Book Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of my favourite books I have ever read. This book holds a special place in my heart as it depicts beautifully with all the necessary nuances the most important characteristics related to Russia and Eastern Europe during the course of the tragic 20th century. Having an Eastern European heritage, Bulgakov’s book has always resonated with me at a personal level as no other book ever had.

The Master and Margarita is a multi-layered book with many symbolic references. It does help to dig into the history of Russia and Eastern Europe of the 1920s and 1930 to better understand all the symbolism in Bulgakov’s masterpiece.

Depiction of Human Nature, Good and Evil

Woland, the Devil in the book is an ambiguous character; he is like a human character. When it comes to his deeds, there is no clear distinction between good and bad. Here, the Devil is a meticulous observer of humanity, of contemporary Moscow and of ancient Jerusalem. Woland concludes that people of Moscow living in the 1930s and people of Jerusalem living in the times of Yeshua (Jesus) have the same qualities – the essence of human nature does not change even if the structure of the state changes – it is still impossible to transform a “human soul”. Times change, discoveries happen but human nature remains the same, no matter what political system or religion is in place.

In the book, Woland expresses these feelings in the following way:

“(…) they are people like any other people, they love money (…)”.

Woland refers to human greed, an ever-existing quality of human character regardless of the times and places one lives in.

Greed is also one of the ‘evil’ characteristics which can be shown in people’s behaviour as a feeling superior to others, a love of spectacle.

In ancient Jerusalem, the crucifixion of Yeshua is depicted as a spectacle where over one thousand people come to see it despite hot scorching weather. Pilate puts his career first above the life of an innocent man; he goes against his own values for his personal gain – to satisfy his own greed.

During Black Magic Debut Carnival in contemporary Moscow, there was a double queue, when one of Woland’s assistants rained down money on people. According to the ideology of the Soviet Union, people were supposed to be unconcerned with a personal gain, but the reality was often opposite as shown in the book.

Cowardice is another human trait described in The Master and Margarita that does not change despite the passage of time.

In Moscow, the Master betrayed his own values for fear of repercussion. He burnt his novel, and he ended up in the psychiatric hospital. He did not stand up for what he believed in. The Master betrayed his artistic freedom – what Bulgakov refers to as the foundation of the civilisation.

In the ancient Jerusalem, Pilate also betrayed his own values for fear of repercussions from the Cesar. He preferred to sacrifice Yeshua’s life.

At the same time, there are positive characteristics of human nature shown by Bulgakov such as compassion.

In ancient Jerusalem during the crucifixion, there was a tradition to grant a freedom to one of the criminals. In contemporary Moscow, Margarita chooses compassion for Frieda over her love for the Master.

Good and Evil need to coexist as depicted in the conversation between Woland and Matthew the Levite:

“What would happen if there is no evil or shadow, everyone has a shadow”.  

Both need to exist to appreciate the good.

The Soviet Union’s ideology referred to great ideas such as hard work, unity, solidarity but completely ignored the diversity of human nature where both good and evil are part of it.  Despite the lofty ideals of communism there were still selfish and greedy people. Communism in its ideology ignored evil side of the human nature. It is worth remembering that not everyone has an evil side – it might be just a shadow as per Woland’s words.

Bulgakov used a quote from Faust by Goethe at the very beginning of the book. It is important to note that Faust is seen as the archetype of the magician who sells his soul to the Devi in exchange of material and immaterial pleasures. The reference to Faust in The Master and Margarita serves as a reminder that the coexistence of good and evil has always been a part of human nature.

The Master and Margarita shows us that there is no clear distinction between good and evil; the boundaries are often blurred. That ambiguous nature of the reality one lives in is also beautifully shown by Bulgakov. In the Soviet Union an innocent person could be labelled bad and disappear, be killed. Similarly, in the ancient times, Yeshua was sentenced to death just for thinking differently; then society grants the freedom to one of the criminals and not to an innocent man.

As mentioned earlier, Woland is an ambiguous character who is able to feel sorry and compassionate after killing of Berlioz. The Master, similarly, like Woland, is an ambiguous character. He is removed from the collective society and thinks independently but at the same time he is unable to stand up for his ideals out of cowardice. The Master is a reminder to people that the power of words is important in fight against the tyranny of any kind, stories can change the course of history. Pilate is also an ambiguous character. He has got the pangs of conscience because he did not stand up for his beliefs to save Yeshua.

All the characters in The Master and Margarita have both sides: good and evil which coexist together, and this is the essence of human nature. Needless to say, this is the reality that most people have lived in throughout the most tragic events in the history of humankind.

Creative and Religious Freedom. The Importance of Words. Stories as the Foundation of the Civilisation

These famous words from The Master and Margarita: “Manuscripts do not burn” serve as a reminder of the power of stories over the oppression and terror. Words can transcend many spheres – can impact the course of history.  Writing is the expression of freedom which is the foundation of civilisation.

If people forget what constitutes the foundation of civilisation, then this is a path for evil and tyranny to triumph. Bulgakov reminds us that Yeshua died but his words live on because he believed in his freedom and stood up for his values.

Authority either imposed by the state or by the religious entity destroys spiritual and creative freedom. In the Soviet Union and Jerusalem, religious freedom did not exist out of fear by those in power for the competitive ideas.

In order to stand up for your own ideals, one must understand the meaning of freedom. In both cases, as shown in The Master and Margarita, in Moscow and Jerusalem people did not love freedom enough to stand up against the tyranny.

The Meaning of Historical Accuracy and its Influence in Creating Totalitarian Regime

The Master and Margarita reminds us about the false narrative having always been a part of public discourse since the biblical times.

A story of Yeshua as shown by Bulgakow is a blow to a biblical narrative. Bulgakov portrays Yeshua as weak and fragile, in other words, very human. On the other hand, Yeshua in the Bible is nothing more than God – he is the God.

In The Master and Margarita, Yeshua says that someone wrote down something that he said but then reading it did not resemble at all what he preached: “These people are unlearned and have confused everything I said. I am beginning to fear that this confusion will last for a very long time. And all because he untruthfully wrote down what I said.”

There is the inconsistency between the reality and written record – the untruthfulness of recorded history. During the communism, the narrative was used to show the ideology as the best utopian system. False narrative can create a new political system or religion affecting people’s lives for centuries. Bulgakov reminds us to be aware of and to be alert to false statements. This brings to mind “fake news” in the current world affairs.

In the reality of the Soviet Union and of countries under communism regime (like in many other regimes), the questions and doubts were not allowed. In the Master and Margarita, the totalitarian regime of Moscow during the 1930 is so bad that even the Devil in the person of Woland seems to look good and mellow in comparison.

In the Soviet Union, arrests, disappearances, deportations to the Gulag, a constant sense of fear was a part of daily life. No one was sure of his or her faith. This is shown in the story of Stepa Likhodeyev. Also, the Master was defeated by fear of being arrested, deported or killed. He burned his manuscript before there “was a knock on the door”.

The truth in the totalitarian reality constitutes a paper and a stamp. One needs ID and signature for everything. One of the attendees to the Black Magic Ball, Nikolai Ivanovich needed a written note confirming he was present at the Ball so he could present it to his wife and the police. When he receives the note stating that he attended Satan’s Ball, he only questions the date and the mention of the Satan seems to be perfectly normal.

“Remove the document – and you remove the man” words uttered by Koroviev showed that in the totalitarian regime there is the superiority of being a number over being a human being. It is a norm in all the totalitarian regimes. It was used not only in the Soviet Union, countries under communism dictature, but also in Nazi Germany and many others. In this sort of reality, people have no rights; the power goes to the greediest ones and others are resigned with no hope. This can also be seen in the current times when it comes to refugees, immigrants – the documents one posses by the accident of birth dictates the course of one’s life and how one is perceived and what rights one has.

A talent is not important in life – only supporting the ideas of regime can propel someone in life. If your writing was not in line with the idea of communism, you could not create. The ones who compromised their values had a good life such as in the example of Margarita’s husband in Moscow or Pilate in the ancient Jerusalem. The Master also compromised – he did not stand up for his own beliefs and as a result he could not create. However, his attitude was far more ambiguous in a moral sense.

The  totalitarian regime monopolises how the individual thinks and all the spheres of life are affected.

In relation to existing evil, the Master says at some point: “If only it were all so simple”. If only these evil people committing evil deeds could be separated from the rest of us but the reality is never so simplistic. As mentioned earlier, the difference between evil and good is often blurred and is a part of human nature. It leads us to remember the famous words by Solzhenitsyn:

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is ready to destroy a piece of his own heart”.

Moral Dilemmas under Totalitarian Regime

The Master and Margarita portrays a number of moral dilemmas faced by people living under the regime.

The examples of these dilemmas are: Margarita going into pact with evil to save the Master; Margarita choosing compassion for Frieda over her love for the Master; again Margarita was married at the time when she met the Master but her husband was a part of the state (there is a mention that her husband was responsible for killing another person); and the Master did not stand up for his beliefs.

Bulgakov points out to the tragedy of human existence where good and evil often coexist and the choice between two is not always an easy one and often it is an impossible choice.

Enforcement of Ideas under Totalitarian Regime

In search of peace, the Master goes to the psychiatric hospital which symbolises the Heart of Hell.

In the Soviet Union, enemies of the state were sent to the psychiatric hospitals, they were considered mad because they thought differently. Also, there is a reference to Yeshua who was called a “madman” for thinking differently to the rest. In Moscow of the 1930s, the psychiatric hospital as shown in the book is quite a normal place, with kind and competent people and a great service. It seems as this is the only place in the book which is “good”. However, this is only a façade. Patients in the hospital are forced to adapt a “new” worldwide and those who dare “doubt” like The Master or Ivan Bezdomny end up in the psychiatric hospital so that they stop questioning collective ideas imposed by the state.

Despite the external appearance of being professional, the psychiatric hospital constitutes a tool to implement the state ideology, it is, as mentioned above, the Heart of Hell.

In the Master and Margarita, even Woland is surprised how badly damaged the Master was after his stay in the psychiatric hospital.

The conclusion is that the system that appears to be logical, competent if cannot be questioned, then it is a tyranny, it is evil.

Attitudes towards Totalitarian Regime

Yeshua is a symbol of spiritual freedom – he is a fighter. He is the only positive person in The Master and Margarita. He is shown without his divine qualities – he is just a good and noble person with a strong moral compass who doubts and questions the surrounding reality. He stood up for his beliefs and he did not submit to the authority but fights back even if it means death. Yeshua’s spiritual belief led to light – compassion and courage are the most important qualities. His words live on and had an impact on the course of the history. Yeshua is shown as a human being, as one of us so that we can connect with but ultimately there is no place in this world for noble people like him.

Pilate is shown as weak and confused, similarly to the Master. He is a symbol of misery, lack of freedom.  He is very human – he has got good ideals but too weak to stand up for what he believes in, even when the life of an innocent man is at stake. He suffers because of his inability to follow his own moral compass. He is not free – he submits to authority. Pilate does not fight – he puts himself, his greed over his values.

The Master is a symbol of artistic freedom, but he is not free in the way that Yeshua is. He is sensitive but weak and confused – like Pilate but unlike him – the Master has strong beliefs and thinks independently but this is not enough to get closer to “light” like Yeshua. The Master is still broken by the system. Fear of persecution and cowardice does not allow the Master to stand up for himself. He does not fight the system – he submits to the authority. He does not keep a creative freedom as a way leading to “light”. He chooses death – the symbol of peace but with no creative freedom. The Master wants to save himself, but freedom has a higher price. Ultimately, similarly like in case of Yeshua, there is no place in the world for people like the Master, with a strong moral compass but too weak to follow it.

Conclusions

The Master and Margarita shows that in order to find “light” – spiritual, creative freedom one can get lost on a path as life is full of moral dilemmas. Without people there is no evil. The Devil could not take Yeshua’s power as he stood up for his values. Evil exists because people allow it. We can not only refer it to the Soviet Union but also to Nazi Germany and other regimes. These regimes were created by the people who allowed the evil to flourish in their hearts and by the people who did not oppose it due to their moral weakness which showed up through indifferent attitude and their inability to stand up against man–made evil. People do not often love freedom enough to stand up against the tyranny.

The paradox in The Master and Margarita is that Woland is more human than God and humans are more evil than godly. Woland needs people to implement evil for evil to flourish. The words of Edmund Burke come to mind:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

Bulgakov shows the reader that God and Evil do not have an absolute power over people, but they are prepared to do everything to gain the power: God will sacrifice his son (a symbole of greed) and Evil will look the other way when suffering happens (a symbol of cowardice). It is all very human.

The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov is a wonderful book, with many reflections about the nature of humanity. I would highly recommend this masterpiece to everyone. Reading this book with other historic books can allow to understand the tragic times of the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe. For those interested, I would refer you to the following books:

The Origin of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz

Ordinary Men by Robert Browning

At the Mind’s Limits by Jean Amery

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

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