Black Magic in the State Building Communism: Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Written in the 1930s and published with censorship cuts only in 1966, Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov became his best work and a classic of Russian literature of the 20th century. It combines two plot lines: one happening in the ancient Jerusalem under the government of Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, and the other in Moscow of the '30s, with its building of socialism, antireligious propaganda, penniless and dodgy communal life, and abundant and flimsy life of the new aristocracy of Soviet writers. There are two witnesses uniting these plot lines: a mysterious professor Wolland who came to Moscow accompanied by his strange retinue, and Master, a clairvoyant writer who wrote a novel about Yeshua. This novel, of course, could not be published in the Soviet Russia, and would have been destroyed, possibly together with its author, had the Master’s true love Margarita not asked Wolland to interfere. The course covers the introduction to the everyday reality of the Soviet life of the '30s, discussions of the main features of the novel and a history of its publishing.


The lecture and discussions will cover the following subjects:

  • An overall image of life and art in the early Soviet union: New Economy Politics of the early 1920s and industrialisation of the late 20s. Cultural renaissance and its abrupt end in favor of regulated arts.
  • Communal life in '30s Russia. Kitchen and toilet, electricity, kerosinka, primus. “Bad apartment”. The “second-rate freshness”.
  • Splendors and miseries of the Soviet writers. How could a person become an official Soviet writer? What was the position of a Soviet writer compared to an ordinary Soviet person? How did they live, work, travel? What did they write?
  • Master and Margarita: the plot. Autobiographic and phantasmagoria features. The first draft and its destruction.
  • Main characters: Master, Pilate, Yeshua, Woland, Margarita.
  • Background characters: theatrical, literary, diabolic and ordinary people.
  • Great terror through laughter: to say what cannot be said, to live what cannot be lived through.
  • Mysterious Wolland. Séance of black magic (with disclosure). Reception in the American Embassy as a prototype for Wolland’s Ball.
  • Master and Margarita: history of publication. Censorship and Sam-izdat.
  • Bulgakov in Soviet and world movies, theatrical performance and songs since 1970s.

PLANNED LEARNING OUTCOMES By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Discuss the everyday life in Moscow of the '30s.
  2. Discuss living through the Great Terror.
  3. Discuss being a Soviet writer.
  4. Discuss characters and plot lines of the Master and Margarita novel.
  5. Discuss Bulgakov’s phantasmagoria and biographical writings.
  6. Discuss historical parallels and multiple prototypes of the novel’s characters.
  7. Discuss history of publishing of the novel.
  8. Discuss Bulgakov’s cultural heritage.