On Monday, April 14, 1930, Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky killed himself. In reaction to the suicide, Stalin telephoned playwright Mikhail Bulgakov to reject his outstanding request to immigrate. The prior year, Bulgakov had petitioned to be banished. He requested to depart the USSR and take abroad his fifth play, The Run, anywhere his skill might be put to better use. His first four stage works–Days of Turbines, Zoya’s Flat, Crimson Island, and The Escape–had been banned.
After calling Bulgakov, Stalin restored Days of Turbines to the Moscow Art Theater’s permanent repertoire. He saw the play over fifteen times. Stalin also appointed Bulgakov to the Bolshoi as consulting librettist. This was a punishment: rather than produce his own, Bulgakov enabled others’ works. Almost immediately, the playwright resigned and continued work on The Master and Margarita, a story of courage and love.
Bulgakov called it his sunset novel. Publishers wouldn’t touch it and the author would rewrite the book four times before his death in 1940. Into the novel Bulgakov sealed his life. The titular character, the Master, writes a play about the life of Pontius Pilate. Censors ban the Master’s play about cowardice. Cancelled and driven to insanity, the author burns his manuscript. A satanic figure named Woland recovers the play from the fire. He intones,
“manuscripts don’t burn.”
In a surrealized reality where actions have no consequence, the difference between truth and lies is beside the point. Censorship is unnecessary. Here, hatred polarizes, and solidarity ends. The occlusion of empathy results in a wasteful loss: displacement and generalized warfare. The only way beyond this place is to not want what we want, to grow the organ of imagination, and to make a new world. This requires extraordinary will.
Soviet officials banned The Master and Margarita because they knew its readers would take it to be art—an instrument to imagine another present and a means to realize it. This art demonstrates that no matter how oppressive the system, no matter how complex the problem or overwhelming the bureaucracy, ways exist to turn systems against the wills of their creators. The book embodies a model of production: how to make one infrastructure into another.
The Master and Margarita was finally published in Paris in 1967. At last, its will had guided it past its silencers.
The Master’s world could fortify ours. It makes things that do not burn.