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The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov, Mirra Ginsburg Some books come along and make you reassess the rankings you've given to other works. The Master and Margarita is such a work. The Satan's Ball scene blew me away. Such grotesque beauty! And Woland's catch phrase "manuscripts don't burn" becomes even more meaningful when you realize that Bulgakov himself burned some of his work to avoid punishment by censors in Stalin's Russia. I can imagine that a persecuted author would glean comfort from the idea that greats like Dostoevsky are immortal, or at least that their creative voices cannot be silenced by a smothering bureaucracy.

Not surprisingly, Bulgakov's mocking critique of Stalin's Communist Russia led to censorship and blacklisting. Bulgakov must have longed to join Margarita in the destruction of the critic's apartment, and to participate in the burning and dismantling of MASSOLIT.

Further, Bulgakov clearly felt trapped in the atheistic, non-believing world inhabited by Berlioz and Ivan Homeless. If I remember my history correctly, Stalin's regime declined every one of Bulgakov's petitions to leave Russia. He desired freedom to create, to believe in human potential. Even Satan refuses to let the Russian intelligentsia (Berlioz and Ivan at least) believe Jesus didn't exist.

The Master and Margarita provides an interesting arena for testing Bulgakov's simplified version of Jesus' teaching - "everyone's good", "there are no bad people in the world". Bible thumpers will say that Bulgakov oversimplifies Jesus' message and ignores his saving work. Such questions bore the hell out of me. Instead, I understand Bulgakov as wrestling with Jesus' call to love our enemies. Jesus forgives Pilate and his executioners. Satan/Woland allows mercy to be shown in certain circumstances, and claims that without evil, we could not recognize the good. Notably, Bulgakov reserves the greatest scorn for Stalinist bureaucracy and the people who fill certain roles in the government. Forgiveness comes slowly (at best) for some hated functionaries. Was Bulgakov ever able to forgive his censors and blacklisters? Did he see them as good? Who knows. In the end, Bulgakov's masterwork survived the censors, proved to be flame resistant, and achieved immortality as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Read it!