“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” So says—well, the devil, or at least an earthly representative of his Luciferness, in Bryan Singer’s 1995 film The Usual Suspects. But what if the devil were to appear on Earth and not be terribly shy about making his presence known? That’s the provocative premise of Mikhail Bulgakov’s much-loved novel The Master and Margarita, which first appeared in book form a quarter-century after the writer’s death.
Bulgakov had experience defying the other Master of his day, namely Josef Stalin, who came to power at about the time Bulgakov was settling down in the Moscow neighborhood called the Patriarch’s Ponds. Bulgakov had been a doctor during the first world war and the subsequent civil war; now, in Moscow, he took up a career as a writer, albeit one who often mixed medical scenarios into his stories, including the odd yarn The Fatal Eggs (1924), which foreshadows the weird creature features of the post-atomic 1950s.
Somehow Bulgakov came to Stalin’s attention. And somehow he lived to tell the tale, enjoying Stalin’s protection even as other writers disappeared into the gulag. Though often censored, throughout the bloody 1930s he worked quietly, sometimes as a librettist for the Bolshoi Theatre, but also writing the supremely seditious novel that would be his most famous book. In 1939, he read portions of The Master and Margarita to friends, announcing to them that he would shortly be submitting the book for publication.
They talked him out of it, and for good reason. The Master, a prideful writer, has written a thinly veiled allegory about the trial of Jesus under Pontius Pilate, who doesn’t much like the fact that he will soon order the young man’s execution but accepts it as part of his duties under a system bigger than any one mortal. For his sins, the Master is now in trouble with the authorities in a regime that has little use for writers to begin with, save for perhaps one. A couple of Satan’s minions (including a shape-shifting giant cat), writers themselves, correct a would-be commissar’s observation that only Dostoyevsky counts, and he’s dead. He’s immortal, they protest. Adds an angelic-voiced fiend, “A writer is defined not by any identity card, but by what he writes. How do you know what plots are swarming in my head?”
Devils? Giant cat? Yes, and that’s the least of it, for Satan himself has arrived in Bulgakov’s very neighborhood, proving himself straightaway by foretelling the unlikely death of a bureaucrat. Things get very strange very fast—strange enough that by the time Bulgakov set to lampooning a literary festival organized by Stalin, he figured it might be well to wait to publish until The Boss had retired. Instead, Bulgakov died, and his widow didn’t feel it was safe to publish the book until 1967, after Nikita Khrushchev had been removed from power. A madcap tale of good and evil, it was heralded as a classic at once. So it remains, half a century on.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.