As I was translating a passage from Master and Margarita, it dawned on me that what I was reading was the author’s own reflection on the kinds of changes that Moscow had gone through during the two decades that saw World War I, revolution, the end of Tsarism, the establishment of Communist Party rule, Civil War and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Given what I know of Russian history, I found this little aside in chapter V to be enormously interesting, bold and insightful.
Looking at this period it is astonishing to consider everything that the inhabitants of the former Empire of the Tsars experienced in this time. The defeats in World War I at the hands of Germany and Austrian Empire—the loss of life, territories and resources—were devastating, and added to that was the upheaval, chaos and lawlessness that came with the abdication of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the tentative authority of the makeshift “Provisional Government”, even as the war with Germany continued. The seizure of power by the Bolshevik Party ushered in a Civil War between their supporters and those of the Constituent Assembly—a representative legislature, elected by popular vote, but promptly disbanded by the Bolsheviks. There is oft cited evidence that Lenin welcomed Civil War as the best way to completely destroy all vestiges of the old order, and so guarantee the survival of the socialist revolution. The Civil War was incredibly destructive, but its end did not mean an end to the troubles
After the Bolsheviks, now known as The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, firmly established their monopoly on power, the turmoil continued. The nineteen twenties were a period of political, social and economic experimentation. Efforts to implement a purely socialist economy, one without profit, or even money, failed, and were followed by a system of state control with some limited free market activity. This “New Economic Policy” (NEP) had its own problems, mainly ideological, in the view of many Bolsheviks. In its first decade, the economy of the Soviet Union knew little in the way of industrial growth; the world’s first state by-and-for the industrial working class was plagued by lack of investment in industry, lack of industrial production, lack of work, and lack of the necessities of life, including food.
The economy, politics and society of the Soviet Union would be further transformed under the direction of Joseph Stalin. By the nineteen thirties the economy would be defined by absolute state control and ownership of the means of production and distribution; politics would reflect the agenda of one man, Stalin; all citizens would be impressed to serve in campaigns to industrialize, modernize and socialize. Not only in industry and agriculture, but in art, literature, education, architecture and the sciences, everyone was required to direct their efforts to one thing—the building of the bright communist future.
And the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin would succeed, in less than a decade, in modernizing and industrializing to the point where they were able to resist and ultimately defeat, in World War II, one of the most modern industrial states at that time—Germany. Russia had been transformed: a feudal society with an agricultural economy and autocratic government at the beginning of the 20th century, by the end of the 1930s it would become a “socialist” society with an industrial economy and a “soviet” politics. (We will leave for another time the question of whether or not, under Stalin, the U.S. S.R. operated under rules more like feudal autocracy than soviet socialism.)
Part of Stalin’s program for modernizing the U.S.S.R. and building communism demanded that there be no dissent, no criticism whatever of the decisions of those in power. Among writers this meant that not only could one not write whatever he or she wanted, they had to praise the leadership and its decision making, and work to inspire people to do what the Communist Party wanted them to do.
This is where Bulgakov’s interlude in the fifth chapter of Master and Margarita comes in. While not critical of anything aside from the petty pretensions of a fictional literary celebrity, it does compare the present with the past, presumably the pre-revolutionary past, in a less than flattering light. It even reflects attitudes that would have been considered bourgoise, and therefore anathema. But it does all this in the context of comedy, which, presumably, might help shield it from the censors. But Bulgakov’s own story, and the history of the publication of this novel highlight many of these constraints on literary creativity.
Bulgakov had already gotten into serious trouble for his writing, having his books banned and career ruined by the publication of his play Purple Island in 1929, which was critical of the New Economic Policy. As a result, he burned an initial draft of Master and Margarita in 1930. He soon began to write the novel again, and was nearly through with a fourth draft when, in 1940, he died of a congenital liver disease. The book was not published in the U.S.S.R. until 1966, when a heavily censored version came out (I do not know, yet, whether the passage discussed here was in this edition or not). A reasonably complete edition was released in the Soviet Union in 1973, which came to be considered the standard until a new edition based on exhaustive review of all available texts and manuscripts was published in 1984. It should be said that by 1966, when the first addition appeared in the U.S.S.R., the Party, under Nikita Sergyevich Khrushchev, had already denounced the “crimes of Stalin”, and significantly relaxed, though not abandoned, the strict censorship of the 1930s.
But for all this dark reflection on world war, revolution and civil war, and on censorship, oppression and stifled creativity, this passage is from a satiric comedy, and it is rather light and funny. This ability to laugh in the face of some really dark stuff is, I think, part of the genius of Bulgakov, and perhaps of Russians.
In chapter V of the novel we find ourselves at the House of Griboedov (so named because it was rumored to have once been owned by an aunt of the famous writer, Alexander Sergyevich Griboedov). In the story it is now the home of the literary organization MASSOLIT, whose chairman has just met an unfortunate fate at a park in town. Up to this point the novel has been given entirely in the third person, but here, the author somehow feels the necessity of interposing himself in the story to relate this conversation he once overheard at this (fictional) location, in order, presumably, to reinforce his point that the restaurant on the first floor of this same building is the best in Moscow. I find this rather bold, as Bulgakov is personally taking responsibility for this comparison of Moscow in the 1930s to an era that “the old-timers in Moscow will remember”.
“So there is nothing in the least surprising, then, in the conversation that the author of these truthful lines once heard through the iron grate of Griboedov:
‘Where are you eating today, Amvrosy?’
‘What a question, here of course, dear Foka! Archibald Archibaldovich whispered to me today that the a-la-carte will be perch au naturel. A virtuoso trick.’
‘You do know how to live, Amvrosy!’ with a sigh answered the scrawny, unkempt, with a boil on his neck, Foka, to the rouge-lipped, golden-haired, sumptuous-cheeked giant of a poet—Amvrosy.
‘I do not have any special abilities,’ objected Amvrosy, ‘but an ordinary desire, like any other person, to live. You would like to say, Foka, that it is possible to get perch at the Colosseum. But at the Colosseum a serving of perch costs thirteen rubles, fifteen kopecks, but here, five-fifty! Besides, at the Colosseum the perch is three days old, and, besides, there is still no guarantee that at the Colosseum you will not get a bunch of grapes in your snout from the first young person rushing past, coming from the theater. No, I categorically reject the Colosseum,’ thundered Amvrosy the epicure, along the entire boulevard. ‘Don’t try to persuade me, Foka!’
‘I am not trying to persuade you, Amvrosy,’ squeaked Foka, ‘one may eat at home.’
‘Humble servant,’ trumpeted Amvrosy, ‘imagine your wife trying to construct, in a saucepan in the ordinary kitchen of a home, servings of perch au naturel! He-he-he! . . Au revoir, Foka!’ and singing, Amvrosy rushed under an awning.
Oh-oh-oh. . .but it was, it was! . . The old-timers of Moscow will remember the famous Griboedov! Boiled perch a-la-carte! That is cheap, dear Amvrosy! But sturgeon, sturgeon in a silver pan, sturgeon pieces arranged with crawfish and fresh caviar? Or eggs en cocotte with champignon purée in cups? Did you not like the filet of thrush? With truffle? Genoese quail? Ten and a half rubles? And the jazz, and the courteous service! And in July, when the whole family is at the dacha, but pressing literary business keeps you in the city,—on the veranda, in the shadow of the climbing grape vines, in the gold spot on the pure table cloth a bowl of soup-prentaneur? Do you remember, Amvrosy? Well, what a question! I can see by your lips that you remember. Have your sardines-perch! And jacksnipes, grouse, woodcocks, common snipes in season, quail, sandpipers? Is that sparkling Narzan water hissing in your throat? But enough, you are distracted, reader! Follow me!..”
© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved