Introduction: Born from Regression

The catalyst for Bulgakov’s investigation into Christianity, and his desire to write about Christ and the devil, appears to be a May 1926 incident during which the Soviet secret police known as the OGPU (Obyedinyonnoye gosudarstvennoye politicheskoye upravleniye or Joint State Police Directorate) searched his apartment and confiscated three notebooks of journals and his manuscript for his second novel called The Heart of a Dog [Sabach’ye Serdtse]. Edythe C. Haber views this consequent action as Bulgakov’s immersion into the spiritual world of his late-father (Afanasy Ivanovich Bulgakov (1859-1907), a theologian at Kiev University), and Laura D. Weeks interprets Bulgakov’s interest in Christianity as his return to elements of his childhood.[1]

By 1929, the Chief Repertory Committee (the state licensing organization for the Moscow Arts Theater),[2] intervened in the production of Bulgakov’s plays, demanding substantial changes to make his work suitable for performance according to government standards. The Committee’s actions resulted in a campaign against Bulgakov that culminated in a moratorium on his plays and publications for the remainder of his lifetime.[3] Bulgakov’s emotional state concerning his professional circumstances is clear in his 24 August 1929 letter to his brother, Nikolai:

[…] my situation is bad.

All my plays have been banned from performance […] and they will not print a single line of my fiction. In 1929, my destruction as a writer has been accomplished […].

In my heart, I have no hope […].

[…] polozhenie moe neblagopoluchno.

Bce moi p’esy zapreshcheny k predstavleniiu […] i belletristicheshoĭ ni odnoĭ ctroki moeĭ ne napechataiut.V 1929 godu sovershiloc’ moe pisatel’skoe unichtozhenie […].

V serdtse u menya net nadezhdu […]. [4]

Building on the views of Haber and Weeks, Bulgakov’s professional problems, his increasing interest in Christianity along side his late father’s academic work, and his low emotional state suggest that during the time he wrote The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov may have experienced a psychological regression. An essential stage of psychic development, regression occurs during times of crisis when an individual retreats from the present situation and returns to elements (usually of childhood) that offer comfort and stability. These elements provide a foundation on which the individual may rely for psychological support during subsequent periods of difficulty.[5] Out of professional ruin and in the midst of psychological regression, I suggest Bulgakov built his literary legacy: the novel The Master and Margarita. The novel chronicles the appearance of the devil, Woland, and his retinue in Moscow on the evening of Holy Thursday and follows the group’s encounters with the poet, Ivan Bezdomny, and various Muscovites associated with the Variety Theater and MASSOLIT, the local writer’s union. The novel also includes Ivan’s encounter with a mysterious writer called the Master, author of a novel about Pontius Pilate, and the story of the Master’s lover, Margarita, who descends into hell hoping for reunion with the Master. The passion of Yeshua Ha-Nostri (Jesus) is also intertwined with the Moscow narrative. Set in Yershalaim (Jerusalem) and told from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, this story includes Yeshua’s interrogation, his crucifixion, and an alternate version of Judas’ fate.

Next time: Scholarly Interest in The Master and Margarita.



[1] Edythe C. Haber, Mikhail Bulgakov: The Early Years (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998),15. See also Haber, “The Lamp with the Green Shade: Mikhail Bulgakov and His Father,” Russian Review 44, no. 4 (Oct, 1985): 335-6. Laura D. Weeks, “Hebraic Antecedents in The Master and Margarita: Woland and Company Revisited,” Slavic Review 43, no. 2 (Summer, 1984): 224-41.

[2] J. A. E. Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade: The Writer as Hero (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 64.

[3] Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade, 68-74. Although Bulgakov continued to write plays of his own accord and when commissioned by Moscow Theaters, the Chief Repertory Committee continually rejected his work.

[4] Letter from Bulgakov to N. A. Bulgakov, 24 August 1929 (Mikhail i Elena Bulgakova, Dnevnik Mastera i Margarity, ed.s I. V. Andon’eva and V. P. Kochetov [Moscow: Vagrius, 1998], 79-80). Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Russian to English are my own. For English, see J. A. E. Curtis, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov, a Life in Letters and Diaries. (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1992), 95.

[5] See C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), par. 69.

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