Preface to an English Translation of ‘Master and Margarita’

A Preface to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, Master and Margarita:

English translation of Master and MargaritaI recently finished translating Part One of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, a project that began as a reading of the original Russian language text, but soon became something of an obsession with trying to understand every sentence and turn of phrase. This has been satisfying to me on so many levels: it exposes me to the richness of Bulgakov’s imagination and the beauty of his prose; it exercises my Russian language skills; it deepens my understanding of Russian society in the tumultuous 1930s; it exercises my writing skills; and it scratches my puzzler’s itch.


Having arrived at the end of Part One, I started thinking about what would be involved in putting it into book form. I had to think about proof-reading, editing, and designing a cover. I also considered adding an appendix to discuss the importance of names used, and the meanings of their Russian roots. I believed this might be of interest to any reader who was not familiar with the Russian language. But when I later imagined my friends reading this translation, I began to think about providing them some more general background information. The following is the result of my attempt to do just that. I try to explain some of the features of life in Moscow in the 1930s, as far as I understand them, that are integral to the story, but would not necessarily be known to the average 21st century English reader.

Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov

English translation of Master and Margarita

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov


Translator’s Preface

The Master and Margarita is a novel that was written, and whose actions take place, in the Moscow of the nineteen thirties. It depicts ordinary Russians living in the capital of the Soviet Union, but confronted with some extraordinary, even supernatural, occurrences. Bulgakov uses this setting to make some subtle, and not so subtle, observations and critiques of Soviet society and politics. Being well aware that such criticisms were unacceptable to the Communist regime, Bulgakov apparently gave no thought to ever trying to publish this novel. In fact, it was not until 1966, twenty-six years after the author’s death, that a censored version was first published in the Soviet Union. Today the novel provides a rare, honest glimpse into the day-to-day life of Muscovites at a time when their world was changing at a breakneck pace in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution.

This preface will hopefully provide enough background to the story so as to make some of Bulgakov’s observations easier to understand and appreciate. While this effort necessarily paints a picture that will seem rather grim, it should be kept in mind that the novel itself is absurd, comedic, and entertaining on many levels. This presentation puts Master and Margarita into a genre of Russian fiction that uses fantasy, illusion, comedy and absurdity not to divert from or ignore a harsh reality, but rather to accept and embrace it, and perhaps more importantly, to disguise commentary and criticism of it from the ever vigilant censor. This genre has a rich history in Russia from well before the Soviet era, as literary censorship was not invented by the Communist Party, but copied straight from the book of Tsarist rule.

By the nineteen thirties Moscow was the new capital of the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Citizens of the Soviet Union in the thirties had only recently come through world war, revolution, civil war, state sponsored terror, and radical experiments in economic and social engineering. The regime that had emerged to rule the peoples of the former Tsarist empire was driven by Marxist ideology: an ideology that was rooted in the belief that all socio-economic arrangements in history to that point, capitialism being the latest, were inherently exploitative and unjust, with one “class” enriching iteself at the expense of others. Marx theorized that all societies go through stages, and the transition from one stage to the next was always marked by revolution. The overthrow of capitalism would, however, according to Marxists, see the emergence of a new kind of society that would dispense with the exploitation of the many by the few, and be a paradise that operated on the principle: “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need”—socialism. While socialism would be imperfect, requiring a “state,” or some kind of government apparatus, people in a socialist society would eventually learn to get along without any ruling power at all. At that point the state would inevitably “wither away,” and true communism would prevail.

Toward the end of the The Great War, the Bolsheviks—a Marxist inspired political party that was devoted to bringing about socialist revolution in Russia—proved to have the best organization and political savvy to fill the power vacuum left by the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in the spring of 1917. Having gained power, and defeating their rivals in a civil war that lasted until 1921, the Bolsheviks redefined the old empire as a voluntary union of national republics that would be socialist, and governed according to the decisions of “councils” (i.e.-“soviets” in Russian) of “workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies.” Thus the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the U.S.S.R.—was born.

The Bolsheviks renamed themselves the CPSU—the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—and claimed that they alone knew the way to socialism, and that all other political organizations were counter-revolutionary “slaves to the American dollar.” On this basis they maintained, often rather violently, an absolute monopoly of political power. In addition, they were certain that the success of the socialist revolution required the transformation of man into a new breed of socialist being. To promote the evolution of this new species—Homo Sovieticus—the Party insisted on intruding itself and its ideology into every aspect of every citizen’s life. The idea was that by shaping a man’s environment, one could shape the man. Not only political organizations, but every kind of association, society, fraternity, union, club and meeting—be it academic, cultural, literary, sport, trade, neighborhood, etc.—had to be overseen, managed and guided by the Party, or be outlawed.

So what did this mean for the day-to-day life of the average Muscovite? First all, everyone living in the Soviet Union was expected to refer to everyone else as “comrade,” or “citizen,” (or “citizeness,” gender distinctions inherent in the language being preserved after the revolution). These titles did not imply the class distinctions that terms like, “Gentleman,” “Sir,” or “Madam” did.

A more significant aspect of Communist Party control was one rooted in Marx’s famous assertion that “religion is the opiate of the masses;” that is, religion served the exploiter class by numbing the exploited, and promoting their acceptance of their lot as part of the natural order of things. Being true Marxists, and glad to eliminate any rival in the competition for the hearts and minds of those they ruled, the CPSU banned overt religious practice and declared atheism to be the “state religion.” In the opening scene of this novel we see one character giving another a lecture on the unlikelihood that Jesus Christ ever existed.

Another fact of life for Soviet citizens under the rule of Joseph Stalin was the pervasive operations of the secret police. Under various names and acronyms—Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, KGB…—the secret police were tasked with discovering and eliminating any and all sources of dissent or opposition to Party rule. In the nineteen thirties this included a purge of the Party itself. The “Great Purge” saw the imprisonment, exile and/or execution of millions for “political” crimes. The secret police were essentially above the law. This fact helped them achieve another end: casting over Soviet society a blanket of fear. Nearly everyone living in Moscow had either been arrested, and at least questioned at some point, or they knew of someone close to them who had. “Disappearances” were commonplace; arrests were often made in the middle of the night, and in the morning neighbors, friends and family were left to guess at the fate of those who were now missing.

Another feature of the purges were the infamous “show trials,” in which high-ranking Party officials who had been coerced into confessing to fabricated counter-revolutionary activities, and crimes against the state, were paraded in court rooms and publicly humiliated before being sentenced to exile, hard labor in prison work-camps, or death.

Among the more overtly criminal acts, investigated and prosecuted relentlessly, were those connected with possessing foreign currency or things of international monetary value—precious metals and jewels. This went to the heart of the regime’s efforts to root out the evils of profit, market forces and efforts by capitalist enemies abroad to buy out the newly liberated working class of the Soviet Union. These efforts also helped provide the regime itself with some much-needed resources for its own financial dealings with “enemies” abroad.

For all its repression and efforts to terrorize its own population, the CPSU also oversaw a truly remarkable modernization and industrialization campaign that would ultimately see the transformation of what was a predominately agricultural society at the beginning of the 20th century into one of only two world “superpowers” in just a few decades. One dilemma posed by the effort to industrialize, though, was how to do so in the absence of the incentives provided by market mechanisms and the profit motive. The answer was “Five-Year Plans.” These were blueprints, drawn up every five years, for determining what needed to be built, how, and with what to build it. This was enormously complex. The plan sought to determine every aspect of how to develop an industrial economy: what goods were needed; what factories were needed to make these goods; where and how to extract the resources needed; how, with what, and where to transport raw materials and finished products; what consumer goods were needed and how many; how much these goods would cost; and importantly, who was going to do all this, and how would they be paid? It was a monumental task, and it did succeed, but at great cost—in resources and lives—and the Russian economy continued to be plagued by inefficiencies until the end. The nature of the state planned and directed economy meant that all working citizens were essentially civil servants, and the U.S.S.R. became the ultimate example of a “company town:” everyone worked for and was paid by the same organization that issued money, and that set the prices for the things it sold you, which was all there was to buy.

Another challenge that quickly emerged was how to feed the burgeoning masses of industrial workers. The answer was to organize farms like factories, and create Five-Year Plans for them too. This program was called “collectivization of agriculture,” and was bitterly resisted by the peasants. Peasants had for centuries yearned to be free from aristocratic overlords, and thought that with the Revolution their dreams were finally realized. Now the state was again taking their land from them, and telling them where, how and what to farm. The violence with which collectivization was imposed reflected the deeply held belief of the old Bolsheviks that the peasantry was inherently conservative, firmly supportive of Tsarist autocracy, and counter-revolutionary. Collectivization was resisted so passionately, and imposed so violently, that it resulted in some of the worst famines in Russian history. The little food that was produced was confiscated by the Red Army to feed the cities. Millions starved to death in the early nineteen thirties, and the great majority of them were peasants.

Hard times in the countryside and boom times in the cities meant that urbanization was accelerated exponentially, and the usual challenges that accompany rapid urbanization were amplified. One of the more obvious of these was what Bulgakov simply calls “the housing problem.” Throughout the Soviet Union a shortage of housing in cities continued to be a problem, but in the thirties it was dire. Communal housing was the norm. Many families were crammed into single apartments, each family living together in just one room, and sharing bathrooms and kitchens with others. Competition for living space was never ending, and often fierce.

One aspect of life in Moscow in the thirties that was of special concern to Bulgakov was the Communist Party’s intrusion into the creative work of writers. A particular benefit of Party rule for the mass of citizens was literacy. From the time of the 1917 revolution to the end of the nineteen thirties, literacy rates grew from less than 40% to near 90%. While the Party was greatly interested in the ability of its subjects to read, of greater importance was its own ability to control what they read. By Party decree, all writing—newspapers, journals, text books, fiction, poetry, etc.— was required to positively promote the primary goal of all of society: building socialism. Not long after Bulgakov began writing this novel, the Party directed that all literary fiction, all art for that matter, must adhere to the principles of “socialist realism.” This imposed genre demanded that all art show life as it should be lived in an atmosphere of true socialism. In literature this meant that heroes must demonstrate an unflinching dedication to the cause of building socialism, and have no concern for their own personal needs; workers should be glorified, the Party idolized and Stalin deified. The “realism” part did not mean depicting life as it really was, it meant representing things in a realistic way so that even the simplest worker could understand it.

Like all organizations, publishing houses and writers’ unions were subject to the oversight and direction of the Party. Any author who hoped to be published had to produce work in this style. Bulgakov’s belief that The Master and Margarita would never be published in his lifetime was perfectly understandable; this novel does not portray people as they should be living in a socialist society, but as they actually lived, with all their faults and pettiness.

Bulgakov openly rejected such restrictions on artistic freedom, but opposing the Party was not only impractical, it was dangerous. Many writers and intellectuals were arrested in waves during the purges. Athough Bulgakov himself was never arrested, he more than once burned manuscripts of this novel from fear of it being found, and used as evidence of criminal sentiments.

These were the facts of daily existence in Moscow in the nineteen thirties–fear of arbitrary arrest; an all-pervasive, intrusive state; the banning of religious observance; working for the state, no matter what one’s occupation; being told what you could create if you were a an artist or a writer; living in close quarters and sharing facilities with practical strangers. Bulgakov manages to depict this life honestly, but in a ways that are funny and engaging. The brilliant blending of dark and comic in this tale is a testament to Bulgakov’s skill, as well as to his heritage as a Russian writer.

 John Dougherty

© 2014, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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