Mikhail Buglakov’s “The Master and Margarita”
asks Amy Britton

It has always been the standard interpretation of Mikhail Buglakov’s “The Master and Margarita” that it is a critique of the totalitarian regime of the time, with the devil figure being generally viewed as an allegory of Stalin. Now, before we delve any deeper, let us be clear on some matters: all to often, we “go beneath the surface” and look for to much in novels, making them needlessly allegorical. If “The Master and Margarita” is read with sheer literalism, rather than allegorically, it becomes simply a very entertaining, almost rather silly romp through a world of magic and mayhem. But it is quite obvious that this is not the intended way of reading it; it is most definitely an allegorical novel of some description. Secondly, I am not denying that Stalin is the major influence on the novel, considering the context of its writing and Buglakov’s ongoing battles with him. But critics rarely get past Stalin when viewing “The Master and Margarita”, whereas I see every possibility that Buglakov could have drawn some subtle inspirations from his nation’s history as well as its then-present.

The reign of Tsar Nicholas II over Russia was a totalitarian regime in itself, until he was killed and replaced by the Bolsheviks. But it is not through politics and Machiavellianism that I think the reign of Nicholas influenced Buglakov, but through the influence of magic. When Nicholas and his wife Alexandra called upon the services of Rasputin in order to help their son with his haemophilia, most of the Russian nation were highly sceptical, even suspicious. Rasputin himself became a widely disliked figure, although this has more to do with his alleged affair with Alexandra than with public suspicions of magic.
The potential Rasputin figure in The Master and Margarita is not the “devil” figure Woland, but the black cat – a popular symbol of magic – which accompanies him to Moscow. The cat often seems law abiding and moral – he pays his bus fare, for example – but is also symbolic of the trickery, magic and also a louche way of living, frequently drinking vodka and attempting to womanise.
But what really makes the cat seem faintly Rasputin like is its seeming inability to die.

Whilst there is a lot of mystery surrounding Rasputin’s death, it is generally acknowledged that he appeared virtually invincible – in 1914 Khionia Guseva, a former prostitute who had become a disciple of the monk (and former friend, now an enemy, of Rasputins) Iliodor, plunged a knife into him at such an extent that his entrails are reputed to have been left hanging out. The later addition to the myth is that on December 16th, 1916, a group comprising Prince Felix Yusupov, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and the right-wing politician Vladmir Purishkevich attempted to kill him in a range of ways before throwing him into the icy Neva river. When his body was recovered, the autopsy revealed him to have been poisioned, shot four times, badly beaten and drowned. The pattern of attempted murders which he survived before the drowning appears highly influential on Buglakov’s portrayal of the seemingly immortal cat.

But it is not so much through matters of plot that Buglakov appears to have been influenced by Rasputin as through themes. Magic has never been a widely accepted part of any mainstream society; a figure such as Rasputin will have left scars of suspicion on Russia. It is capitalising on this which makes “The Master and Margarita” a successful allegory. A feared, contemporary figure such as Stalin is an obvious choice for political allegory, but by taking elements of feared figures from his nations recent history, such as Rasputin, and superimposing them on to him to make a kind of “magic Stalin” (which manifests as the Devil) Buglakov succeeds doing what many an effective political allegory does – builds on the fears of his nation to put his message forward.

Amy Britton