About the Book

Book Protagonist: Margarita
Publication Date: 1967
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism, Philosophical Fiction

Historical Context

The Master and Margarita

By Mikhail Bulgakov

'The Master and Margarita' is a far cry from the accessible tragic romances of Alexander Pushkin or the simple family problems of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. It is now regarded as one of the best novels to emerge from the political unrest of the twentieth century, and modern readers are better able to appreciate its virtues.

The Master and Margarita‘ was a novel that Bulgakov started in 1928 and worked on until just before he died in 1940. Before 1966, when the heavily censored first half of the novel was published in the monthly magazine Moskva, very few people knew that the manuscript existed. The second half was published the following year. Today, ‘The Master and Margarita‘ is regarded as one of the best works of Russian literature from the 20th century. Russian proverbs derived from passages in the book include “Manuscripts don’t burn” and “Cowardice is the worst of vices,” which have a special resonance for those who lived through the worst of Soviet authoritarianism.

Censorship of The Master and Margarita

The publication of The Master and Margarita was met with vehement resistance from the Soviet Union. Initially, a censored version with around 12% of the text modified was printed in Moskva magazine (no. 11, 1966 and no. 1, 1967). The first book edition of the manuscript was published in 1967 by the YMCA Press in Paris, which was renowned for publishing the banned work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union. The text, which appeared in the journal Moskva in 1968, was quickly translated into Estonian and remained the only printed copy of the book in the Soviet Union for many years. In the Soviet Union, the handwritten distribution of the original text, which included all the missing and altered passages, was done (in the dissident practice known as samizdat). A version created with the help of these inserts was published in 1969 by the Frankfurt-based publisher Posev.

The novel was first published in the Soviet Union as an Estonian book in 1968, with some portions cut out. Khudozhestvennaya Literatura released the first complete edition, written by Anna Sahakyants, in Russian in 1973. This was based on Bulgakov’s final 1940 draft that the publisher had proofread. The canonical edition was this one, and it lasted until 1989. Lidiya Yanovskaya created the most recent version based on all manuscripts that were made public.

Interpretations of The Master and Margarita

According to some critics, Bulgakov was addressing poets and writers in the Soviet Union who, in his opinion, were promoting atheism and rejecting Jesus Christ as a historical figure. He took particular issue with Demyan Bedny’s anti-religious poems. The book might be read as an indictment of the violent “godless people.” The entire portrayal of the devil is justified in both the novel’s Moscow and Judaea portions. Bulgakov responds to the Soviet denial of God by using figures from Jewish demonic literature.

Nadezhda Dozhdikova, a literary critic and assistant professor at the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts, points out that the portrayal of Jesus in ‘The Master and Margarita‘ as a benign madman has its roots in Soviet literature from the 1920s, which, in keeping with the tradition of demythologizing Jesus in the writings of Strauss, Renan, Nietzsche, and Binet-SanglĂ©, focused on two main themes: mental illness and deception Only throughout the 1920s and 1930s did the mythological option—namely, the denial of Jesus’ existence—prevail in Soviet propaganda.

‘The Master and Margarita’ also has an occlusive interpretation. According to Bulgakov, evil is inseparable from our universe, just as light is from darkness. Jesus Christ and Satan both primarily reside inside individuals. Despite Pilate’s suggestions, Jesus was blind to Judas’ betrayal since he only saw good in people. Because he didn’t know how to defend himself or from whom, he was unable to do so. This view assumes that by depicting Yeshua in this way, Bulgakov had his version of Tolstoy’s philosophy of fighting evil without resorting to bloodshed.

Ethics, Moral Dilemmas in The Master and Margarita

In the story of ‘The Master and Margarita,’ a variety of moral conundrums that those residing in the dictatorship had to deal with are depicted.

Margarita made a deal with evil to save the Master; Margarita put Frieda’s needs before her love for the Master; Margarita was married when she first met the Master, but her husband was a state official (it is mentioned that her husband was responsible for killing another person), and the Master did not stand up for his convictions.

Bulgakov draws attention to the tragic nature of human existence, in which good and evil frequently coexist, and a decision between the two is frequently both difficult and impractical.

The Totalitarian Regime of the Soviet Union in The Master and Margarita

The Master visits the mental institution, a representation of the Heart of Hell, in pursuit of calm. In the Soviet Union, people who were considered enemies of the state and had divergent philosophical views were committed to mental facilities. There is also a mention of Yeshua, who was referred to as a “madman” because of his unconventional way of thinking. The psychiatric institution in 1930s Moscow depicted in the novel is a fairly typical setting with nice and knowledgeable staff who provide excellent care.

Patients in the hospital are pressured to adapt to the “new” world, and those who dare to “doubt,” like The Master or Ivan Bezdomny, ended themselves in the mental hospital to stop challenging society’s accepted ideals. The psychiatric institution, despite its outward appearance of professionalism, serves as an instrument to carry out state ideology; as was already established, it is the Heart of Hell. Even Woland is taken aback by the extent of the Master’s damage following his stay in the psychiatric hospital in The Master and Margarita.

The conclusion is that the system, which seems reasonable and competent at first glance, is tyrannical and evil if it cannot be questioned.


How did Bulgakov critique tyranny in the Soviet Union in ‘The Master and Margarita’?

‘The Master and Margarita’ by Bulgakov offers a more comprehensive critique of tyranny. It examines the perils of a government that tries to stifle individual freedom and creativity while trying to regulate every facet of its people’s life. In contrast to Margarita, who defies social expectations and finds freedom through love, the Master persona stands for the artist who is oppressed and repressed by the government as was obtainable in the Soviet Union.

What does Margarita represent in ‘The Master and Margarita’?

Margarita stands for the woman who challenges cultural expectations and discovers freedom through love. She is a representation of the strength of female sexuality as well as the value of individual agency in the face of social limitations. It is possible to interpret her journey to become a witch and learn to fly on a broomstick as a metaphor for her freedom from the constraints of her prior existence.

Why was ‘The Master and Margarita’ banned in The Soviet Union?

‘The Master and Margarita’ was outlawed because it had satirical and critical elements that the Soviet Union deemed dangerous and subversive. The Soviet morality system was attacked, and heresy was considered when the devil was portrayed as a sympathetic and even likable character. The novel’s critique of bureaucracy, censorship, and propaganda was seen as a danger to the status quo.

Charles Asoluka
About Charles Asoluka
Charles is an experienced content creator, writer, and literary critic. He has written professionally for multiple reputable media organizations. He loves reading Western classics and reviewing them.
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