Friday, December 01, 2006

As I was riding the marshrutka home on Thursday evening, I thought about the literature lesson that I had just had with Olga Lopsonovna. Our topic for the week was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (basic plot – one day, the devil visits 1930s Moscow disguised as a foreign professor of black magic, leaving the asylums full and all kinds of things turned upside down). I think what made the lesson so interesting was the fact that had it occured 50 years ago (or even later), she probably would have been fired and probably would have been expelled. Bulgakov first wrote a draft of the novel in the 1930s, but ended up burning the manuscript in fear of the reactions that would surely come from those in power (an act that is mirrored in the novel by the actions of the Master). He didn’t finish his final draft until the 1960s, and even then, it wasn’t accepted by the heavy-handed censors of the Soviet Union. If I understand correctly, the first uncensored version was released in serial form in the journal “Moskva” in 1981 – as Olga Lopsonovna was just getting ready to finish her degree at the university. Ironically, after reading this novel that year, one of the topics she had to pass in order to get her degree was Научный Атеизм – Scientific Atheism. It was at this point in the lesson that I learned that her grandfather had been a Buddist monk, whose own brother turned him over to the soviet authorities who were trying to silence the religious leaders of the country. Apparently, the university she was studying at could only get one copy of the journal in which The Master and Margarita was being published, and so many students were interested in reading it that the pages were pretty much in tatters by the time it got to her. I can’t even imagine going through college with such restraints of what can and cannot be read. Two of her classmates were expelled that year for writing their final papers on a forbidden topic (I don’t remember at the moment what that topic was, but it was something that you and I wouldn’t even consider harmful to write).
Think about this – it was extremely difficult in the soviet days to find a copy of the Bible. Whether you’re a religious person or not, having a copy of the Bible handy can be very useful when you’re studying literature. So many major (and minor) pieces in the western literary tradition refer to stories and people in the Bible. Faust, The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s plays, Milton’s poetry – the list goes on and on. If you’ve never had access to the original stories, how can you recognize the allusions? What strikes me as incredibly ironic is the fact that many of the Russian writers of the “Golden Age” of Russian Literature (aka – 19th century) make allusions to religious texts all the time. Yet reading any of the biblical stories to which they refer would not have been possible for a large portion of the 20th century.
One of the main themes in the novel is the story of the relationship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate – the topic of the book which the Master destroys. If that wasn’t enough to flag the book as subversive, there’s also all the references to the Faust legend and the obvious jabs at the crippling bureaucracy of communist Moscow. It’s not hard to see why the soviet critics weren’t such big fans of Bulgakov’s novel. The history behind the novel is one of the things that draws me to it. Whenever I take a class with Dr. Towner, she makes us write down on the first day what kind of books we like to read. I remember putting down “books that piss off authority figures.” I do believe that this book falls nicely into that category, and I’m glad I took the time to read it again for Olga Lopsonovna. There’s nothing like talking about a book with somehow who absolutely loves it.

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