Setting of The Master and Margarita
‘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. Knowing well that such criticisms were unacceptable to the Communist regime, Mikhail Bulgakov apparently gave no thought to ever trying to publish ‘The Master and Margarita’. 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 ‘The Master and Margarita’ 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 introduction will hopefully provide enough background 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 The 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 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 U.S.S.R. in the thirties had only recently come through world war, revolution, civil war, political 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, and especially capitalism, were inherently exploitative and unjust. Marx theorized that all societies go through particular stages, and the transition from one stage to the next was always marked by revolution. The overthrow of capitalism, however, would, according to this ideology, 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 needs”—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.
With the collapse of Tsarist rule toward the end of World War I, 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 the Tsar in the spring of 1917. Having gained power, and defeating their rivals in a civil war that lasted until 1922, 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, or “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 man’s environment, they could shape the man. Not only political organizations, but every kind of organization, association, union, club or meeting—be it academic, artistic, literary, sport, trade, neighborhood, etc.—had to be overseen, managed, and guided by the Party, or be outlawed.
But what did this mean for the day-to-day life of the average citizen? A crucial aspect of Communist Party control, as it pertains to ‘The Master and Margarita,’ was rooted in Karl Marx’s famous belief that religion is the “opiate of the masses;” that is, religion serves 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.” This point is touched on immediately in ‘The Master and Margarita,’, which opens with a discussion of the likelihood, or 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 hundreds of thousands, probably millions. The secret police were essentially above the law, and this fact helped them achieve another end: casting over Soviet society a blanket of fear. Random arrests and disappearances were commonplace. Practically 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.
Infamous “show trials” were another feature of the purges, where high-ranking Party members 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 execution.
Among the more overtly criminal acts, investigated and prosecuted relentlessly, were those connected with possessing foreign currency and things of international monetary value—precious metals and jewels. These laws 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.
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 the “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 they would be paid. It was a monumental task. It did succeed, but at great cost, and the Russian economy continued to be plagued by economic inefficiencies until its ultimate collapse. The nature of an economy planned and directed by the state meant that all working citizens were essentially civil servants, and the U.S.S.R. became the ultimate example of a “company town,” where everyone worked for and was paid by the same organization that issued money and 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 operate farms as if they we factories, and create Five-Year Plans for them as well. This program of the “collectivization of agriculture,” 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 Communists, like the Bolsheviks before them, 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, so it was those who produced food that suffered the most, and starved to death by the millions.
Hard times in the countryside and boom times in the cities meant that urbanization was accelerated exponentially, and the usual problems that accompany rapid urbanization were exacerbated. One of the more obvious of these was what Bulgakov simply refers to, in ‘The Master and Margarita’ as “the housing problem.” Housing shortages in cities throughout the Soviet Union continued to be a problem, but in the thirties it was especially dire. Communal housing was the norm. Many families were crammed into one apartment, each family with a single room, and sharing bathrooms and kitchens with other families. Competition for living space was never-ending, and often fierce.
Another aspect of life in Moscow in the thirties that was of special interest to Bulgakov was the Communist Party’s intrusion into the creative process of writers. Mass literacy was one great benefit that was introduced to the people of the former Russian Empire by the Communist Party; from the time of the 1917 revolution to the end of the nineteen thirties, literacy rates grew from less than 40% to near 90%. The Party was greatly interested in the ability of its subjects to read, but of greater importance was its capacity to control what they read. By Party decree, all writing—in newspapers, journals, text books, fiction, poetry, etc.— was required to positively promote the primary goal of all of society: building socialism. Publishing houses and writers’ unions were subject to the oversight and direction of the Party. Not long after Bulgakov began writing this novel, the Party directed that all literary fiction, all art for that matter, must adhere to the mandates of “socialist realism.” The principles of this style demanded that 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 such that even the simplest worker could understand it.
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. It does not speak to the working class, nor does it glorify socialism, or the Party. 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. Surprisingly, Bulgakov was not one of them. More than once, though, he burned manuscripts of ‘The Master and Margarita’ from fear of it falling into the wrong hands.
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 an artist or a writer; living in close quarters and sharing facilities with practical strangers . . . This was life in Moscow in the thirties. Bulgakov manages to depict this life honestly, but in humorous ways. This combination of dark and comic is a testament to Bulgakov’s skill, as well his heritage as a Russian writer.
In his choices for the names of characters in ‘The Master and Margarita,’ Bulgakov runs a gamut from the use of common Russian names and naming conventions, to choosing names for their root meaning, borrowing the names of famous composers, and transliterating from ancient Aramaic.
Some confusion about the identity of characters in ‘The Master and Margarita’ can be minimized if the reader is aware of certain conventions regarding the common use of patronymics and diminutives in Russian speech. Russians will usually refer to one another using a first name and a patronymic—the name derived from one’s father’s first name, with some form of a suffix indicating “of”/”belonging to” (-ov, -ovna, -vich, -ichna, and so on). While similar constructions are common in English—e.g. Johnson or Williamson—a Russian patronymic is not a family name, but more like a middle name, though always indicating who a person’s father is. Examples from this novel include: Mikhail Alexandrovich, Nikanor Ivanovich, And Pelageya Antonovna. Mention should also be made here of how the Russian language regularly distinguishes between masculine and feminine. For example, a woman named Vera, whose father is Sergei, would be called Vera Sergeyevna, while her brother Ivan would be called Ivan Sergeyevich. Though it may seem alien to the ears of native English speakers, the habitual use of patronymics is why the narrator repeatedly refers to Margarita as Margarita Nikolaevna.
Unfortunately, Russian names aren’t that simple. There are also diminutive forms that are regularly used. Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, for example, is often referred to as Ivanushka, in addition to Ivan, Ivan Nikolaevich, and Homeless (his pen-name); and Margarita is also referred to as Margarita Nikolaevna and Margo. While Ivan is never called simply “Ponyrev,” other characters are often referred to by just their family name: Varenukha, and Rimsky, for example And this points to Bulgakov’s fondness for the names of famous composers, Russian or not, used as both family names and patronymics: Rimsky, Berlioz, and Natasha Prokovievna, to name a few.
A number of the names Bulgakov uses are derived from Russian verbs, adjectives, adverbs or nouns. This is also common in English—Miller, Carpenter and Smith are names, as wells as words for occupations and activities. Bulgakov’s choices do not seem arbitrary, but made for the meanings associated with the names. The last name of Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, for instance, means “barefoot,” or shoeless” (perhaps hinting at his peasant roots); the name “Niza” suggests “low;” and the writers and poets introduced in chapter V have names resembling words meaning “baboon,” “sweet,” “matchstick,” and “woodcock.” For the most part, I have chosen to simply transliterate these names, though in the case of one unimportant character I put “M.V. Spurious,” for М.В. Подложной, who is merely a name on the door to an office in the headquarters of the writer’s union. There is no special reason why I chose to translate rather than transliterate in this case, I just like the way it sounds.
Posing as a name only in the guise of a pen-name, is the word Бездомный, the literary alias of the poet Ivan Nikolaevich. Translating this was tricky. This Russian word can mean homeless, stray, outcast, or vagrant, and it reinforces the parallels he shares with the Jesus character, who is described with the close synonym бродяга. I chose to translate Ivan’s pen-name as “Homeless,” as it is a self-identifier, and isn’t as weighted with negative connotations as some of the other possibilities, but mainly because the Russian word literally means “without a home;” I chose “tramp” for бродяга, as applied to Jesus, because this term is used by Pilate, and is meant to be derisive.
The Jesus character brings us to discussion of Bulgakov’s choice to use Russian transliterations from ancient Aramaic, a kind of lingua franca of the ancient Near-East, to name people and places in his depictions of ancient Jerusalem. Jesus Christ is Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Иешуа Га-Ноцри), rather than the usual Russian Iisus Khristos (Иисус Христос), and Jerusalem is Yershalaim (Ершалаим), instead of Ierusalim (Иерусалим). For these last two examples, I transliterated into English Bulgakov’s transliterations from Aramaic, and so use Yeshua Ha-Notsri and Yershalaim throughout, as well as Levi Matvey, instead of Matthew Levi. But I do give English equivalents for Pontius Pilate and Judas, rather than write Pontiy Pilat and Iuda, both because I want to anchor these essential characters in English-readers’ understanding of biblical history, and because these are the Russian equivalents for these characters’ names.
My last two points relate to the character I give as “Voland,” and to the honorific with which he is often addressed. “Voland” is the only name is attributed to him—no family name, no middle name no patronymic—and I chose to write it as it is written in Russian in the novel. The difficulty comes from the fact that the first hint at this character’s name indicates that it starts with a “double ‘V’ ” (how a Russian might describe a Latin ‘W’). Many English language translations of ‘The Master and Margarita’ give the name as “Woland,” presumably because the name that Ivan glimpses on his documents begins with a ‘W,’ and because this character is based on the knight Woland/Faland in ‘Faust.’ But the sound represented by a ‘W’ in English isn’t part of the Russian language. Bulgakov invariably uses the Russian equivalent of ‘V’ (‘В’) in every case where he gives this name. Additionally, the German letter ‘W’ sounds like the English ‘V’ when spoken, thus the Woland in ‘Faust’ should still be pronounced as Voland. So, rather than presume that every English language reader will know to apply the German pronunciation of the Latin letter ‘W’ to this name, I’ve used a ‘V’ in every instance where Bulgakov uses its Russian equivalent, ‘B’, when writing this name. Similarly, I’ve chosen to simply transliterate the honorific Мессир to Messir, rather than give its French equivalent “Messire” (“My lord”). I believe the English language reader will easily rely on the context to get the same meaning from either Messire or Messir, so I’ve decided to keep it Russian and go with the transliteration.
Hopefully this clears some things up. On to the novel.