The sheer complexity and multi-faceted characteristics of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita cannot possibly be accurately summarized within a few pages; even a rudimentary discussion of which literary genre the work most characterizes (with the book sharing many aspects of Menippean satire, Faustian parody, and allegory, among others) could take up hundreds of pages and never settle on a definitive conclusion.
In my opinion, the main issues that “Master and Margarita” appear to deal with are that of the always fatal consequences of cowardice combined with Bulgakov’s personal opinions regarding what he considered the correct role of the writer in Soviet society. The delightfully malevolent Woland throughout the novel makes numerous references to what he considers to be the most damning of all sins when making reference to cowardice and the various characters in the book, meting out punishment and pranks to those which display this most ignoble flaw of character. This idea is reinforced in the ‘novel within a novel,’ where Pontius Pilate is condemned to two thousand years of suffering for failing to have the necessary intestinal fortitude to stop the execution of Yeshua. Conversely, Woland also sees fit to reward Margarita for her numerous displays of courage and character (abandoning a good life and a faithful husband in search for something more meaningful in life; at Satan’s Ball, the choice of saving Freida when asked for her “reward;” spurring the Master on and encouraging him when the Master’s will and desire flag), and of all the characters in the book, Margarita seems to be the one portrayed in the most positive light; her character flaws are seemingly minor and are more than made up by her courageous character.
This theme relates well with Bulgakov’s personal message of what the true function of the writer in society should be, and the contrast of that expectation with that of the writers of MASSOLIT and the Master himself. The Master, in the end, is a failure, as judged by his lack of courage and sense of inevitable resignation; this is made even more so apparent when reunited with Margarita. Woland’s rather rough treatment of Berlioz in the beginning sets the pattern of constant ridicule and misfortune left for those members of MASSOLIT, which seems to be a very thin version of the real-life Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, which Bulgakov himself despised. The members of MASSOLIT are portrayed as self-serving, uncreative individuals that toady to the demands of the state, thereby combining a lack of courage and conviction along with (what Bulgakov seems to infer) a lack of creativity or talent. The portrayal of the Master as one who also does not display the necessary courage, in the end, almost seems like an allegorical reference to Bulgakov himself; while Bulgakov certainly had the courage and conviction to write without bowing to the demands of the state and socialist realism, he seemingly found himself at fault for realizing that “Master and Margarita” would not be received kindly by the state and most likely would not be published in his lifetime (which in fact it was not.)
Beyond the multiple themes, genres, and messages in the book, the two main themes are intertwined with Bulgakov’s constant prods at the institutions of Soviet society which he saw fit to parody mercilessly– the self-serving nature of the writers of MASSOLIT (RAPP), the goings on at the writer’s colony at Pereygino (another mostly transparent reference to the real-life writer’s colony of Peredelkino,) the rather un-proletarian theater crowd that Woland turns inside out, and the adventures of Korovyev and Begemot at the foreign currency market, among others. It is this manner of satire that I found most enjoyable; it is as if Bulgakov intended to make the targets of his derision and scorn seemingly so absurd and ridiculous so that his intended criticism of certain individuals and institutions would, in the end, have to be viewed as relatively harmless by the state. It is hard to imagine even the most humorless of Soviet censors being to suppress the occasional chuckle at the antics of Woland, Korovyev and Begemot.
When reading the section of Yevgeniy Yevtushenko’s “A Precocious Autobiograpy” concerning the death and funeral of Iosip Stalin, one is reminded of the biography of Stalin recently written by Edvard Radzinsky. Radzinsky’s main theme of his biography is that Stalin was somewhat of a master puppeteer, one who calculated all actions and consequences with an eye towards performances in which most (if not all) of the cast of characters readily emasculated themselves and condemned themselves by their subsequent actions. One gets the same sense when reading Yevtushenko’s description of the Muscovite actions surrounding the funeral ceremony for Stalin; Yevtushenko may not have seen the actual corpse of Stalin that day, but when he tells his mother that he has “seen Stalin,” what he means of course is that he has in one day seen a microcosm of the effects of Stalin’s reign and legacy. Even in death, Stalin’s effect on the masses and their frenzied and terrifying reaction to the event itself shows that the legacy of fear, suspicion, subservience and terror was a legacy of Stalin that seemingly was showing it’s horrific ability to dictate events from beyond the grave. The plaintive cries of “I’ve got no instructions” from the bewildered policeman attempting to keep order at the funeral seems to be Yevtushenko’s realization that the “master puppeteer” has conditioned his former subjects to the consequences of individual thought and initiative, and that this internalized subservience was so ingrained in the society of the times that overcoming this phenomenon would require a courage that had long ago been suppressed in the masses.
In “Conversations with an American Writer,” Yevtushenko seems to dismiss himself as a courageous writer, as it does not seem to him to fit with what he considers actual courage. Yevtushenko’s main point in this poem seems to be that in a society where courage is defined as seeing through hack writers, not toeing the line of state-dictated literary guidelines, and joining in condemnation of other writers whose works do not meet the needs and/or ideals of the state is not really courage at all. Yevtushenko’s viewpoint of this definition of courage is an indictment of the society of the times – he seems to question the value of a society in which it is thought to be courageous simply to “say the things I (Yevtushenko) thought.”
“Babi Yar” is Yevtushenko’s indictment and expressed outrage of the massacre of Jews at Kyiv during World War II by the Nazis, and a scathing criticism of the Soviet government’s belated acknowledgement of this tragedy. Yevtushenko of course knows that anti-Semitism is ingrained in society, be it Soviet or otherwise, and seems to call into question the very virtues of the so-called egalitarian society in which he lives. Therein lies the “hidden message” of “Babi Yar;” Yevtushenko seems to indict the totalitarian nature of Soviet rule and society, and openly questions the value of a society and government which fails to acknowledge such a tragedy. The anti-government implications in “Babi Yar” seem very clear when viewed in this context, as well as subsequent Soviet reactions to another work based on “Babi Yar,”, the Thirteenth Symphony of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (which also was met with much criticism in the early 1960’s, much like the criticism that Yevtushenko received in 1961.)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” is a novel in which the contrasting attitudes of the characters involved provides an effective comparision and contrast to the different attitudes of the different classes with regards to Soviet society. The cancer ward itself seems to be a microcosm of Soviet society, with many different characters representing all classes and varios geographic location throughout the USSR. The primary character, or at least the most ennobled of all the characters, seems to be Oleg Kostoglotov, a recently released political prisoner; this is not surprising, as this is Solzhenitsyn writing about what he knows best, that of a political prisoner. Kostoglotov is admitted for a terminal tumor, but responds rapidly to treatment and is eventually discharged, even though it is to a place of internal exile. Kostoglotov’s outlook on the f