Ever since I visited Uzbekistan early last year, I have been coming back to Russia and the Soviet era repeatedly. The wistful, almost nostalgic stories from the people I met there, those who had been young in an energetic, idealistic union, have stayed with me like a gossamer thread.
So when I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical novel about Stalinist Russia (a second time), I looked at it with slightly different perspective from the one I had on the first reading. Earlier, I was completely enthralled by the merry-ride and house of horrors that Bulgakov created, laughing along the way at the absurdity of communism. A sad state which had abandoned religion, where people secretly harboured greed despite the state narrative, and where a deep hierarchy of officials carried out seemingly meaningless tasks like approve shows and draw boundary lines on written words.
This time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the writing was lop-sided, and wrapped everything of the Soviet ideal in a blanket of cynicism. In Svetlana’s Secondhand time, and in the memories narrated by Uzbeki ex-Soviets, there was a strong sense of community and belonging. “We” was the dominant pronoun, there was seldom an “I”. In Bulgakov’s story, there was no community. Every man and woman stood alone, isolated in their personal desires, greed and thoughts. In fact, every character seemed either distrustful or fearful of the collective. It is hard to say if Moscow was a different Russia, or was the pen too cynical. It is the nature of big cities to alienate and pit people against each other. Perhaps there was something beautiful coming alive in Russia at the time of this story and Master and Margarita has looked away, such that communism is reduced to power grabbing, a greed for apartments and incessant corruption. I imagine that in every ideal there is a period of chaos, discontent, discomfort. Whether the ideal will emerge out of this phase is dependent on which is stronger between the ideal vision and the chaos.
In the story, I also noticed elements of autobiography – Bulgakov writes a little of himself in both Master and Ivan. One who dares, writes a narrative that doesn’t fit into the collective myth, and is torn apart by critics. The other who raises his protest, but then realises that truth and poetry are not important enough and there is enough that can be said without getting obsessed with a counter-narrative. The author himself struggled with his place in Russia where the party constantly banned his works, even though he had a strong supporter in Stalin. Throughout his life, he walked the tightrope of being popular and being subverted, and in Ivan’s coming-of-age, he is making a silent nod at his acceptance of reality.
I still very much enjoyed the merry-ride, particularly the jibes at the vanity and pomp of a system which took itself too seriously. The episode with Margarita’s flight was exhilarating and had me laughing in splits. Woland and Behemoth were particularly hilarious in the audio version, and it was hard to keep a serious face as I listened to them on my walks.