Reflections on The Master and Margarita

The first published edition of The Master and Margarita appeared, censored, twenty-six years after Bulgakov died in 1940. The full translation appeared years later. It is a magnificent book, reworking the stories of Faust and Pontius Pilate into a powerful account of life (particularly for authors) in 1930’s Russia. Only in reading the afterward did I learn that Bulgakov himself had been criticized for being anti-Soviet and in a display of impressive intestinal fortitude, he wrote a letter to the government in 1930, defending his right to satirize them. In this letter he asked to emigrate if they continued to bar him from writing. Stalin answered the letter with a call and, in effect, gave him permission to continue. Obviously there were still limitations on his craft.

The Master and Margarita is an incredible book, and the Burgin and O’Connor translation provides commentary, an afterward, and some biography after the text of the novel. I highly recommend reading it all, but there was one particular glaring ommission in the analysis and commentary.

Repeatedly throughout the text there is a line that says “cowardice is the most grave vice.” In a story where the active characters are Satan and his servants, most people are terrified of what is happening, or otherwise oblivious to the nature of the chaos taking place. Those few people who perceive what is happening and confront it without fear (even when conversing with Satan) are the most successful. In a retelling of Faust and satirizing a totalitarian regime, that is an incredible message to propagate and, given Bulgakov’s own experiences, it is both autobiographical and correct. Yet, somehow, there was not even a single note about this seminal theme.

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