Dreams, Dreams, Dreams

With two dreams, one after another in Master and Margarita, Bulgakov touches on some risky subjects.

As mentioned at the beginning of my last post (“Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”), my efforts to translate Chapter XV of Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” led me to become fascinated with the use of dreams as a device in Russian novels. My first avenue for delving into this topic further was Dostoevsky’s use of it in The Brother’s Karamazov, specifically the chapter titled, “The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare.” This provided not only another example of a dream sequence, but also another depiction of the devil, so I devoted that last post to a comparison of Dostoevsky’s devil with Bulgakov’s.

Dreams of Nikanor Ivanovich

Soviet Show Trial-https://robertgraham.wordpress.com/category/anarchism/volume-1/chapter-18-the-russian-revolution/

I remained intrigued, however, by the dream thing. As I began translating the next chapter of Master and Margarita, “The Execution,” I was delighted to find that I was dealing here with yet another dream—this one dreamt by Ivan (Bulgakov’s Ivan, not Dostoevsky’s); two dreams in a row! Now that I’m finished with both chapters, it occurs to me that the use of dreams by Bulgakov may have been an attempt to get around state censorship, and avoid criticism from powerful interests like the Writers’ Union. In both chapters, controversial or unacceptable views are put forth—Ivan dreams of the executionbut in ways that allow the author to argue something like, “I’m not saying that this is the way it went down; this is simply the way this character dreams about it.” In Nikanor Ivanovich’s dream, he finds himself part of a theater production that is at the same time an effort to accuse male citizens of illegally keeping foreign currency, and to encourage them to confess and give over their goods to the authorities—quite literally a “show trial.” In the next chapter, Ivan dreams of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as if he himself were there, but the details of this dream offer some important deviations from the standard narrative derived from the gospels.

Chapter XV begins by pointing out that the “the man with the crimson face,” (mentioned in an earlier chapter as a new patient at the psychiatric clinic that Ivan had been brought to earlier against his will) was Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, another unfortunate victim of the mysterious “consultant” and his gang. But before visiting Doctor Stravinksy, the director of clinic, Nikanor Ivanovich “made a preliminary visit to another place.” This “other place” is almost certainly an office of the NKVD—predecessor of the KGB, or secret police—as we see Nikanor Ivanovich subjected to interrogation regarding the foreign currency (specifically U.S. dollars) found hidden in his apartment. He insists this was planted there by an evil power that has taken up residence in his building. Soon he becomes hysterical, has hallucinations, and the interrogation ends when: “It became entirely clear that Nikanor Ivanovich was not fit for any kind of conversation.” He is then taken to the clinic, put in his own room, and sedated. He finally goes into a deep sleep and has this dream, which “was based, undoubtedly, on his experiences of that day.”

Nikanor Ivanovich finds himself in a small but opulent theater, with a packed audience consisting exclusively of men with beards. The “show” is emceed by a handsome, well-groomed young man who constantly jokes with, needles, pleads with, and harangues his guests, demanding that they confess and give up their currency. There are a series of “acts,” one starring Nikanor Ivanovich himself, in which participants either confess their wrongful hoarding of foreign currency (and/or precious metals or jewels), or are confronted with undeniable evidence of their guilt. Nikanor Ivanovich neither confesses nor is proved guilty, so he is asked to again take his seat at the end of his act. Apparently each member of the audience is presumed guilty, as the only way to leave the theater is to confess all, and reveal the location of illegal goods. The allusions to actual proceedings orchestrated by the Communist Party—with “witnesses,” “confessions,” and lectures about the duty of citizens to not be selfish but to devote themselves to advancing the Revolution, with the guidance of the Party—seem obvious. That this “theater” represents a prison is indicated, according to one “Master and Margarita” website, by certain details: “In theatres men and women are not segregated by sex, in prisons they are. The beards could be because the prisoners couldn’t shave, or they could be a hint that the foreign currency speculators are Old Believers, like many merchants were, or Jews.” Though, of course, this is just one character’s dream.

This dream ends with Nikanor Ivanovich shouting in his sleep, “Nothing! Nothing! I have nothing! Do you understand! Nothing!” Although he is calmed with another injection, his anxiety is said to spread to the other rooms in the psychiatric hospital, causing upset there as well. Here the story nicely segues from the first dream to the second:

“But the doctor quickly calmed the heads of the anxious and depressed, and they began to fall asleep. The last of all to drop off was Ivan, when over the river it was already getting light. From the medication, lubricating his whole body, comfort came like a wave covering him. His body was relieved, and the sandman blew with a warm breeze about his head. He fell asleep, and the last thing he heard from the real world was the predawn chirping of birds in the forest. But they soon fell silent, and he began to dream that the sun was already going down on Bald Mountain, and that the mountain was surrounded by a dual cordon…”

In this way Chapter XV, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” ends with the beginning of Ivan’s dream, and Chapter XVI is devoted entirely to the story of the execution of Yeshua Ga-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth) as Ivan sees it in this deam. The detailed descriptions of the scene at Bald Mountain and the actions of the Roman cavalry and centurions there are stunning, and for much of the chapter do not seem to contradict the gospels in any significant ways. But the activities of Levi Matvey (Matthew Levi, one of the twelve apostles), and those of a mysterious man wearing a cowl, are a departure from the gospel narratives—at least as far as I was made to understand them. Levi is completely devoted to Yeshua, believing himself to be responsible for his capture; he is determined to spare him from the torture and suffering of execution by killing him, if he cannot free him. But it is near the end of the chapter when things get really good. By now it is near the fifth hour of the execution; all of the onlookers—inhabitants of Jerusalem and pilgrims who have come for the celebration of the high holiday of Passover—have gone back to the city because the spectacle is not very interesting, and preparations for the holiday festivities are under way in town; a huge thunder cloud has swallowed the sun and threatens to strike Bald Mountain; the Roman soldiers are hastily preparing to leave; at the order of the mysterious man in the cowl, one of the executioners stabs each of the three being executed in turn, so that the Romans won’t have to wait around for them to die; the man in the cowl pronounces the three criminals dead; then the Roman forces rush back to Jerusalem just as the rain and lightning hit the mountain.

No one notices that one civilian, Levi Matvey, is still on the mountain. When all of the Romans are gone, he proceeds to cut the ropes binding Yeshua to the cross, and, as an afterthought, releases the other two bodies as well. The chapter ends with this scene:

“A few minutes passed, and on the hill there remained only these two bodies and the three empty poles. The water thrashed and shifted these bodies.
By this time neither Levi nor the body of Yeshua was on the summit of the hill.”

This is more than a slight modification of gospel accounts. From the gospels it is believed that one Joseph of Arimathea asked for, and received, permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body and bury it in his own tomb. Joseph personally, possibly with the help of Nicodemus, removed the body from the cross and entombed it, sealing its entrance with a boulder. But of hugely greater importance is the fact that, though pronounced so by the mysterious man in the cowl, it is unclear if Yeshua is actually dead at this point. If he didn’t die on the cross, this account undermines the central tenet of all Christianity. But again, this is only a dream.

While Nikanor Ivanovich’s dream of “show trials” provides clever criticism of the Soviet regime’s far from fair and impartial judicial practices, Ivan’s dream is more tightly woven into the story of the novel. Whereas the first of the two dream chapters begins and ends with the dreamer awake, “The Execution” chapter begins and ends in the dream, in a way making it less dreamlike. This presentation of the latter also makes it a continuation of the “consultant’s” account of Pilate’s meeting with Yeshua on the morning of the crucifixion, told to Ivan at Patriarch’s Ponds in Chapter II. Chapter III begins with the last line of the consultant’s tale, and Ivan, only now realizing that hours have gone by, at first thinks that he must have dreamt it rather than heard the consultant tell it. This story Pilate’s meeting and Ivan’s dream of the crucifixion are significantly connected by the presence in both of the mysterious man in the cowl, and they both relate to an important element in the book’s plot concerning a novel about Pontius Pilate, written by the “Master”—a work for which he suffers persecution at the hands of Moscow’s literary elite. So, parallel to the story of the arrival of Satan in Moscow in the 1930s, there is this peculiar version of the well-known story of the passion of Jesus Christ. I suspect that that the consultant’s story and Ivan’s dream may turn out to be verbatim excerpts from the Master’s novel.

With two dreams dreamt by two different characters, presented in sequence in Master and Margarita, Bulgakov touches on some pretty daring subjects. The use of this technique, combined with the blatant and continual absurdity, makes this novel simultaneously delightful and important.

Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature

Satan the pitiable victim in Bulgakov and Dostoevsky.

prof Woland mephistophelesUncle Vanya Guthrie








While translating Chapter 15, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” of Master and Margarita, I was reminded of another chapter in Russian literature devoted to one character’s dream—“The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare”, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. On revisiting this old favorite, however, I was inspired to reform my purpose of comparing dreams in Russian literature to comparing depictions of the devil there. While far from identical, both Dostoevsky’s Devil and Bulgakov’s Satan are portrayed in ways that invite the reader to feel some compassion, pity and sympathy for them. Continue reading

The Power of “THE”

The Seemingly Most Trivial Word Causing Some Nagging Translation Problems.

the power of "the"

the power of theAs mentioned in some earlier posts, there are aspects of the Russian language that leave the translator to her or his own devices in coming up with coherent, true and comfortable equivalents in English. One of these is the fact that the Russian language does not use the definite articles “a”, “an”, or “the” (see post-Banned Articles as Translation Problems). In most cases this a simple matter of judging from the context which, if any, of these needs to be added to the literal translation to make it work in English. In a simple sentence like, for example – “Он уехал в магазин,” which reads literally- “He went to store,” one can safely put a “the” before “store” without compromising the meaning of the original.

But it isn’t always quite so easy. I am currently bugged by the Russian lack of articles in a specific instance in regards my efforts to write a translation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. This problem presents itself immediately in the title; the English given above is just as it appears in Russian, but the question remains: should it be, as it is in most translations- The Master and Margarita (my emphasis)? And if yes, why? If this title gets an article, why not others: A War and The Peace? The Crime and The Punishment? Continue reading

Praise for Alina Simone’s Views on Russian/American Cultural Differences

On Alina Simone’s New York Times op-ed piece about the cultural disconnect triggered by the seemingly, to an American, polite question, “How are you?”.

I just had the pleasure of reading a piece on The New York Times website entitled, The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash, by Alina Simone. In this article, Ms. Simone—born in Ukraine to Russian parents, but raised in the U.S.—speaks to how the common question often asked, even of strangers, by the average American,  “How are you?” can highlight differences in cultural outlook when asked of someone raised in the Soviet Union or some its successor states. She brings to this discussion a perspective from both sides of this cultural gap, as someone often faced with the task of smoothing over, as she puts it, “the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry.”

I appreciate her insights for what they say about not only culture, but also about language: how it used, how it is informed by, and informs, the outlook shard by the people who grew up using it, and how it can spotlight differences in outlooks among societies. I am also impressed by Alina Simone’s combining of personal experience with the views of others and with her scholarly research. She compares the inane formality of the knee-jerk American response, “fine,” with the equally disturbing tendency of Russians to give an honest answer, full of intimate details to explain why they are doing how they are doing. Continue reading

Fagot-Korovyov: Bassoon-Cow?

To Translate, or to Transliterate? That is the Question: The Curious Case of the name, Fagot-Korovyov, in translating ‘Master and Margarita.’

Going further with my translation of Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I have hit on a puzzle regarding how best to put into English the names given to one particular character. In an earlier post I had discussed the varying levels of meanings attached to the names of characters in this novel, and decisions about whether to translate or transliterate. The case of this one figure is complicated in a number of ways: he is actually given, at different points in the story, two names, but single names and without any explanation as to how they relate to each other; and both of these names have clear connections with fairly common nouns in the Russian language. So what shall we call him? Korovyov? Cow? Fagot? Bassoon?


This fellow first appears in chapter one as an hallucination, floating in the air before Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, editor of a literary journal. Soon after this he is encountered by the same Berlioz at the park at Patriarch’s Ponds, and is described as tall, thin, wearing a checkered jacket, a jockey’s cap, broken pince-nez and dirty socks. Continue reading

The “Housing Problem” in the Soviet Union

Reflecting on a Recurrent Theme in the Art and Literature of the Soviet Union: The Nature and Importance of the “Housing Problem” for Urban Dwellers in the U.S.S.R.

housing problem
Reflecting on the subjects I have studied and written about for this blog over the past year, there is one topic that comes up so often, and is discussed with such passion, that I am led to conclude that it was an important part of the social consciousness of many Russians during the Soviet period, particularly that of city dwellers. Mikhail Bulgakov, when describing an office in the home of the Moscow’s writers’ union that presumably dealt with this issue for its members, labeled it “Housing Problem.” I will look at three sources that point to the prevalence and importance of the “housing problem,” and argue that while such problems are a common by-product of the rapid urbanization that accompanies modernization and industrialization, the unique path to modernity adopted by the Communist Party, and its responses to the realities thereof, defined the character of this problem for the population in the big cities of the US.S.R. Continue reading

Russian Service Industry: Better? Or Just (Better) Paid?

russian service industryAeroflot highlights efforts of the Russian service industry to improve customer service. Is paying people to smile, speak softly and kneel a good thing?

An article appeared yesterday (Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013) in the The New York Times reporting on Aeroflot’s successful efforts to improve service on its flights—‘Russian Service, and With Please and Thank You.’ Reporter Andrew E. Kramer sees the extensive training now given to flight attendants for the Russian airline as part of a “broad and transformative trend in the Russian service industry brought about by the rising demands of middle-class consumers.” On its way out, apparently, is the stereotypical gruff and taciturn response of the Russian service worker who has to actually provide a service. Is this a good thing? I wonder. Continue reading

Maria Petrovykh’s ‘Muse’

As it turns out, I did not win this year’s Compass Award for outstanding English language translation of Russian poetry, awarded through the Cardinal Points journal. I did not even make the short list.

Not too disappointed, though, as it was my first entry to any such competition, and now that I am no longer in the running I can present my work to anybody out there with any interest in the Russian poetry of the Soviet period.

This year the contest asked for translations of poems by Maria Petrovykh, a poet who was a friend of some of the greatest luminaries of the early Soviet period, notably Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam; Mandelstam’s poem, Masteritsa vinovatykh vzorov, that Akhmatova called “the greatest love poem of the 20th century,” was dedicated to Petrovykh.

Maria Petrovykh's Muse

Maria Petrovykh

The poem of hers I chose to translate for this contest is Муза—‘Muse.’ As I had not been familiar with ther work until I learned of this competition, I decided this poem would be a good place to start as it might give a clue to what inspired her to write. It turns out that “night” was one of her muses at this time. This is not that surprising for someone who had just survived WWI, the Russian Revolution, The Russian Civil War, the “Red Terror,” unprecedented poltical, economic and social experimentation and the beginnings of Stalinist totalitarianism.

But aside from historical context, I found this to be a beautiful poem, and my humble translation a pale ghost of the real thing. As always I struggled in my efforts to balance meaning, meter, tone and rhyme. I feel convinced that sacrifices must always be made of one for another; a strict observance of the exact meaning of each word makes it impossible to convey the meter and rhyme, but departing too much from meaning for these feels like an abomination.

But sacrificies must me made.

That said, below is my translation, followed by the original:



When by mistake I let the pen slip,
Missing the inkwell, near the moon see it dip,-
To the lake of black nights in its unceasing creep,
Is stitched the overgrown inkwell with a dream from the nightingale’s keep,-
Diverse harmonies rush from the pen,
An astonishing layer of silver on them,
They are like birds, of whose touch I am afraid,
But the lines flock together and fill up the page.
I welcome you here, wild-running night,
And we have exactly one origin and plight-
We are both dark for our doubting eyes,
One homeland we share and she never dies.
I remember how you were conquered by day,
You remember how I, from the rock, broke away,
You ever from the milky paths turn aside,
In the cracks of the lines you do love to hide.
Child of a dream, sketched with nightingale’s hues,
Solitary reader, you are my muse.
I see you off, with no thanks for your time,
But in a froth of delight, I am brimming with rhyme.

1930, Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh

translated by John Dougherty Continue reading

Banned Articles (And the Occassional Conjunction) as Translation Problems

translation problems

I want to write today (October 17, 2013) about a specific important difference between Russian and English that poses translation problems—minor ones, yet to me irritating and annoying. I will discuss this as it applies specifically to my efforts to translate Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (see also- The “Foreigner”, According to “The Plan”, My Approach to Translating Russian Prose to English , “The Old-Timers of Moscow Will Remember. . .!”, The Nature of Bulgakov’s Names, The Dread Pirate Archibald Archibaldovich, The Blizzard Gets Stronger?)

In some ways Russian is marked by a greater economy of usage than English. One of these is its tendency to omit words that could be argued to be unnecessary, but that in English are mandatory: Continue reading