‘Well, as everyone knows, once witchcraft gets started, there’s no stopping it’
On a hot spring afternoon in Moscow, a poet and an editor are discussing the non-existence of Jesus. A polite, foreign gentleman interrupts their debate, claiming to have known Jesus in person and to have been present when he was condemned by Pontius Pilate. Moreover, he predicts the editor’s death – a bizarre accident which happens exactly as the foreigner foretells. The Devil has arrived in Moscow and, along with his demons and a large black cat, he carves a trail of chaos and destruction through Soviet society. He exposes the hypocrisy and greed of those around him, their willingness to inform on neighbours, their urgent scrabble for power and their fear for themselves. One man seems different: a writer known as ‘the master’ who, in despair, has burned his unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate and has been incarcerated in an asylum. His lover, the passionate, courageous Margarita, will do anything to save him – including serving the Devil himself.
Writing The Master and Margarita in secret between 1928 and 1940, through the period of Stalin’s purges, Bulgakov was already deemed anti-Soviet; his plays were banned, and he had few illusions that anyone would publish this highly satirical work. Like his main character, he destroyed a draft in despair. Yet, as the Devil tells the master, in a phrase which went on to become a watchword of hope: ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’. In 1966-7, more than 25 years after Bulgakov’s death, The Master and Margarita was published with relatively minor cuts. Smuggled past the censors, its subversive message, dark humour and lyrical force combined to make it an instant success and a beacon of optimism and freedom that spread through Russia and the world. Peter Suart’s dramatic illustrations provide a fitting accompaniment to what is one of our members’ most requested titles.
Have you heard of The Master and Margarita? It seems like a rather amazing book, along the lines of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books, which were also smuggled out of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s books were important, because they breached the walls built, not just by the Soviet Union, but also by the Walter Duranty’s of America — apologists who deliberately deceived the American people abut the true horrors of Soviet statism. Although he is writing satire, Bulgakov also seems to be one of those who was willing to challenge statist orthodoxy, even at great risk to himself.
If this is indeed a Solzhenitsyn-esque book, I think it’s worth reading, not just for its content, but because of what it represents. I was speaking with a friend today about the abject cowardice that inevitably characterizes people in police states, whether those states are Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Zimbabwe, or the Muslim World. You’d like to think that you’re brave but, when an act of bravery means that the state will brutally and casually destroy, not only you, but every member of your family and all of your friends (and possibly your acquaintances too), most people, even good people, discover that the cannot be brave. They’d like to be, and maybe they would be if only their lives were at stake, but few have the courage to sacrifice everyone in their world. This is especially true in statist situations because the state entirely controls the machinery of communication. Under those circumstances, sacrifices tend to be in vain. Each dead person is a tree falling in an empty forest or one hand clapping.
A few years ago, these thoughts about individual courage were purely hypothetical for most Americans. Things have changed, however. In the last week, our current government showed that it does not value free speech:
Our media, which ought to be entirely supportive of free speech brutally castigated the only famous American politician (that would be Romney) who was willing to voice approbation of our American right to challenge religious belief. The LA Times ran an op-ed piece claiming that First Amendment law, which does indeed prohibit the equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, should be applied to insults to Islam. In other words, because all real or perceived insults to Islam are the equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, insulting Islam, by accident or on purpose, is not protected speech. Voila! It’s sharia through the back door.
When free speech ends, it’s the Bulgakovs and Solzhenitsyns of the world that stand between citizens and perpetual servitude to the state. If I do read The Master and Margarita, I’ll let you know what I think. And if you have read the book, please let me know what you think.