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Photo: Getty.
An illustration of the cat Behemoth from Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian The Master and Margarita.

Here’s a wonderful book I want to reread, partly because of the invasion of Ukraine, where citizens of occupied towns are expected to rejoice that they have been “liberated” by the Russians, and partly because some US towns are starting to ban books, just like the old Soviet Union did. Plus, I remember the book as fun to read.

Emily Zarevich writes at JSTOR Daily about the evergreen relevance of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

” ‘Manuscripts don’t burn.’

“This iconic line made Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita a staple of the Russian literary canon. It’s quoted constantly, in its original language and in all its translations. Uninitiated readers may be surprised to find out that these words are spoken by the Devil, who in the novel resurrects and returns the main character’s abandoned writing project after an attempt to destroy it in a fire. It’s an allegorical exchange between our world and the next, demonstrating that even supernatural entities don’t possess the [ability] to extinguish the power of human creativity.

“As Bulgakov’s Devil — disguised as a foreign professor and operating under the name of Woland — insists through his simple words, true masterpieces will endure and rise from attempted extinction like the mythical phoenix, as proven by The Master and Margarita itself, which emerged intact from the calamitous flame of Soviet censorship.

“The initial journey of The Master and Margarita to publication is somewhat cryptic. Following a morbid and natural cycle of life, its birth began on a deathbed. Bulgakov’s third wife, Elena, who was his inspiration for the avenging character of Margarita, swore at the suffering Bulgakov’s bedside — he passed away on March 10, 1940, at the age of 48 — that she would make his magnum opus her life’s mission; she would prevail against suppression. But unfortunately, unlike the fictitious Margarita, Elena didn’t have access to a sympathetic circle of demons who could offer her the power to reawaken her lover’s lost dream. She was a human woman, and she was given very human, cautionary advice by Bulgakov’s close friend Pavel Popov, as recorded in J. A. Curtis’s reader’s companion to the novel:

‘The less people know about the novel the better,’ wrote Popov to Elena, ‘The masterfulness of a genius will always remain masterfulness, but at the moment the novel would be unacceptable. 50–100 years will have to pass.’

“As Curtis points out, Popov’s prediction was around thirty years off the mark. It would take twenty years for the book to be published. …

“What made the novel so unacceptable to Soviet censors was not only its depiction of unregulated female power and sexuality, but its portrayal of a USSR that existed parallel to the celestial realms of the afterlife. One of the Soviet Union’s main principles was staunch secularity; citizens were expected to be loyal to their communist superpower country first and their faith second, if they believed in the institution of religion at all.

“What The Master and Margarita dares to present is a 1930s Moscow subjected to both paranormal mischief and an overarching Christian-biblical presence, helpless to stop or ignore either. The state is never at any point in the book positioned as the higher power — a major threat to the supremacist government agenda — and so Elena found herself unable to fulfill her vow to publish the book in a timely manner. …

“During the years between its completion and its publication, the existence of The Master and Margarita became something of an open secret among Russian literary circles. The journal Moskva made the daring decision to finally publish The Master and Margarita in 1966, but this version was censored to the point of butchery, and many of Bulgakov’s canny messages vanished in the process. Gone was Margarita’s sexual liberty, for instance, and Bulgakov’s mockery of the USSR’s corruption and incompetence as a communist nation.

“For the book to be published in its full, unabbreviated glory, it had to be smuggled abroad. The publisher Eesti Raamat in Estonia can take credit for bringing out the first unedited rendition in 1967, but it should be noted that this was only a translation. Published in Estonian, not Russian, it, unfortunately, couldn’t be interpreted as Bulgakov’s own voice. The Italian publisher Einaudi brought it out in Russian later that same year, but in the Soviet Union, it wouldn’t be published properly until 1973, three years after Elena’s death, though she would have enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that rebellious Russian readers were enjoying copies of the book being secretly passed around under the government’s radar.

“Naturally, the novel caused controversy and mass bewilderment when Bulgakov’s fellow citizens were able to get their hands on publicly available copies that hadn’t been filtered by the censors or lost in translation. Admittedly, it is a strange book, and as Stephan Lovell explains, ‘Readers accustomed to a diet of Soviet classics were ill-equipped to interpret the novel’s complex network of symbols and plot levels, its unusual treatment of time, its use of irony and the fantastic, and its references to Christianity and myth.’ …

“Today, it’s accepted as one of the finest novels to come out of the political disquietude of the twentieth century, with a modern readership better prepared to recognize its merits.”

More on this classic skewering of authoritarianism at JSTOR, here.

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The Master and Margarita is a novel by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, written in the Soviet Union during Stalin‘s regime. A censored version was published in Moscow magazine in 1966–1967, after the writer’s death.

John has worked with optical engineers in Ukraine for decades now. Some years ago, when one of the engineers was in the US to talk to clients, we got to share a meal and a chat. I remember it was a sweltering hot day. We had no air conditioning in our dining room, and we were all sweating.

At the time, I must have been reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a fantastical satire on the USSR, written in the time of Stalin. We began to talk about it, and John’s colleague described what one had to do to read the book’s loose unpublished pages before Ukraine gained its freedom. Under the table in the library with a flashlight.

That memory came to mind in the last few days as I watched the Soviet Union try to return from the dead in Ukraine. My train of thought took me to current headlines about banned books in the US and an article in the New York Times that gave students a chance to opine on that trend.

The Times staff explains, “In the article ‘Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.,’ Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter write about the growing trend of parents, political activists, school board officials and lawmakers arguing that some books do not belong in school libraries.

“As we regularly do when The Times reports on an issue that touches the lives of teenagers, we used our daily Student Opinion forum to ask teenagers to share their perspectives. The overwhelming majority of students were opposed to book bans in any form, although their reasons and opinions were varied and nuanced. They argued that young people have the right to read unsanitized versions of history, that diverse books expose them to a variety of experiences and perspectives, that controversial literature helps them to think critically about the world, and that, in the age of the internet, book bans just aren’t that effective. … Thank you to all those from around the world who joined the conversation this week, including teenagers from Japan; Julia R. Masterman School in Philadelphia; and Patino High School in Fresno, Calif.

” ‘I think the idea of people trying to censor speech is absolutely abhorrent. Right to freedom of speech, religion, peaceful assembly, petition, and press is our 1st amendment and one that we take for granted …

” ‘As a teenager I am still trying to find my way in this world; I want to know as many other viewpoints as possible so that I know my thoughts are my own and not just a product of a limited amount of information. Even if these books are not required reading they should be allowed in libraries. Families can decide what books are allowed in their homes but trying to force a community to get rid of a book is a way of forcing one’s beliefs on an entire community. Removing books about issues faced by marginalized groups is a way to ignore them, a way to minimize the issues faced by those groups and allow the banners to not have their opinions challenged. This is a democracy that should be open to discussion and if it is then people will find others who agree and disagree with them.’ [Jason, Maine] …

” ‘Maybe a student has past trauma that they may struggle to deal with, a book that has a topic based on their past may comfort them and bring them closure. These books also inform students on what really happens within the mind and life of someone else. Banning books is an overall loss for a school or library, it only limits human growth.’ [Alex, Michigan]

” ‘Reading the article and these comments just makes me think, ”Jeez, the fact these books are being challenged shows how much some people need education on the subjects of them.” These books may have hard topics but they essentially are a needed part of education. They might be brutal and hard to swallow, but they are the best examples of real-world problems and history. They provide a good sense of realism and give kids somewhat of an idea of what goes on and has gone on in the world.

” ‘Challenging these books is like trying to protect someone from the world. Then instead shoving them in front of something that makes them think, “Everything will always work out,” And, “These things will never happen again.” It makes them think the world has no struggle or insanely big problems. When in reality it definitely does and they will be directly affected by these problems.’ [Jordan, Massachusetts]

“While it’s reasonable to be concerned about the material your children are reading, as some material might not be age appropriate, there is almost never — honestly, never at all — justification for banning a book. …

“Books are the primary way to tell stories, to learn right from the mouths of people who have witnessed things we need to learn and grow from. Our society depends on the idea of future generations learning and progressing, and with the banning of books all we are doing is going backwards, not forwards.” [Meghan, Illinois]

Read more at the Times, here.

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