Bulgakov’s Warning

Must we look at Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita as a critique of Soviet society? There’s no doubt that it can be viewed this way, but what characterizes truly great works of literature (as opposed to, say, Harry Potter or the Hunger Games) is that the reader can approach the same text yet draw different conclusions. So what interest could Bulgakov possibly be writing for?

With the book mentioning devils, Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth), Pontius Pilate, Behemoth, Judas Iscariot, Woland (Satan) and so on and so on, it seems this book is ripe with Christian themes. Could this book possibly also be a critique of how Russian society (in Bulgakov’s time) rejected theism for atheism?

In the first chapter, we are met with two characters who deny the possibility of there ever having existed a Jesus Christ. Satan, under the guise of the professor Woland, criticizes this view and goes on to foreshadow the fate of these two characters: Berlioz, who will supposedly later slip on Annushka’s spilt sunflower seed oil and get decapitated by an oncoming train, and Ivan, who will end up in a mental hospital. A rather sad fate for these two, who, since they do not believe in God and hence reject the idea of “sin”, therefore ironically reject Satan himself.

Another instance of this warning of “godlessness” that perhaps Bulgakov is hinting to is that of the psychiatric clinic in Chapter 6. When Ivan is explaining to the doctor of how he knew Woland was the murderer all along, of how he already knew how Berlioz’s beheading would happen and how he also met Pontius Pilate earlier that day, how are we to analyze this? Is this simply a crazy man talking about Pontius Pilate, the man supposedly responsible for condemning Jesus to death? Looking through it using this lens, perhaps Bulgakov is satirizing contemporary Soviet society: perhaps he is describing the common notion of how religion was seen as a “mind-virus”, a sickness, disease, hallucination, vision, something “supernatural”, something that would wind you up in an insane asylum, much like how Ivan was. There are many other instances of these scenes elsewhere.

Again, this post is not meant to expose my religious beliefs (if any) or biases but perhaps those of Bulgakov. I will try to remain as neutral as possible. I am neither saying that I agree or disagree with Christianity (or any religion for that matter), however I’ve noticed in our seminar group quite a bit of contempt towards this sensitive issue. Some people have put a lot of thought into believing what they believe in, and for you to dismiss it as hogwash not only makes them feel like trash, but also shows your ignorance of what their belief actually entails. I hope that you all can express more respect for something that a lot of people take very seriously and not approach it in such a blatantly dismissive and immature tone.


One Comment

  1. I do think this text, like all great literature as you point out, is ripe for multiple interpretations, and the one you provide here sounds promising indeed. Not knowing anything about Bulgakov’s views of religion, I can’t say if it would match what he seemed to think, but the text itself certainly provides numerous instances of support for this kind of reading! And why not–Soviet Russia was certainly, so far as I know, a place where religious beliefs were treated with contempt.

    And if we are doing that in seminar, then that is a problem that definitely needs to be fixed. I hope we are not doing so, but it is something we should all pay attention to and work to make sure is not happening and does not happen. It’s important to bring this up if you think it is happening, so we can consider that even if we think we aren’t doing that, we may come across as doing so nonetheless. That’s an important lesson to learn, and a crucial thing to consider when trying to have discussions and build an academic community.

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