Didn't You Know that Manuscripts Don't Burn?

You might think the greatest literary assault on Soviet communism is Animal Farm, George Orwell’s fast-paced 1945 allegory—and you wouldn’t be far wrong. Although it satirizes the specifics of Stalin’s triumph over Trotsky, Bukharin, and the others in the wake of Lenin’s revolution, the book drives toward the more universal conclusion that the swinish elements of human nature will always snuffle their way toward power. All animals are equal, as Orwell famously put it, but some animals will quickly attempt to prove that they’re more equal than others.

For that matter, you might think the most important account of Soviet communism is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s disturbing 1962 novella—and again, who could say that you were mistaken? It’s a story of the Stalinist attempt to bring every action, every thought, under domination by the state. Even more than his 1967 novel Cancer Ward and his indictment of the effects of Soviet ideology in his 1973 The Gulag Archipelago, what Solzhenitsyn describes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the triumph of the human spirit, insisting that small acts of kindness can survive even the greatest oppressions. Its smallness of setting makes the book all the more devastating. How could the Soviets ever have believed that good would come of that endless evil, from the greatest acts of mass murder down to the most petty brutalities?

But if you want to see all the way down to the sheer insane impossibility of Russian communism, then there’s really only one book you need to read: the insane and impossible comedy that is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Although not published till 1967, the manuscript was more or less complete at the author’s death in 1940, and it tells the tale of . . . but, then, it’s hard to give a simple description of the novel. Imagine one of Gogol’s most absurdist stories populated with Dostoevsky’s characters, all in search of Tolstoy’s theology as they wander through Pushkin’s Russia as reformed by Pasternak’s Soviets. The book is a single-volume synopsis of the whole of Russian literature.

And not just Russian. You have to imagine a novel in which half the book seems to be Goethe’s Faust, and the other half Flaubert’s Salammbô. Some of the time The Master and Margarita is set in Moscow, explaining what happens when Satan decides to visit 20th century Russia, and the rest of the time The Master and Margarita is set in 1st century Judea, explaining what Pontius Pilate might have been thinking when he condemned Christ.

Born in 1891, Bulgakov was a playwright and story writer whose work gradually lost favor with the Soviet authorities, his plays and science-fiction stories denounced as counter-revolutionary. Protected in a curious way by Stalin, Bulgakov did not suffer the kind of imprisonment and exile to which Solzhenitsyn would later be condemned, and he was able to hang on to work as a manager and art director in Moscow theaters even while his writings were banned from publication. He worked on the manuscript of The Master and Margarita from 1928 until the last days of his life in 1940—burning the pages in 1930, only to restart it in 1931. (“Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?” the Satan-character, Woland, asks the novelist-character, the Master, in one of the most famous lines from the book.)

According to many accounts, the plot of The Master and Margarita reached its completion in Bulgakov’s mind when he attended the 1935 Spring Festival at the American ambassador’s residence in Moscow—“The Spring Ball of the Full Moon,” as he calls it in the novel. It must have been a hell of a party.

William Bullitt was appointed the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union shortly after the United States recognized the Bolshevik government in 1933, and by 1935, for both propagandistic and personal reasons, he wanted to put on something memorable. So the embassy staff grew a lawn of chicory on felt for the guests to walk on, planted 10 birch trees in the reception hall, covered tables with tulips imported from Finland, populated the rooms with white roosters and mountain goats, and created an aviary of pheasants and parakeets. And that’s to say nothing of the hundred zebra finches borrowed from the Moscow zoo or the bear cub that wandered among the guests, crying for attention.

By the time the party broke up at dawn, the bear cub was drunk on champagne fed him by Lenin’s old revolutionary friend, the Austrian communist Karl Radek (who would be murdered in 1939, his last-minute sycophantic moves to placate Stalin having proved unavailing). The finches had all escaped, fluttering around the rooms looking for perches. And Bulgakov had a central scene—and an absurdist metaphor—for his novel.

The original idea for the book itself, however, with its transitions between Moscow and the Holy Land, may have come from the author’s encounters with militant Soviet atheism. It was a shibboleth of the time to disbelieve even the historical reality of Jesus, for example, and Bulgakov was one of many who noticed the grim, humorless tone of Soviet atheism in the literary journals and the official Soviet “Godless People Convention” he attended in 1929.

He was probably the only one, however, to register how overwhelmingly funny, how comically and unwittingly absurd, that atheism was in its Soviet manifestations. Certainly no one else came up with the idea to write a satire of atheism that opens with the Devil insisting on God’s existence.

As The Master and Margarita begins, a pair of educated Russians are sitting on a park bench at Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds, carefully attempting to top each other’s religious disbelief and insisting that even as a man, Jesus never existed. And up to that pair—Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev—walks a visiting foreigner named Professor Woland who, with great charm and a saturnine sophistication, informs them that they are wrong. In fact . . . but then he launches into a story about how Judas betrayed Jesus to state authority, thereby forcing Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus, even though he didn’t want to, because Pilate understood that a defense of the state requires prosecuting even unfair and untrue accusations. And Woland politely concludes his conversation with a prediction that Berlioz will shortly lose his head in a streetcar accident.

Which Berlioz does, and poor Ponyrev, trying to explain the evening’s events, ends up disrupting a literary meeting, losing his clothes, and being confined to an insane asylum. It’s in the asylum that Ponyrev finally finds someone who will listen to his story—a man named the Master, who mentions that he once wrote a novel about Pilate’s encounter with Jesus, although he burned the manuscript after receiving unrelenting criticism of the book from the official Writers’ Union. In fact the Master abandoned his writing career, along with his muse, Margarita, finding the state’s declaration of his insanity easier than a depressing defense of his insufficiently atheistical book.

Meanwhile, Woland—the Mephistopheles of Moscow—has taken the city by storm, gathering his troop of demons, fallen angels, and curiosities to put on an elaborate magic show in one of the theaters that Bulgakov knew so well. The lonely Margarita strips naked and flies on a broomstick across Russia. An empty suit goes to work in place of its dead owner. The burned manuscript of the book about Pilate returns to existence, and large portions of it are presented to the reader. At the novel’s end, Pilate may finally attain the salvation he has been seeking ever since his encounter with Jesus, while Margarita and the Master find peace, we’re told, but not light.

In its way, The Master and Margarita is as complete an answer to atheism as literature has ever produced. It’s certainly the most complete answer to the Soviet version. The state founded on atheism is doomed: It may destroy belief in God, but that just opens more space for the Devil—whose existence proves the reality of the God the state thought it had eradicated.

More to the point, comedy proves the reality of an independent order of moral truth by mocking the human failure to live up to that order. If there’s no higher truth, then there’s no humor—and the very idea of the Soviet state is ruined by humor, since it cannot admit the existence of a human problem that the socialist revolution is unable to solve.

The absurd elements in The Master and Margarita are not incidental. They’re the center of the book. The Soviet complaint about Christianity is that the religion is absurd, and it prevents people from seeing the rationally demonstrable truths of communism. Bulgakov replies that absurdity will always exist in the human condition, and the absurdities that result from Soviet atheism are worse than Christianity’s: more life-denying, more inhuman, and more irrational. More insane.

It took over 50 years after Mikhail Bulgakov’s death, 30 years after the book’s publication, for the U.S.S.R. to collapse. But the writing was on the wall from the moment he finished. The writing was there in the pages of The Master and Margarita.