The Soviet Union (shorthand for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was the one of the dominant political entities of the 20th century and represents the largest-scale attempt to create a Communist society in the history of humankind. It grew out of the overthrow of Russia’s monarchy and was constructed around the core principle of giving its people equal social and economic rights. The imposition of the system, however, reached a climax of tyranny under the Union’s second leader, Joseph Stalin, who oversaw increasing state paranoia, censorship, mass imprisonment, and executions. It was within this suffocating atmosphere that Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita, taking satirical aim from within at the Soviet society which Bulgakov was not allowed—by state order—to escape. The targets are many, ranging from currency to accommodation, censorship to state-imposed atheism. The satire seeks to expose the hypocrisies of Soviet life but was severely limited in how explicit it could be because of the risk to the author of censorship, imprisonment or even death. Bulgakov’s satire, then, has to function doubly hard, by using a dark under-the-radar humor to draw the reader’s attention to the shortcomings of the Soviet project and the way in which it, at times, brought out the worst in its people. At the same time, Bulgakov’s use of the Pontius Pilate narrative, set two thousand years prior and in another region of the world, allows him to develop an atmosphere of suspicion, intrigue, and paranoia that colors the more humorous Moscow narrative without creating too much of an explicit link between the two.
The Soviet Union was an attempt to impose, from the top down, a particular mode of society, organized around the principles of Communism: a centralized economy, collective labor effort, a “fair” distribution of resources, and a disincentivization of individualism. Bulgakov subtly but fiercely demonstrates throughout the novel that the particular way the Soviet Union imposed these conditions had terrible consequences which were practically the opposite of their supposed aims (aims which, in themselves, are not inherently “wrong” or “evil”).
Woland’s antics in Moscow are specifically targeted to highlight these consequences in Soviet society: Berlioz’s attempt to report him to authorities indicates the paranoid fear of foreigners, more widely suggesting the Soviet Union’s isolation on the international stage. The bribery of Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, a man tasked with approving who gets to live in Berlioz’s newly vacant Sadovaya street apartment, represents the underground corruption that festered as a result of Soviet housing policy and the subsequent housing shortage. In a telling exchange between Koroviev and Nikanor, Bulgakov satirizes the Soviet Union’s oppressive bureaucracy: “What are official and unofficial persons? It all depends on your point of view on the subject. It’s all fluctuating and relative, Nikanor Ivanovich. Today I’m an unofficial person, and tomorrow, lo and behold, I’m an official one! And it also happens the other way round—oh, how it does!” The transformation of the bureaucrat Prokhor Petrovich into an empty suit serves a similar function. In the Pilate narrative, the slippage between “official” and “unofficial” is best demonstrated by the lengthy conversation between Pilate and the head of his secret service in Yeshalaim, Aphranius. In this, the “official” content of their discussion is Pilate’s order that Judas of Kiriath, the man who turned Yeshua Ha-Nozri into the authorities, must be protected from threats against his life. However, the entire conversation is euphemistic: Pilate and Aphranius are actively arranging the terms of Judas’s murder (at Pilate’s own hands). The “unofficial” content of the speech, then, is the exact opposite of what it seems to be, a fact that echoes the Moscow sections’ frequent suggestion of bureaucratic dishonesty.
Later in the book, Bulgakov further satirizes the problematic issue of housing with the example of Berlioz’s uncle, Maximillian Andreevich Poplavsky, who travels from Kiev to Moscow not to pay his respects to his deceased nephew, but to try to acquire his apartment. On the one hand, Poplavsky’s actions are the direct result of the housing shortage; on the other, his character reinforces the idea that Soviet policy merely sublimated people’s greed and made people manipulative. Koroviev satirizes Poplavsky’s self-serving intentions by pretending to be distraught at Berlioz’s death, mimicking the reaction that might reasonably have been better suited to an uncle grieving his nephew.
But the above instances describe only the satire that, to put it bluntly, Bulgakov felt he could get away with. The darker side of the Soviet Union—its willingness to “disappear” those citizens not obeying its ideology—Bulgakov could only imply, because to do more than that would have been dangerous. Appropriately enough, the shadowy state authorities don’t have much of a presence in the novel. In fact, the most obvious gesture towards them is in the Pilate narrative with the extra-judicial (though arguably justified) killing of Judas. That isn’t to say they’re not there in Moscow, though. Bulgakov keeps them just out of view, masterfully representing the secrecy with which they actually operated at the time. On numerous occasions in the novel, people vanish. Bulgakov portrays these moments with a light touch, but the implication is clear: failure to the toe the line one day can mean ceasing to exist the next—transforming from “official” person to “unofficial.” For example, previous inhabitants of the apartment which Woland chooses as his base are described as having disappeared without any trace. That’s because any official trace has been erased. In one particular episode, Styopa Likhodeev is suddenly transported by Koroviev from Moscow to Yalta, thousands of miles away. Styopa’s disappearance is comically impossible—there’s no way he could travel that distance in such a short time (without a little supernatural help). The humor of this episode stands in stark contrast with the reality of disappearances under Soviet society.
Bulgakov’s novel, then, constantly reminds the reader of the perils of Soviet oppression—an oppression that he himself faced, and which he knew was almost certainly going to make publication of The Master and Margarita impossible (and in fact though the novel was completed by 1940, it was not published until 1967, and even then it was published in Paris, outside the USSR). Loyal first and foremost to his art, Bulgakov takes satirical aim at the Soviet Union from within.
The Danger and Absurdity of Soviet Society ThemeTracker
The Danger and Absurdity of Soviet Society Quotes in The Master and Margarita
First of all, the man described did not limp on any leg, and was neither short nor enormous, but simply tall. As for his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side and gold on the right. He was wearing an expensive grey suit and imported shoes of a matching colour. His grey beret was cocked rakishly over one ear; under his arm he carried a stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle’s head. He looked to be a little over forty. Mouth somehow twisted. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. Right eye black, left – for some reason – green. Dark eyebrows, but one higher than the other. In short, a foreigner.
The foreigner sat back on the bench and asked, even with a slight shriek of curiosity:
‘You are - atheists?!’
‘Yes, we’re atheists,’ Berlioz smilingly replied, and Homeless thought, getting angry: ‘Latched on to us, the foreign goose!’
‘Oh, how lovely!’ the astonishing foreigner cried out and began swivelling his head, looking from one writer to the other.
‘In our country atheism does not surprise anyone,’ Berlioz said with diplomatic politeness. ‘The majority of our population consciously and long ago ceased believing in the fairy tales about God.’
Any visitor finding himself in Griboedov’s, unless of course he was a total dim-wit, would realize at once what a good life those lucky fellows, the Massolit members, were having, and black envy would immediately start gnawing at him. And he would immediately address bitter reproaches to heaven for not having endowed him at birth with literary talent, lacking which there was naturally no dreaming of owning a Massolit membership card, brown, smelling of costly leather, with a wide gold border – a card known to all Moscow.
And then the bedroom started spinning around Styopa, he hit his head
against the doorpost, and, losing consciousness, thought: ‘I’m dying...’
But he did not die. Opening his eyes slightly, he saw himself sitting on something made of stone. Around him something was making noise. When he opened his eyes properly, he realized that the noise was being made by the sea and, what’s more, that the waves were rocking just at his feet, that he was, in short, sitting at the very end of a jetty, that over him was a brilliant blue sky and behind him a white city on the mountains.
Not knowing how to behave in such a case, Styopa got up on his trembling legs and walked along the jetty towards the shore.
Some man was standing on the jetty, smoking and spitting into the sea. He looked at Styopa with wild eyes and stopped spitting.
Then Styopa pulled the following stunt: he knelt down before the unknown smoker and said:
‘I implore you, tell me what city is this?’
‘Really!’ said the heartless smoker.
‘I’m not drunk,’ Styopa replied hoarsely, ‘something’s happened to
me... I’m ill... Where am I? What city is this?’
‘Well, it’s Yalta...’
Styopa quietly gasped and sank down on his side, his head striking the
warm stone of the jetty. Consciousness left him.
At the deceased’s desk sat an unknown, skinny, long citizen in a little checkered jacket, a jockey’s cap, and a pince-nez... well, in short, that same one.
‘And who might you be, citizen?’ Nikanor Ivanovich asked fearfully.
‘Hah! Nikanor Ivanovich!’ the unexpected citizen yelled in a rattling tenor and, jumping up, greeted the chairman with a forced and sudden handshake. This greeting by no means gladdened Nikanor Ivanovich.
‘Excuse me,’ he said suspiciously, ‘but who might you be? Are you an official person?’
‘Eh, Nikanor Ivanovich!’ the unknown man exclaimed soulfully. ‘What are official and unofficial persons? It all depends on your point of view on the subject. It’s all fluctuating and relative, Nikanor Ivanovich. Today I’m an unofficial person, and tomorrow, lo and behold, I’m an official one! And it also happens the other way round – oh, how it does!’
‘And so, now comes the famous foreign artist. Monsieur Woland, with a séance of black magic. Well, both you and I know,’ here Bengalsky smiled a wise smile, ‘that there’s no such thing in the world, and that it’s all just superstition, and Maestro Woland is simply a perfect master of the technique of conjuring, as we shall see from the most interesting part, that is, the exposure of this technique, and since we’re all of us to a man both for technique and for its exposure, let’s bring on Mr Woland!’
In a few seconds, the rain of money, ever thickening, reached the seats, and the spectators began snatching at it.
Hundreds of arms were raised, the spectators held the bills up to the lighted stage and saw the most true and honest-to-God watermarks. The smell also left no doubts: it was the incomparably delightful smell of freshly printed money. The whole theatre was seized first with merriment and then with amazement. The word ‘money, money!’ hummed everywhere, there were gasps of ‘ah, ah!’ and merry laughter. One or two were already crawling in the aisles, feeling under the chairs. Many stood on the seats, trying to catch the flighty, capricious notes.
At a huge writing desk with a massive inkstand an empty suit sat and with a dry pen, not dipped in ink, traced on a piece of paper. The suit was wearing a necktie, a fountain pen stuck from its pocket, but above the collar there was neither neck nor head, just as there were no hands sticking out of the sleeves. The suit was immersed in work and completely ignored the turmoil that reigned around it. Hearing someone come in, the suit leaned back and from above the collar came the voice, quite familiar to the bookkeeper, of Prokhor Petrovich:
‘What is this? Isn’t it written on the door that I’m not receiving?’
The beautiful secretary shrieked and, wringing her hands, cried out: ‘You see? You see?! He’s not there! He’s not! Bring him back, bring
Here someone peeked in the door of the office, gasped, and flew out. The bookkeeper felt his legs trembling and sat on the edge of a chair,
but did not forget to pick up his briefcase. Anna Richardovna hopped around the bookkeeper, worrying his jacket, and exclaiming:
‘I always, always stopped him when he swore by the devil! So now the devil’s got him!’
Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar’s vile tongue be cut out!
Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!
No! The master was mistaken when with bitterness he told Ivanushka in the hospital, at that hour when the night was falling past midnight, that she had forgotten him. That could not be. She had, of course, not forgotten him.
First of all let us reveal the secret which the master did not wish to reveal to Ivanushka. His beloved’s name was Margarita Nikolaevna.
Naked and invisible, the lady flier tried to control and talk sense into herself; her hands trembled with impatience. Taking careful aim, Margarita struck at the keys of the grand piano, and a first plaintive wail passed all through the apartment. Becker’s drawing-room instrument, not guilty of anything, cried out frenziedly. Its keys caved in, ivory veneer flew in all directions. The instrument howled, wailed, rasped and jangled. With the noise of a pistol shot, the polished upper soundboard split under a hammer blow. Breathing hard, Margarita tore and mangled the strings with the hammer. Finally getting tired, she left off and flopped into an armchair to catch her breath.
‘No,’ replied Margarita, ‘most of all I’m struck that there’s room for all this.’ She made a gesture with her hand, emphasizing the enormousness of the hall.
Koroviev grinned sweetly, which made the shadows stir in the folds of his nose.
‘The most uncomplicated thing of all!’ he replied. ‘For someone well acquainted with the fifth dimension, it costs nothing to expand space to the desired proportions. I’ll say more, respected lady - to devil knows what proportions!
‘But tell me, why does Margarita call you a master?’ asked Woland. The man smiled and said:
‘That is an excusable weakness. She has too high an opinion of a novel
‘What is this novel about?’
‘It is a novel about Pontius Pilate.’ Here again the tongues of the candles swayed and leaped, the dishes on the table clattered, Woland burst into thunderous laughter, but neither frightened nor surprised anyone. Behemoth applauded for some reason.
‘About what? About what? About whom?’ said Woland, ceasing to laugh.
‘And that - now? It’s stupendous! Couldn’t you have found some other subject? Let me see it.’ Woland held out his hand, palm up.
‘Unfortunately, I cannot do that,’ replied the master, ‘because I burned it in the stove.’
‘Forgive me, but I don’t believe you,’ Woland replied, ‘that cannot be: manuscripts don’t burn.’ He turned to Behemoth and said, ‘Come on. Behemoth, let’s have the novel.’
The cat instantly jumped off the chair, and everyone saw that he had been sitting on a thick stack of manuscripts. With a bow, the cat gave the top copy to Woland. Margarita trembled and cried out, again shaken to the point of tears:
‘It’s here, the manuscript! It’s here!’ She dashed to Woland and added in admiration: