Embodying the Archive: An Analysis of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

Poster for production Master and Margarita in Theatre Near the Bridge in Perm (2005). Photo courtesy of Theatre Near the Bridge Perm/Wikimedia Commons. No changes made. View the license here.

By Arina Dmitrenko


This paper focuses on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita (trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997),[1] and its exploration of the theme of good and evil. The novel presents a creative and curious example of writing that contests the reality it was produced in, leading the reader to a realm beyond the realities of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and 1930s. This contestation of the “real” plays out in the many binaries within the novel: Moscow and Jerusalem; good and evil; foreigners and Muscovites; and fantasy and the ordinary. These embedded binaries serve as a commentary on Bulgakov’s lived experience as a writer in the Soviet Union, and a preservation mechanism for ideas, themes, and notions that were excluded from the Soviet ideological landscape. In this paper, I will argue that in his magnum opus novel, The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov explores the theme of good and evil by juxtaposing the metaphysical against the backdrop of the real atmosphere of the Soviet Union. Bulgakov does this to highlight the moral limitations of the Soviet system, and subsequently, his own lived experience. As a result, he revitalizes and encodes parts of Christian Biblical heritage (that which is absent from the Soviet Union) and ultimately places his faith in the concept of the archive.

This paper will outline the relevant framework and then unfold in two main sections. First, I will frame Bulgakov’s lived experience and his literary works in the context of the Soviet state and time period. This section will discuss his use of literary satire, his interactions with censorship, his works’ criticism, and his motivation for continued writing. Second, I will provide an analysis of selected passages from the novel to support my thesis. This section will include a discussion on Soviet culture, elements of Biblical imagery and culture, and will connect these literary themes to Bulgakov’s life in the Soviet Union and his use of the archive. Finally, I will offer a conclusion.


The structural components of Soviet ideology are essential to understanding the work and life of Mikhail Bulgakov. The cornerstone of Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s was the perpetual threat of war.[2] The Soviet Union “came into being as a result of World War I, [and] established itself through victory in the Civil War,” yielding war as the genesis for the Soviet Union, and subsequently framing the Stalinist regime.[3] The ‘perpetual threat of war’ was an anxiety that informed the notion of “anti-Soviet” thought. The term “anti-Soviet” served to “other” that which was deemed to counteract, contradict, or inconvenience the ebb and flow of the Soviet ideology. Yet, party ideology remained fluid and shaped the party reality through ritual and discourse.[4] Stalin’s Soviet Union translated the threat of war into terror which was a violent campaign against anything that was deemed “anti-Soviet”, and consequently, against the interest of Stalin and the state. As Oleg Khlevniuk identifies, that terror was comprised of the threat of “anti-Soviet elements and nationalities.”[5] In creating this concept of anti-Soviet elements, Stalin was able to manufacture lawfulness according to his own standards of the good—that which is good for the state—creating a “totalitarian lawfulness.” 

The concept of “totalitarian lawfulness” is discussed in Hannah Arendt’s “Ideology and Terror,” where she writes; 

Totalitarian lawfulness defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behaviour. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behaviour of men.[6]

In other words, totalitarian lawfulness applies an absolute (or black and white) definition of justice to diverse mankind operating in a gray area. By highlighting the difference between totalitarian lawfulness and the behaviour of man, Arendt’s quote outlines two dimensions: the real (or actual), and the metaphysical. This binary identifies a realm in which something is actualized or created (like man-made law), and a second realm which supersedes the first, acting outside of it. Arendt’s definition of totalitarian lawfulness applies to Stalin’s regime of terror. This concept of the real and the metaphysical will frame my analysis of the various juxtapositions Bulgakov creates in his novel, as well as those that exist in his personal life and experience living and writing in the Soviet Union. To lead an adequate analysis of The Master and Margarita, it is crucial to situate it in this lived experience. 

Bulgakov, His Works, and Relationship to the Soviet Union

Mikhail Bulgakov’s literary career spanned the period from the early 1920s until his death in 1940, albeit with a significant reduction in publications by the late 1920s. The first version of The Master and Margarita was completed in 1928, and in the same year the first Five Year Plan was adopted.[7] The significance of the former is perhaps obvious to the discussion led in this paper, whereas the significance of the latter is important for two reasons. First, it marks the acceleration of Stalinist policies, and second, it indicates a stronger shift to the Soviet cultural concept of “serving the state.” The broad aim of the Five Year Plan was to accelerate industrialization. More importantly, however, the way in which the plan combined high output expectations with identifying what output was deemed important had a profound effect in areas beyond industrialization. One of those areas is Soviet censorship—the efforts of which were centralized in a state organ known colloquially as Glavlit.  

Glavlit was created to “unify all censorship organs into a single entity.”[8] Its official state name was the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press, and one of its roles in the Soviet system was to regulate press materials in order to prevent the production of ideologically “dangerous” materials. Later, its focus moved toward “producing subject areas designated useful by the party leadership.”[9] Brian Kassof identifies Glavlit’s earlier attempts to regulate the private publishing houses as the origin of Glavlit’s increasing regulations in the late 1920s.[10] Glavlit monitored the publishing of private houses initially through lists of forbidden topics, and later through typification which sought to nearly categorize publishing houses into state-permitted specialty genres.[11] As censorship efforts in the Soviet State scaled up, writers who enjoyed relative publishing freedom earlier began to face reprimand.[12] Specifically, Bulgakov’s contemporaries Pilnyak and Zamyatin (a friend of Bulgakov’s) faced strong state measures for their attempts to write literature discussing Soviet grain production.[13] In fact, Zamyatin faced repeated state attacks from 1928 to 1931.[14] Bulgakov was luckier in the sense that he did not face rigorous legal or extra-legal measures, however, “by March 1929 all of Bulgakov’s plays were banned; by October of 1929 the essentially apolitical All-Russian Union of Writers (of which Bulgakov was a member) was destroyed.”[15] This shift towards harsher state control was “part of a larger movement, as Stalin began to deal with the rightist opposition in government.”[16] Bulgakov’s works stylistically and thematically stood out as potential threats to the state. 

Bulgakov’s works presented observations of the real world through forms of the imaginary.[17] He frequently produced works of satire “which [used] elements of science fiction” to satirize the ideological construction of the Soviet Union, and often relied on his lived experience as inspiration for the analysis of the real world.[18] As a result, his works often featured “tension between an artist and his society,” changing only to diversify the images of the created artist archetype.[19] Most familiar figures to Bulgakov were the artist and the scientist—drawn directly from his personal experience as both a medical professional and an author. These Bulgakovian trends are present in his earlier work, Fatal Eggs (published in 1925 in the journal Nedra), in which a scientist mutates the lowest form of organisms into something grotesque with a red laser. This work was critiqued by writer L. F. Ershov in 1960 for a number of reasons, including his use of the colour red to catalyse the morphing of the creature. Given that red was the colour of the revolution, the work was criticized for mocking Soviet symbols and accused of creating “a disgraceful pamphlet for a new Russia.”[20] Although Ershov’s critique is a product of the 1960s, It echoes the sentiments of critics who would have operated in Bulgakov’s time. Another work that features these trends is The Heart of a Dog (censored for publishing in 1925 by the Soviet Union but circulated in Samizdat). The protagonist is a surgeon who creates a man from a stray dog to see if the new creature is capable of being civilized. This work was prohibited from publishing in 1925, facing criticism for hyperbolizing officials of the Soviet state such as Lev Kamenev, Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union.[21] Apparently, state officials “were afraid the author could read their hearts and would reveal his findings to others.”[22] Both works are examples of the aforementioned Bulgakovian trends, although the trends are not limited to these two works only. Additionally, the works are examples of Bulgakov’s experience with criticism, although that too is not an isolated phenomenon. Bulgakov was permitted to continue adapting plays at the Moscow Art Theatre, during which time he had periods of being viewed with suspicion.[23] 

Those who knew about The Master and Margarita novel, and were ideologically loyal, criticized the controversial novel. It is important to note that the plot of the novel was written and evolved over the course of twelve years and manifested in six drafts.[24] Bulgakov would host intimate readings of sections of the novel in his apartment—his audience consisted of trusted friends and his third wife, Elena Sergeevna, whom he met in 1929, fell in love with, and ultimately ended his second marriage for. In these readings, Bulgakov would reveal his work in progress to those he deemed trustworthy enough to listen. In fact, “the authorities were aware of the novel’s existence even from the very beginning.”[25] Bulgakov knew the work was not going to get printed.[26] The political climate at the time, Bulgakov’s reputation, and the themes of the novel all signaled the unlikelihood of its publication. As a result of the leaks, Bulgakov and Elena Sergeevna’s apartment was subject to frequent visits from the state authorities which tactfully kept the writer “in check.” Many of those who listened to his novel in the private readings were writers themselves, and in a wave of arrests in 1936, found themselves at the hands of the Soviet state.[27] Yet, Bulgakov continued to work on the drafts of The Master and Margarita, adding to and evolving the novel through the various versions of the manuscript. 

The various manuscripts served a role of special importance to Bulgakov and his literary works. It seems that Bulgakov held his manuscripts to a level of high importance, because “in the tangibility of paper and ink [he found] proof of his existence.”[28] However, Bulgakov was also willing and unhesitant to destroy his own drafts, usually burning them away. His earlier work, The Heart of a Dog (1925), serves as an interesting precedent case for The Master and Margarita in our discussion. When the novel remained unpublished, Bulgakov “left four pages undestroyed and gave them to his wife [at the time] as a keepsake.”[29] To leave four pages was to leave a fragment of the story in an informal, archivable form during a time when the formal state archive was approving limited materials. A fragmented piece can allude to a work that once existed and prompt research. His faith in the value of fragmented pieces “shows Bulgakov’s certainty that one day the fact of his diary would interest someone.”[30] His preference for destroying his manuscripts also indicated partial destruction of self; destruction fueled by a sort of despair and turmoil instilled in him by the Soviet system, for “Bulgakov increasingly felt that he was condemned to be buried alive in his apartment with his manuscripts.”[31] This tragedy of the Russian writer was not unique to Bulgakov since he frequently looked to Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol for similarities in fate.[32] Incidentally, during Bulgakov’s final years, Elena Sergeevna “made him a solemn promise that she would devote her life to the task of preserving his work and ensuring that the novel eventually got published.”[33] His steadfast commitment to writing v stol[34] shows us that “Bulgakov’s personality, like his work, tends to resist doctrinaire interpretations.”[35] It is evident that the actions of the author could not always be easily understood, and his personality seemed to inform the fluidity of meaning in his works. 

Gesher Theater’s production of the Master and the Margarita. Photo: Gesher Theater/Wikimedia Commons. No changes made. View the license here.

The last draft of The Master and Margarita was preserved with Elena Sergeevna. Though she had accompanied Bulgakov through his literary journey, the final version of the novel was not quite as final as expected. Bulgakov’s death in 1940 left Sergeevna with various notebooks of mostly complete chapters, but several inconsistencies and unclarities existed in the drafts.[36] Most notably, the third narrative within the framework of the novel—the love story of the Master and Margarita—was written last and remained not fully integrated into the novel. To add to the lack of clarity, Bulgakov was writing and rewriting sections of the novel near the end of his life in a state of blindness, dictating corrections to his wife, who would record them for him.[37] But his steadfast focus on the novel and its story leads us to think about why he remained so determined to write v stol. This poses two questions: what was the importance of what the novel was communicating? and why did Bulgakov believe so strongly in its eventual release to the public? To address the first question, it is plausible that Bulgakov felt that he was encoding a certain truth in his writing—whether about the events of the real time and his lived experience, or the lessons derived from the events presented by Biblical culture. To address the second, it seems that Bulgakov (amidst the cycles of frustration) had placed enough faith in his wife, Elena Sergeevna, to deliver the novel to its audience. By placing his faith in her, Bulgakov foregoes the state archive in the straightforward sense and creates an informal archive of his own—much like how the Russian resorted to pickling his own food or fabricating samogon in periods of gastronomic drought. By saving his ideas in an informal archive, Bulgakov possibly satiated himself as an artist. An informal archive provided peace to the troubled writer, knowing that his ideas may one day be seen and read. The following section will outline the pertinent cultural elements of both Soviet and Biblical realms, and dive into the analysis of the novel. 

Soviet and Biblical Culture, and Novel Analysis

Soviet culture was inundated with one important binary: the formal and informal. The Soviet State had crafted an ideology that would serve to achieve Socialism (which entailed liberation for all man) and safeguard against the threat of war. The ideology was situated above the physical state, much like it was above the law as well. Ideology was intangible, and operated in the realm outside of the real. As a result, it constructed a formal realm, which painted an absolute idea of being and did not account for the behaviour of man as discussed in Arendt’s definition of totalitarian lawfulness. Consequently, an informal realm developed and operated in the Soviet Union.[38] The informal is categorized by that which is outside of the formal, and specific to the behaviour of man. It manifested in phenomena like the Samizdat, the cultural reliance on blat, and the familial exploration of religion. Generally, the informal permeated Soviet culture deeply, creating a dual-layered Soviet Union. This duality formed a culture in which the “real” or authentic behaviour of man was not always reflective of the formal realm and was often scrutinized and punished by the authorities which embodied the formal. 

Christian tradition was prohibited in the Soviet Union, and with it, Christian Biblical heritage was absent from the formal realm of the state. Soviet ideology held sacred value and forbade public engagement with Christianity as a means to protect the ideological project of Socialism. Since the informal realm escaped the grasp of the formal, Christianity and Biblical tradition were explored in private by those who were willing and desired to. Specifically, as it will soon be evident upon a close reading of the novel, Biblical imagery evoked by Bulgakov is used to contrast the events in Moscow (within the novel). Parenthetically, I want to note that I discuss Christianity specifically not because the imagery would not be pertinent to other religions, namely Judaism, but because the imagery utilized is specific to symbols of Christianity. Furthermore, given the regional cultural history and Mikhail Bulgakov’s upbringing, Christianity yields the most relevant application in analysing his work. Symbols like ‘the washing of blood,’ ‘drinking of wine’ [but more specifically any imagery pertaining to sacred spirit consumption], images of ‘resurrection,’ and the ‘washing of feet,’ are attributed to their significance in the New Testament. However, the novel also encounters symbols like ‘the importance of the Word’ and the act of exiting or entering ‘gardens’ which are found in the Old Testament. Upon further examination, we will see that as Christian tradition and Biblical allegory roamed the informal sphere of the Soviet Union, the Christian elements within The Master and Margarita roam to accentuate the events in Moscow in the novel. Shifting our discussion to the novel, the following paragraphs will examine the relevant sections of chapters nineteen, twenty-three, twenty-four, and twenty-five closely, with some contextual references drawn from other relevant chapters. 

Chapters twenty-three through twenty-five provide fruitful text for analysis due to their role in the chronology of the novel; in these chapters, the apex of the novel is reached. But first, the reader meets Margarita in chapter nineteen—her self-titled chapter. Immediately, the reader learns that what the Master (who we meet in earlier chapters and bears likeness to Bulgakov himself) has told the poet about Margarita “was the exact truth”—signaling to the reader that the Master speaks the truth, especially about Margarita.[39] We also learn that she had a good life since she was spared from knowing “the horrors of life in a communal apartment,” however, she is still unhappy.[40] This shows the reader that the material conditions in the Soviet Union do not bring her happiness. These points of information will gain relevance in further analysis, but perhaps most importantly in this chapter, Margarita: 

Held in her hands an old brown leather album which contained a photographic portrait of the Master, a bank savings book with a deposit of ten thousand roubles in his name, the petals of a dried rose pressed between sheets of tissue paper, and part of a full-sized notebook covered with typescript and with a charred bottom edge.[41]

The charred bottom edge is a parallel to Bulgakov’s burned manuscripts of The Master and Margarita. In this quote, Margarita is holding the typescript of the Master, and only a few sentences later, it is revealed that “[she] wanted to read further, but further there was nothing except an irregular, charred fringe.”[42] Analysing the parallel to Bulgakov’s life solely by noting his tendency to burn his own manuscripts (specifically those of The Master and Margarita novel) is not sufficient. Since Bulgakov saw his manuscripts as ‘proof of his existence,’ the quote communicates that the Master, similar to Bulgakov, eradicated a part of himself by burning his manuscripts. Nevertheless, the manuscripts enamoured his beloved (Margarita or Elena Sergeevna) since she wanted to keep reading further. But due to its burning, she was unable to grasp the entirety of the manuscript, and likewise, the entirety of the man who wrote it. By providing the reader with this parallel between himself and the Master, his wife and Margarita, Bulgakov introduces the reader to his lived experience and plants the seed for examining his desired outcome in his informal, self-made archive kept by his wife, Elena Sergeevna. 

  Chapter twenty-three is titled “The Great Ball at Satan’s and features Margarita’s experience in a sequence of fantasy events. The chapter opens with Margarita being “washed in blood,”[43] which evokes images from the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, in which it is written that, “[Pilate] taking water washed his hands before the people, saying: I am innocent of the blood of this just man; look you to it” (Matthew 27:24).[44] This Biblical passage refers to the absolution Pilate grants himself from the condemnation of Jesus Christ to death. The washing of blood evokes themes of self-absolution which we see in Margarita’s case, however, instead of washing herself of blood, she is being washed in it, indicating a twisted version of the Biblical imagery, and signaling to her perhaps being overtaken by Satan’s (Woland’s) ball. Only a few sentences later, we are told that “the ball fell on her all at once in the form of light”—imagery which is usually used to allude to God’s presence or enlightenment.[45] But in this instance, we see that this light is of Satan’s doing. By twisting the traditional frameworks of good and evil, Bulgakov creates a contrast between Biblical imagery and the events of the novel. This contrast acts to bring out the space between the realms of the real and the metaphysical and nudges the reader to explore them.

This chapter’s sequence of events leads Margarita to encounter a severed head, after which she engages in conversation with Woland, which reads:

‘Everything came to pass, did it not?’ Woland went on, looking into the head’s eyes. ‘The head was cut off by a woman, the meeting did not take place, and I am living in your apartment. That is a fact. And fact is the most stubborn thing in the world’. …. ‘You have always been an ardent preacher of the theory that, on the cutting off of his head, life ceases in a man he turns into ashes and goes into non-being.’… ‘There is also one [theory] which holds that it will be given to each according to his faith. Let it come true! You go into non-being and from the cup into which you are to be transformed, I will joyfully drink to being!’[46]

In this passage, Woland accentuates Margarita’s inherent Soviet culture by countering her theory with his other one. Margarita’s theory is a realistic perception of the afterlife, rooted in the formal atheism of the Soviet state. But what Woland states next is a bold comment, stating that Margarita’s personal truth will yield its innate outcome, and he will gladly enjoy the fruit of her belief, for he knows that her truth only yields to serve his being—that which is the realm of “the absence of good.” Because Margarita is culturally bound by the realm of the “real” through Soviet materialism, her theory fails to capture the metaphysical realm that Woland is alluding to. It is worth noting that Woland is a foreigner in the novel, not a Muscovite. This dimension adds to the mystery of Woland’s knowledge and makes the cultural contrast even more stark. By juxtaposing Margarita’s cultural perceptions of the afterlife with Woland’s commentary on the theory of the afterlife in the novel, Bulgakov stresses how Soviet culture failed to account for the realm of the metaphysical and concerned itself only with the material. As a result, Soviet citizens were morally devoid, and if they were not, their ideas and beliefs had to remain private and yield despair. In the forthcoming analysis, we will see how despair manifests in the Master’s character and mirrors Bulgakov, once again appealing to the realms of real and metaphysical. The chapter concludes with Margarita being instructed to drink from a cup as she is reassured by Woland, who states, “don’t be afraid, Queen, the blood has long since gone into the earth. And where it was spilled, grapevines are already growing.”[47] This indicates that the spilled wine has already had a long term effect—producing grapevines—referencing an eternal truth that has already been delegated to the world.  

Chapter twenty-four opens with Margarita finding herself in the apartment in the “real” time of the novel, meaning the Moscow storyline as opposed to the metaphysical storyline which takes place in Jerusalem. This is a contrast to the fantastical events she experiences at the closing of the last chapter. In this “real” time of Moscow, she is offered vodka which quintessentially references Soviet cultural norms, while also contrasting the choice of beverage at the end of the last chapter—wine. Woland encourages her to drink it yet again, and as a result, she finds herself greedily “gulping down caviar.”[48] Unlike the last chapter, this drink does not transform Margarita and her surroundings. Rather “a living warm flowed into her stomach” and she was consumed by her physical desire to eat.[49] Given the setting (at the table with food and drink) the scene embodies Soviet hospitality rituals and even goes so far as to satirize them by having Margarita educate Behemoth on how to sit at the table properly (an example of typical motherhood in Soviet culture).[50] In conversation, Woland asks Margarita if she is a “highly moral person,” to which she replies “no,” which, yet again, gives the reader great insight into the cultural norms of the Soviet Union, indicating a moral devolution from the higher good of morality and an appeal to the material world.[51] More prominently, the Master enters midway through the chapter, marking Margarita’s reconnection with her beloved. It should be noted that he returns disheveled, and with an “unshaven face” from “the house of sorrows”.[52] Noting the relationship Bulgakov establishes between the artist and his manuscripts, the disheveled appearance of the Master is another parallel to the “charred bottom edge” of the Master’s manuscript in chapter nineteen. The edge and its roughness mirror the rough appearance of the Master physically. Furthermore, it is a parallel to Bulgakov himself and his manuscripts. The Master’s place of origin, “the house of sorrows,” is indicative of the “writer’s despair” felt by Bulgakov in Ellendea Proffer’s analysis.[53] 

Chapter twenty-four is continued with a conversation between Woland and the Master. The Master reveals he “burned [the manuscript] in the stove,”[54] which yields the following reply from Woland: “that cannot be: manuscripts don’t burn.” This significant line in the novel, “manuscripts don’t burn,” speaks to the evergreen nature of truth—specifically truth that is embedded in literature. Behemoth proceeds to take the novel (in its entirety) and gives a copy to Woland, who then hands it to the Master. The Master is troubled by the manuscript and begs for peace. This development indicates that Bulgakov, seeing himself in the character of the Master, was troubled by the literary works he produced and yet, believed in them enough to always leave a trace. Once again, we note the juxtaposed “real” of Bulgakov’s lived experience with the imaginary realm of the novel. Given that the Master is having this conversation with Woland shows the reader that Woland, while he may be portrayed as Satan, does not necessarily differ from his natural counterpart in the novel: Yeshua. Yeshua is contained to the Jerusalem story line within the novel and parallels the story of Christ’s crucifixion in the Bible. What becomes evident at this point in the novel is that Master lacks peace from the ideas in his manuscripts, and Woland is indicating “manuscripts don’t burn.”[55] By stating this, Woland is illuminating the existence of truth rather than twisting or obstructing it. The seemingly polar characters of Yeshua and Woland are not actually opposites, but rather characters who reveal the essence of truth through different means. Woland achieves this through his mischievous nature, which reveals truth through the realm of black magic, whereas Yeshua does so through self-sacrifice. “Manuscripts don’t burn” is a quote that indicates the perennial nature of truth and its consistent piercing through the façade of the Soviet ideology, or, burned manuscripts.[56] 

Bulgakov uses the first sentence Margarita reads in the manuscript as the last sentence of his twenty-fourth chapter and as the first sentence of the twenty-fifth, to transition the reader to the Jerusalem narrative. The sentence, “The darkness that came from the Mediterranean Sea covered the city hated by the procurator….’ Yes, the darkness…” acts like a literary taxidermy of sorts as Bulgakov creates multiple roles for the Jerusalem story: the first as Master’s novel in The Master and Margarita, and second as another equal narrative part of The Master and Margarita.[57] The dual role of the Jerusalem plot adds dimension to what Bulgakov is trying to convey in his novel: the materialism of the Soviet ideology has rendered man into amorality, and subsequently, misery. Furthermore, by creating this duality between the Moscow and Jerusalem storylines and simultaneously making the Jerusalem storyline the product of the Master, Bulgakov forces a comparison between the storylines and guides the audience to his point “that Soviet theatrical censorship is in the hands of idiots.”[58] As a result, it is evident that Bulgakov is forcing the comparison to ridicule the Soviet system and highlight its flaws.  Since the state archive is also designed to construct meaning according to the Soviet ideology, Bulgakov appeals to the informal realm and entrusts his wife with the manuscript of the novel. 

The role of Pontius Pilate holds relevant significance when considering the many binaries of the novel. In the Christian tradition, Pontius Pilate is an exemplar of earthly judgement. His legal persecution of Jesus Christ is justified through the supremacy of the Empire’s authority over those who contest it. Christ claimed knowledge of a Kingdom beyond the Roman Empire and also claimed to be the “King of the Jews.” Although Christ’s claims were metaphysical, they were interpreted literally by Pontius Pilate, and as a result, Pilate deemed them to threaten the state and its authority. Within the novel, we see a very similar unfolding of events as the Bible. In the novel, Pilate persecutes Yeshua, and sensing his mistake, Pilate kills Judas (the man who sets up Yeshua’s arrest much like how Judas betrays Jesus in the Bible).[59] Considered in the context of its time, Pilate’s firm condemnation of Yeshua parallels Stalin’s reign of terror. But Bulgakov writes in a way that permits the Biblical subtext to take precedent over the influence of the Soviet regime.

Within the novel, Pilate’s character reminds the reader of the power behind condemnation. This is seen in Pilate’s conversation with his visitor in chapter twenty-five. Pilate and the visitor drink wine, the visitor eats his fill and states: “only one thing can be guaranteed in this world…the power of the great Caesar.”[60] Pilate goes on to say, “may the gods grant him long life!…and universal peace!”[61] In this passage, we again see Bulgakov’s use of ‘drinking wine’ as a ritualistic act—signifying some sort of transformation. Furthermore, recalling chapter twenty-three, Woland makes a similar statement to the visit in chapter twenty-five, stating that “fact is the most stubborn thing in the world.”[62] The two quotes only a few chapters apart seem to indirectly state that power is a fact, and it remains certain in the world regardless of the passage of time. This connects the ‘old’ world of Jerusalem to the ‘current’ world of Moscow and tells the reader that power in the world, or the realm of the “real,” is timeless. Pilate also wishes peace upon himself, signaling to a parallel of sorts between the forthcoming peace that the Master is prescribed. 

It is precisely this timeless fact of power that Bulgakov seems to allude that the Master is suffering against. For the Master in the novel embodies the classic Bulgakovian theme “despair of the writer.” The despair is that which Bulgakov himself knew very well—the inability to convey his ideas to the public due to the limits placed upon him by the state. So, it seems that the only plausible refuge from despair is peace. In the novel, that is exactly what Matthew Levi says in conversation with Woland: “[The Master] does not deserve the light, he deserves peace.”[63] While the quote is unclear, two things can be reasoned given the dimensions of the analysis in this discussion. First, ‘light’ typically symbolizes a salvatory transition to the afterlife, or death, while ‘peace’ denotes a more opaque image. It can function to support the notion that the Master is dying, and with death will achieve peace rather than enlightenment through the ‘light’ of encountering God. However, ‘peace’ can also stand divorced from the concept of death and denote an absence of turbulence. Perhaps the Master does not deserve “the light” or to die, and simply deserves peace. But simultaneously, the statement could imply that the Master does not need to encounter “the light” or truth; he simply needs serenity. This is not the first encounter the reader of the novel has with the imagery of ‘light’ since it was initially mentioned in its ambiguous form in the “Satan’s Ball” chapter. Margarita reassures the Master and the reader by saying, “I swear to you by your life, I swear by the astrologists son whom you guessed that all will be well.”[64] Even as Azazello (a member of Woland’s entourage) poisons the Master and Margarita, he also reassures Margarita that “[the Master] will rise presently,” responding to her nervous accusations.[65] His ‘rise’ can indicate his evergreen presence in his manuscript since the Master “[remembers] the novel by heart” and will “never forget anything now.”[66] The ‘rise’ is also another parallel to Biblical heritage, mirroring the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Much like Bulgakov, the Master has become synonymous with the novel without physically morphing into it. Even as Azazello sets fire to various objects, including the manuscripts, the reader has already learned that “manuscripts don’t burn.” The suffering of the writer can be mediated through ‘peace’ since the essence of his manuscripts remains impossible to destroy. 

Among the many binaries in the novel, perhaps it is worth examining in detail the way the Master “[remembers] the novel by heart” and will “never forget anything now.”[67] As the reader has now learned, the Master is a martyr of sorts at the hands of censorship, while another obvious martyr in the novel is Yeshua, who is a literary parallel to Jesus Christ. In Christian theological thought, Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, possessing a dual nature within one physical entity. This corresponds to how the Master came to embody the novel, creating one essence while the manuscript physically remained a separate entity from the Master. In twisting these concepts, Bulgakov subverts the sacred while leaving his intentions in meaning unclear. This juxtaposition of the sacred versus the ordinary is a curious subversion of Biblical tradition to convey to the reader the difference between the real and metaphysical. In creating this juxtaposition, Bulgakov teases out ideas of good and evil. Both good and evil for Bulgakov are two poles of similar significance, and hence he is attempting to draw out the ‘in-between.’ By weaving the three narratives, it seems that Bulgakov points to the reader that ultimate truth transcends the three stories, and the gray area between good and evil is illuminated. It is plausible that this gray area contains the “peace” that Mathew Levi spoke of.[68] 

Concluding Remarks

In essence, this novel is a case study in constructing meaning. First, the reader can derive Bulgakov’s intended meaning from the three literary threads of the novel. Second, Elena Sergeevna also constructed meaning from the manuscripts to piece the novel together once Bulgakov passed away. Third, the Soviet state at the time of the novel’s writing constructed meaning for the novel as “anti-Soviet,” leading the state to outright ban the work. Finally, the discussion led in this paper also seeks to construct meaning from Bulgakov’s text. Bulgakov’s intentional ambiguity in the text opens the door for a variety of constructed meanings derived from the text of the novel, leaving the audience to their own devices. By doing so, Bulgakov maintains his typical satirical style, and without spelling out what he wants the reader to learn, leads the audience to the truth encoded in the novel. 

The cultural elements of the novel collide with the culture of the Soviet space Bulgakov was writing in. As pointed out in the analysis section, the Moscow storyline closely resembles the various cultural components of the Soviet Union, and Bulgakov frames them against the culture of the Jerusalem narrative—seemingly dissimilar at first but eerily similar upon further examination. The main caveat is that Soviet culture rejected religious and theological thought and tradition, which makes the juxtaposition Bulgakov creates all the more amusing. While the Soviet Union rejects theism, Bulgakov appeals to the very stories that theism relies on to showcase how the realm of the “real” world functions. 

Censorship in the Soviet Union sought to construct a state-specific narrative while safeguarding its ideology. The struggle the Master endures in the novel is paralleled in the struggle Bulgakov encountered during his time as a writer. As Bulgakov’s works encountered stricter censorship measures, he reclused into his own thoughts. His struggle is knowing that his writing may not reach his audience, but still being unable to refrain from speaking his truth. The struggle points to a sort of moral necessity to speak the truth, or, towards the realm of the metaphysical—a realm that surpasses the “real.” To mediate his struggle, Bulgakov placed his faith in Elena Sergeevna, who, through the existing informal realm of Soviet culture, could keep the manuscript alive until it was able to be published. Creating a personal archive in which Bulgakov and his ideas could reside is similar to a subREAL art installation “Sphinx” (1994), which features a Romanian pantry in which empty jars are labeled with newspaper obituaries.[69] The obituaries inform the viewer of the lifespan of ideas rather than food. These preserved ideas struggled to be a viable substitute for the materialism of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the periods of starvation forced citizens to collect (if lucky enough to acquire) food and line their pantry, similarly to how the installation has collected ideas. The pantry holds that which the state cannot provide or does not provide. 

The first breakthrough was when the novel was published in a censored format in 1967 in the magazine Moskva in the Soviet Union. However, Elena Sergeevna passed away shortly afterwards in 1970 and was unable to see through the publishing of an uncensored version. The second breakthrough was when the novel was published in an uncensored format in 1973. The novel entered and permeated Soviet culture with its quotes, fantastical elements, and realism. But its entrance was not without criticism. The cultural thaw of the Soviet Union did not signify a complete divorce from the Soviet 1930s. As Chudakova notes, “Soviet critics of the time found themselves under extraordinary pressure to use the extra-literary implications of Bulgakov’s novel in the ongoing political debates.”[70] In the late 1960s, critics like Laksin and Vinogradov emphasised “Pilate’s moral dilemma” while others like Skorino “used the same point…to insist that within the ethical framework of a socialist society, personal morality should always be subservient to civic duty.”[71] Nevertheless, the archive that Bulgakov created through his third wife, Elena Sergeevna, survived the state’s heavy hand and showed its audience that “manuscript’s don’t burn.” As a result, Bulgakov leaves The Master and Margarita (and its meaning) in the hands of his audience, surrendering to history since Behemoth says, “[it] will judge.”[72]


  1.  A note on the translation: the novel has a few credible English translations. Two translations I want to highlight are Peavear and Volokhonsky (1997) and the Ginsburg (1967). The former is the most popularized and is based on the uncensored manuscripts of Bulgakov. The Ginsburg translation may have a more diligent translation of the Russian idioms, but due to its more limited circulation and the fact that it is based on the censored edition of the Russian novel, I opted to quote from the Peavear and Volokhonsky translation. 
  2.  Oleg V. Khlevniuk, Stalin: A New Biography of a Dictator, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015), 153.
  3.  Ibid, 153.
  4.  Arch J. Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1999), 308.
  5.  Khlevniuk, Stalin: A New Biography of a Dictator, 151.
  6.  Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” Essay In The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego, NY, London: Harcourt Brace, 1985), 595. 
  7.  Ellendea Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1984), 526.
  8.  Brian Kassof, “Glavlit, Ideological Censorship, and Russian-Language Book Publishing, 1922-38,” The Russian Review 74, no. 1 (2015): pp. 74.
  9.  Brian Kassof, “Glavlit, Ideological Censorship,” 70.
  10.  Brian Kassof, “Glavlit, Ideological Censorship,” 78.
  11.  Brian Kassof, “Glavlit, Ideological Censorship,” 85.
  12.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 305.
  13.  Ibid, 305.
  14.  J.A.E. Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade: the Writer as a Hero (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), 12.
  15.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 305.
  16.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 305.
  17.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 112.
  18.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 109.
  19.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 563.
  20.  Barbara Blake, “Elements of Satire and the Grotesque in the Prose of Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov,” 1968, https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/9615/1/fulltext.pdf.
  21.  Ronald D. LeBlanc, “Feeding a Poor Dog a Bone: The Quest for Nourishment in Bulgakov’s Sobach’e Serdtse,” The Russian Review 52, no. 1 (1993), 61.
  22.  Kathleen F. Parthe, Russia’s Dangerous Tests, Politics Between the Lines (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004), 175.
  23.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 348.
  24.  J. A. E. Curtis, A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita (Academic Studies Press, 2019), 24.
  25.  Curtis, A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita, 29.
  26.  Curtis, A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita, 33.
  27.  Curtis, A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita, 22.
  28.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 316.
  29.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 175.
  30.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 175.
  31.  Parthe, Russia’s Dangerous Tests, Politics Between the Lines, 171.
  32.  David M Bethea, The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1989), 193.
  33.  Curtis, A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita, 23.
  34.  To write v stol is a Russian phrase which means “to write into your desk.” The meaning behind the phrase indicates writing with the knowledge that the work will not be published.
  35.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 104.
  36.  “Глава, в которой ‘Мастер и Маргарита’ превращается в young adult и оказывается смешнее ‘12 стульев,’” Книжныи Базар (podcast), February 12 2020, accessed March 30 2021, https://meduza.io/episodes/2020/02/19/glava-v-kotoroy-master-i-margarita-prevraschaetsya-v-young-adult-i-okazyvaetsya-smeshnee-12-stuliev.
  37.  Curtis, A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita, 23; “Глава, в которой ‘Мастер и Маргарита’ превращается в young adult и оказывается смешнее ‘12 стульев,’” Книжныи Базар (podcast).
  38.  Alena Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange (Cambridge University Press, 1998),15.
  39.  Mikhail Bulgakov, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1997), 217.
  40.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 217.
  41.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 220.
  42.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 220.
  43.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 261.
  44.  Matthew 27:24, Douay-Rheims Bible.
  45.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 262.
  46.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 273.
  47.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 275.
  48.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 277.
  49.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 276.
  50.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 277.
  51.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 283.
  52.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 284-285.
  53.  Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 316.
  54.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 287.
  55.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 287.
  56.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 287.
  57.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 298.
  58.  Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade: the Writer as a Hero, 5.
  59.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 330.
  60.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 303.
  61.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 303.
  62.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 285.
  63.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 361.
  64.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 367. 
  65.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 370. 
  66.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 371. 
  67.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 371. 
  68.  Curtis, A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita, 73.
  69.  Sven Spieker, “SubREAL During the 1990s: Ironic Monuments, Tainted Blood, and Vampiric Realism in a Time of Transition,” https://artmargins.com/subreal-vampire-realism/  (accessed Dec. 13, 2020).
  70.  Howard Solomon, “The Sin of Cowardice: The Mystery Behind Bulgakov’s Ambiguity.” Russian Literature 44, no. 2 (1998), 242.
  71.  Ibid, 242.
  72.  Bulgakov, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, The Master and Margarita, 277. 


“Глава, в которой ‘Мастер и Маргарита’ превращается в young adult и оказывается смешнее ‘12 стульев,’” Книжныи Базар (podcast), February 12 2020, accessed March 30 2021, https://meduza.io/episodes/2020/02/19/glava-v-kotoroy-master-i-margarita-prevraschaetsya-v- young-adult-i-okazyvaetsya-smeshnee-12-stuliev.

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Bagby, Lewis. “Eternal Themes in Mixail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.” International Fiction Review 1, no. 1 (1974): 27-31. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/view/13048.

Belenkiy, Ari. “Master and Margarita: A Literary Autobiography?” Literature & Theology 20, no. 2 (2006): 126–39. https://doi.org/10.1093/litthe/frl011.

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Blake, Barbara. “Elements of Satire and the Grotesque in the Prose of Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov.” Dissertation (1968). https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/9615/1/fulltext.pdf.

Bulgakov, Mikhail, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. The Master and Margarita. New York, NY: Penguin, 1997.

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Curtis, J. A. E.. Bulgakov’s Last Decade: The Writer as a Hero. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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Howell, Yvonne. “Eugenics, Rejuvenation, and Bulgakov’s Journey into the Heart of Dogness.” Slavic Review (2006): 544–62. https://doi.org/https://www.jstor.org/stable/4148663. 

Kassof, Brian. “Glavlit, Ideological Censorship, and Russian-Language Book Publishing, 1922-38.” The Russian Review 74, no. 1 (2015): 69-96.

Khlevniuk, Oleg V. Stalin: A New Biography of a Dictator. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015.

LeBlanc, Ronald D.. “Feeding a Poor Dog a Bone: The Quest for Nourishment in Bulgakov’s Sobach’e Serdtse.” The Russian Review 52, no. 1 (1993): 58-78.

Ledeneva, Alena. Russia’s Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange. Cambridge University Press, 1998.  

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Parthe, Kathleen F.. Russia’s Dangerous Tests, Politics Between the Lines. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004.

Perlinska, Agnieszka. “‘Whose Side Are You On, Master Bulgakov?’” Slavic and East European Performance 12, no. 1 (1992): 13-17.

Proffer, Ellendea. Bulgakov: Life and Work. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1984.

Richmond, Steven. “’And Who Are the Judges?”: Mikhail Bulgakov Versus Soviet Censorship, 1926-1936.” Russian History 33, no. 1 (2006): 83–107. https://doi.org/10.1163/187633106×00050. 

Solomon, Howard. “The Sin of Cowardice: The Mystery Behind Bulgakov’s Ambiguity.” Russian Literature 44, no. 2 (1998): 241-251. 

Spieker, Sven. “SubREAL During the 1990s: Ironic Monuments, Tainted Blood, and Vampiric Realism in a Time of Transition.” https://artmargins.com/subreal-vampire-realism/.

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