The Devil, Moscow, and the Best Book You’ve Never Read
A close friend in college emigrated to the US from Russia shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. At the time, I had yet to read the classics of Russian literature, so one day while walking to class I asked for her advice: “where should I start, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy?”
“Neither” she quickly replied, shaking her head. “If you really want to understand Russia, in particular the Russian people or just people in general, the book you have to read is one you’ve probably never heard of, it’s called The Master and Margarita.”
A classic of Soviet literature penned by Mikhail Bulgakov during the height of 1930s Stalinist repression, the book opens when a peculiar man named Woland sits beside two members of Moscow’s intellectual elite on a park bench in the heart of the city.
Woland introduces himself as a foreign professor specializing in black magic. But what Woland neglects to tell these two men is that he is in fact the devil, who has come to visit Moscow on an existential adventure, as the USSR claims to be atheistic. With no God, the devil cannot exist.
The Master and Margarita is a book that does many things, it’s one of the more bizarre yet brilliant creations of 20th century literature. That brilliance seems to emanate from these perplexing dualisms, like the devil not existing without God. It lambasts cowardice but assigns no blame to the cowardly, it vilifies the devil but allows him to redeem devilish behavior, it praises goodness but stipulates that for goodness to exist we must also endure evil.
These dualisms are not the primary reason why The Master and Margarita remained unpublished throughout Bulgakov’s lifetime. Instead, it went unpublished largely because the book offers a harsh critique of Soviet society. As my friend remarked, the book became so popular after its release that several common Russian phrases were born out of the text. Ultimately the book portrays collective Soviet values as mere illusions, something that Woland’s black magic only further reinforces. Citizens are neither atheist nor socialist, they merely pretend to be in the name of national identity, however conscious they are of the fact.
Conversely, in the west, we claim to live in a democratic, ethical society in which citizens of the free world have the fundamental right to live peacefully beyond the reach of tyrants. We take enormous pride in distinguishing right from wrong. We consider ourselves to be impenetrable and beyond reproach, having vanquished evil. If God did not exist in Soviet society, similarly then the devil does not exist in ours.
As Woland continues to engage his two park bench companions in conversation, they hold firm in their Soviet belief that God cannot exist because human beings exert self-control. Woland then posits that if somebody were to slip and fall under a subway car their death would hardly be an act of self-governance. You can guess what happens when one of the men gets up to leave and crosses the tracks of Moscow’s above-ground tram. The other, a man named Ivan who sees the accident, recognizes something is amiss but, upon voicing his concern about Woland’s identity, gets placed in a psychiatric facility by his fellow citizens.
In March of 2018, a man and his daughter were found unconscious sitting on a park bench in the tranquil English city of Salisbury, home to one of the most important cathedrals in all of Europe. The man, Sergei Skripal, was a former member of Russian military intelligence who provided information to the British spy agency MI6. He and his daughter were poisoned on a park bench in the shadow of a church with a Soviet-era nerve agent. Though they miraculously survived the ordeal, a local woman who accidentally encountered the poison died shortly thereafter.
Further along in Bulgakov’s novel, Woland, accompanied by his cast of henchmen, performs a magic show as a ruse to eliminate a leading adversary. During the performance, money miraculously begins to fall from the rafters. Distracted audience members fight with one another to collect as much as they can, stuffing the devil’s cash deep into their pockets. But when the spectacle is over, the theatergoers suddenly realize the money they gathered has magically transformed into meaningless shards of paper. They are financially — and morally — bankrupt.
Grasping for the devil’s cash is eerily prescient as troubling reports have shown in recent months the extent to which Vladimir Putin’s oligarchs laundered money in the United Kingdom and the United States in the years preceding his invasion of Ukraine.
Any reading of The Master and Margarita today seems to reinforce the idea that, in the west, we too are not always the values-driven democracy we claim to be. Our society is equally capable of falling short: of not jettisoning our own illusions, of not acknowledging the devil does exist, and as Woland reminds the reader, of not recognizing that light ceases to exist without darkness.
But the fight in Ukraine transcends our domestic shortcomings, it transcends petty border disputes, it even transcends the ideological differences between east and west. It is a proxy for a much larger battle, a choice that Bulgakov carefully lays out for his reader through the heroine and title character of the novel, Margarita.
Without giving away any spoilers, she is presented with a choice in the novel; one we must make as individuals, independent of any subjective societal illusions. The devil will always be just a park bench away. But when confronted by him we must choose whether to go along and be complicit, or whether to stand in opposition for the benefit of others, “even if the consequences are terrifying.” That is our eternal battle.
The citizens of Ukraine have courageously made a choice, not out of political nationalism, but out of the conviction that despite terrifying consequences and the prospect of their own death, their actions against a widening shadow may expand the reach of light in our world.
Perhaps The Master and Margarita is a premonition. After all, Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kyiv.
Co-authored by David Brendel and Ryan Stelzer, Think Talk Create: Building Workplaces Fit for Humans was published by the Hachette Book Group under the PublicAffairs imprint on September 21, 2021. Now available to order!