writer (despite his obvious and, paradoxically, recognised talent) he was The Master & Margarita By Max Feldman saved from active imprisonment or worse due to an unexpected patron: Stalin. One of Bulgakov’s banned plays (Day of The Turbins) was suddenly reinstated in 1932 apparently at the dictator’s personal order. Stalin was said to have seen the play over 15 times, often visiting incognito so as not to detract from the performance. Such an act of clear favouritism by the mercurial leader almost certainly saved the incorrigible cynic’s life; though it did not guarantee his success. Several of Bulgakov’s works were subsequently censored by Stalin personally. It was this strange combination of licence and restriction that gave Bulgakov the chutzpah to write a novel like The Master and Margarita in Stalin’s Russia: he could be reasonably assured that they weren’t going to kill him for it and so many of his works were censored that what was one more? He never got to find out whether the novel would pass the ravening censors, as after working fervently on the novel for over a decade (between 1928-1940) he died whilst making his final edits. The novel would only leak out (though heavily censored) in 1967 and would go on to make its mark on the decade by reputedly inspiring Mick Jagger’s “man of wealth of taste” in Sympathy For The Devil.
There are many reasons as to why The Master and The Margarita ruffled orthodox feathers; from the first chapter which sees Satan himself arrive in Soviet Moscow in the guise of the ostensibly German Professor Woland. Amused by the state ‘religion’ of atheism, Woland and his pack of familiars (which include a gun-toting talking cat the size of a pig named Behemoth) unleash a reign of chaos across the city, counterpointed by a story-within-a story concerning the true events of the fateful meeting between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. Beyond the fact that the religious subject matter was dicey to say the least, the real subversion comes from how many of Woland’s tricks comes at the expense of the vast Soviet bureaucracy. Like all great literature it can be read on many different levels, as hilarious slapstick, deep philosophical allegory, and biting socio-political satire critical of not just the Soviet system, but also the superficiality and vanity of modern life in general. It’s both beautifully (if manically) written and is dramatically unlike anything else in the classic Russian canon. Anyone who was ever dissuaded from Russian literature over fears of its impenetrability, owes it to themselves to give this sinfully fun novel a try.