‘The city folk have changed greatly… externally, … have [they] changed inwardly?’Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Maragrita (Penguin Books, 2007), pp. 122–123
The question posed by Maestro Woland as he is called in this scene resounds solidly even today as our society moves from one technological acquisition to another so fast that while we are acclimatizing our lives to one, another is clawing at our feet craving for our attention. In this renowned scene from Mikhael Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’, through the séance that Woland’s (Satan) entourage performs at the Variety Theatre in Moscow, Bulgakov provides valuable commentary on the times and lives of Moscow citizen. Written at the time of Stalin’s regime, the novel presents the contemporary world setting as that of 1930s Russia. Contextually, it is relevant to note that Russia’s years under the rule of Stalin carry not only infamy, but also great struggles for its citizens.
As Woland entered the stage with his retinue he began the séance by remarking on Moscow’s technological advances, bemusing the audience who took it as a prelude to the show that would follow. At this point, the master of ceremonies, Bengalsky interjected to comment on Woland’s remark and uses the word “admiration” to summarize it. This jerked the troupe’s ire. Bengalsky, in this scene, may be the one bearing the brunt of speaking against his turn, but his voice is perhaps the doubt that is creeping into every audience member. While every moment of the séance, right from Woland summoning his chair from thin air, were beyond belief, voices in the theatre, attributed to various characters take turns to find comfort in the confines of their own capacities to believe. If Bengalsky’s reaction to a simple remark was that of perplexity, it was a sign of the night ahead of him.
Whether Woland’s question was a rhetorical one to Koroviev or it is a heads-up to the reader, well, devil only knows, it certainly sets the stage for the actual magic to start. Koroviev (Fagott) summoned a deck of cards and passed it to Behemoth (the anthropomorphic cat), who sent it back and Fagott swallowed them up, card by card. Fagott, then ‘jabbed his finger at the stalls’ and announced that Parchevsky, a citizen had the cards. Upon discovery, Fagott revealed to the audience that Parchevsky had remarked at dinner that “if it weren’t for poker [my] life in Moscow would be utterly unbearable”. Without context, this seems like a joke on the general lack of purpose in a working man’s life except for survival. In fact, gambling and all forms of card games had been banned in Russia from 1928 by a resolution of the USSR SPC. Koroviev’s comment and his offer to keep the deck of cards as a souvenir perhaps was intended to embarrass the man of his legal wrongdoings for pleasure. This is the first instance where the inward disposition of the citizens (the audience) is exposed.
An unnamed man was next to speak the mind of the bemused audience with a theory to justify the strange tricks. Instead, he received the cards in his pockets and his neighbor found something else in his own: a bank-wrapped packet with “one thousand roubles” written on it. The man remarks, “Wait! It’s ten-rouble bills!” The English translation of the text mentions it as a ten-rouble bill however, the Russian text differs here, which says “They’re chervontsy,” which was a note introduced in 1928 worth ten roubles. This currency was only temporarily used in Russia and never gained much prominence. In between the gold-backed currency and roubles, chervontsy represented an era of economic instability. In the face of inflation and struggles, history bore little semblance as Faggot rained money into the theater. ‘White strips of paper’ fell and people snatched at it. It is possible that Bulgakov intentionally uses this phrase to satirically hint at the worthlessness of the trick’s seemingly free gifts to the people. Chaos reigned until Koroviev stopped it with a mere blow of the air.
Once again, Bengalsky, in a refusal to believe and dismiss it as a scientific theory steps in and calls the act a case of mass hypnosis. By now, even the crowd was delirious enough to suggest to Koroviev to ‘tear his head off’. As evil can only be perpetrated by the intention of man, and not the devil himself, the unnamed man who had deemed to speak provided the next trick: the great beheading of Bengalsky. Once Behemoth had performed the deed in all its vivid viciousness, Koroviev held the head aloft for all to see; the crowd chanted “Forgive him, forgive him!”
“Well, they’re light-minded… mercy sometimes knocks at their hearts … ordinary people … In general, reminiscent of the former ones … only the housing problem has corrupted them.”Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Maragrita (Penguin Books, 2007), p. 126
Woland’s assessment of the people must be taken with a grain of salt. While he may be suggesting that the essentially, the people have not changed and they are the way they always were, it is only one side of the coin. The actions of people cannot always be seen with only point of view. While the madness that ensued during the rain of money hearkens to the madness within us, the famish cannot be neglected. The audience needed the money, but the government were not giving them what they deserved. This scene marks Bulgakov’s intention to burst the bubble of Russian utopia. The people of Moscow had the same needs as their former ones but corrupted by starvation.
The final act of the séance was a display of the people’s greed and pride. As Koroviev conjured a ladies’ shop with Parisian garments, silk, shoes, and perfumes, women piled the stage. They threw aside their old garments behind the curtain and came out in gorgeous new dresses. Alien to such a variety of attire, they were overwhelmed and succumbed to their wants. Once the frenzy was over, Koroviev brought an end to the act. Once again, one of the audience members, decided to speak the rational minds of the people. This time it was Arkady Appollonovich Sempleyarov. He demanded that the troupe must perform an expose of its tricks.
“You should never ask anyone for anything. Never-and especially from those who are more powerful than yourself.”Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Maragrita (Penguin Books, 2007), p. 282
If this was a scene in a Dostoevsky work, it would not be surprising to find a detailed passage on the mental disposition of Arkady that would make him ask such a question after witnessing the events of the séance. But since he asked for an expose, Koroviev gave one: he exposed his affair with an actress to his wife. In Bulgakov’s work, this points to the differential treatment that was a common phenomenon in Russian society. It is all the more relevant in today’s society as well with corrupt law systems and privacy breaches as the order of the day.
Chapter 12 of The Master and Margarita, Black Magic and Its Exposure, remains to this day one of the most iconic scenes in literature. Not only does it display the full power of Satan’s retinue to expose mankind’s frailties, but also it depicts Bulgakov’s portrait of the common folk of Moscow. Russia saw a great famine in 1932–33 that caused the death of more than five million people. Stalin’s focus of industrialization and state control on grain sowing and livestock greatly affected rural lives as well as the quality of living in urban areas as shortage of food grew. It is in this era of disgruntlement that Bulgakov thrived. His political voice in his plays greatly offended the Russian hierarchy. Even though his works and plays were banned, Stalin is said to have liked his works and granted him immunity from arrests and imprisonment. Stalin arranged for him to keep working at the Art Theater. It was at this time that he worked on ‘The Master and Margarita’ through falling health and depression. He died in 1940 and his magnum opus did not see the light of day until 1967 when it was published in Paris. The first full uncensored version of the novel was published in 1969 in Frankfurt.
“Manuscripts don’t burn.”Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Maragrita (Penguin Books, 2007), p. 287
1. Karen Lynne McCulloch Chilstrom, The Variety Theater in The Master and Margarita:A Portrait of Soviet Life in 1930s Moscow, pp. 16-22, https://www.masterandmargarita.eu/estore/pdf/emen050_lynne.pdf