Alexandra Kudelina

Freedom of Censorship: The Master and Margarita


If he possesses a grain of wisdom, he will lay down his arms and name the unknown by the more unknown, ignotum per ignotius – that is, by the name of God. That is a confession of subjection, his imperfection, and his dependence; but at the same time a testimony to his freedom to choose between truth and error. – Carl Gustav Jung

We live in a world of political, social, communicative, of personal and public power relations. At any particular moment, everything in this world can be subjected to certain constraining discourses. However, at the next moment it may objectify itself while gaining capabilities to rule over other discourses. In other words, power is both here and there, now and then. As Foucault puts it, power is a part of our experience; and that is why it is of particular interest for investigation.1 In his article The Subject and Power, he refers to fascism and Stalinism as “pathological forms”, or two “diseases of power”, and points out that “one of the numerous reasons why they are so puzzling for us is that, in spite of their historical uniqueness, they are not quite original. They used and extended mechanisms already present in most other societies. More than that: in spite of their own internal madness, they used to a large extent, the ideas and the devices of our political rationality.”2

However, such an idea of power as an omnipresent interplay of forces controlling and determining our existence seems to question the very possibility of freedom. But this is not the case. Power and freedom need not be defined as opponents striving for the right to rule the world. Moreover, if one follows a post-modern strategy of deconstruction, one will not only place these notions side by side, but transform them into a paradoxical whole.

Foucault calls the phenomenon of Stalinism particularly a “pathological form” of power in politics. Yet it operates on the same premises as any other constellation of powers, even as we observe them in a modern democracy. One of the symptoms of the pathology of Stalinism was Soviet censorship, a term designating different forms of oppression ranging from mere silencing to mass murder and imprisonment.3 Censorship appeared at that time as one of the symptoms of the abnormality of Stalin’s power regime. However, as I would like to argue, it was not detached from its natural basis of power relations between and within discourses.

I will focus on the example of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (1939), which created a counter discourse to Soviet censorship. The novel was not only subject to the damaging censorious action of Soviet authorities, but in a way it censored the communist regime itself, proving that there is always an essential space of freedom within any constraint. Its unique fate starts in 1928-1929, when Mikhail Bulgakov began to work on the first version of The Master and Margarita: a satirical tale about the devil visiting Moscow. In 1930, when his plays were banned, Bulgakov burned the manuscript – but only to start writing the story again in 1934. Final revisions were dictated to his wife a few weeks before his death in 1940. There was never any question of publishing the novel for Bulgakov. The mere existence of the manuscript, had it come to the knowledge of Stalin’s police, would have cost the author his life. Yet the book was of great importance to him, and he clearly believed that the time would come when it would find its readers. Only in 1966, twenty-six years after the author’s death, did a hardly recognizable censored version of the novel appear in the literary journal Moskva, immediately creating a sensation.4

The case of The Master and Margarita is a persuading example of literature as an active participant in a dialogue between different political and social discourses. Its main instrument is the word, delivered to the public in the form of a book that speaks with the voice of its author. When a state decides to silence that author, to ban the book, to abolish the word, it is no longer an ethical dilemma whether those sanctions be termed evil or good, beneficial or harmful, right or false, justified or injust. Today, according to the conclusion of Schauer, such treatment of censorship would be tantamount to a linguistic mistake.5 Rather, there is a dialectical strife of discourses gaining and losing their power, which only surfaces in censorship. The interest of this essay is therefore not to find out the truth or to draw a distinctive line between right and wrong, or good and evil censorship, but to concentrate on a performance of censorious actions as transformations of power which can take on a creative function. This mainly results in a paradox we will name freedom of censorship.

Freedom and Censorship

“People once knew what censorship was,”6 says Schauer at the beginning of his study on the ontology of censorship. In the course of history, censorship took different ways to suit the aims of state authorities. It was understood as a “system requiring preclearance for all publications.”7 Going back to this historical tradition, censorship is often defined as any sort of dominance expressed in a restrictive authoritative action. Mainly, censorship is referred to as „suppression of books, plays, or passages therein as sacrilegious, immoral, seditious, or otherwise objectionable,”8 or as the „official supervision or control of dramatic productions and films or of the press“.9 The Encyclopaedia Britannica correspondingly defines censorship as “sanction, negation, prohibition and restriction”.10 Censorship gained negative connotations due to its practice in the course of centuries. As a result, the nature of censorship is now traditionally understood in terms of restriction, control or dominance and evokes associations opposite to those which are connected to freedom.

This traditional conception of censorship as a superior power suppressing certain discourses found a considerable revision in the modern works of such scholars as Annette Kuhn, Michael Holquist, Sue Curry Jansen, Richard Burt, Judith Butler and Frederick Schauer, who speak about censorship as an omnipresent, inevitable, necessary, and desirable category. They foreground the productivity of censorship as well as its interactive and regulative nature, and they do so against the traditional view of a one-sided relationship which places the censored object in an inert and passive position.11 Freshwater points out the background of this complex view of censorship by looking into the ideas of Michel Foulcault, Pierre Bourdieu, Freud and Lacan.12 Censorship is then rather to be understood as a control which presupposes a certain order of things ruled by a set of laws, norms and rights. In this case, control is contrasted to destructive anarchy.

This distinction between non-conventional pejorative and non-pejorative traditional censorship is, however, in no way sufficient to describe the ambivalent nature of our world. It seems to be quite an ideal differentiation between creative (constitutive) and damaging (silencing) discourses. In reality, discourses are more likely to undergo continuous evaluation as one form of mutual interaction. In its course, discourses gain a chance to influence their partners and take control over them. Such an approach reconciles the idea of discourses as changeable and evaluative structures, rather than as constructs with fixed qualities. Similarly, Kristeva states that creativity is a result of the dialectical relationship between discourses being controlled on the one side, and showing critical resistance to this control on the other. The latter is a prerogative of dialogical texts; monologue would rather serve to represent discourses but not to constitute new ones or create new meanings.13 Combining Kristeva’s concept with the suggestion of system theorist Dirk Baecker, who states that “control cannot be mentioned without speaking of communication,”14 I propose a conception of censorship as a process of control and regulation taking place by means of communication between different powers rather than suppression of inferior powers by superior ones. The concept of communication, on its part, allows an integration of censorship and freedom, traditionally understood as a binary opposition. Discourses undergo transformations of a selective and creative nature inconstant mutual interference, As a result of this correspondence, restriction and freedom are merged into one whole. Therefore, while analysing censorious action, one should also observe its other side, which adopts some functions of freedom. In this regard, connecting the analysis of the oppressive action to the analysis of the counter-technique of its victim would indicate the doubleness of censorship. This means that speaking about a discourse, one speaks of an active structure which has sufficient capacity to resist any power intruding in its space.

Three Aspects of Censorship

Such was also the case with The Master and Margarita, a devastating satire of the Soviet reality. One of the literary critics in Moscow at that time, Vladimir Blyum, recognized that “every satirist in the USSR violates the Soviet system.”15 However, this violation intended a reply to the censorious suppression exercised by the system. So The Master and Margarita censored the Soviet society and regime just as much as the latter censored all incompatible literary works. This again leads back to the idea of freedom of censorship, since it is quite obvious that according to the communicative rules either one or the other side of communication will manifest dominance. Another aspect of censorship, no less important to its analysis, is its temporal character. My point here is that a discourse, once silenced, may re-emerge under suitable conditions in the future, although it will then most likely present a modified variant of itself. This too happened to The Master and Margarita, as well as many other works and ideas of suppressed Soviet authors, which outlasted the Soviet regime while contributing to the collapse of its totalitarian system.

Last but not least, it is important to consider censorship’s situational context and determine what function censorship takes on from case to case. Since discourses are ambiguous structures, undergoing processes of evaluation and transgression, they can function differently in different situations. If a silencing, a regulating or a creative outcome emerges at the end, it is difficult to state the definite function of censorship. The problem here is that discourses, though silenced, may at the same time silence others; or creatively operating discourses may necessarily lead to damage. Yet damaging discourses may aspire to protect. Picking out the one “bad”, traditional censorship fixed in dictionaries among these discourses becomes a matter of individual decision. In the post-modern world it becomes a matter of freedom for individuals to choose how to treat an existing order.

Control and Domination

In his article Why systems?, Dirk Baecker writes about the slippery character of systems theory. He states: “Sociology is not prepared to call a reproduction that we do not understand an effect of domination.”16 This may imply that it requires a separate approach to the observation of any system to be able to understand its functional form and its ability to recreate itself. But it is also questionable whether the reproduction of a system, understood as a form of control, implies any form of domination as a precondition, an accompanying phenomenon or a consequence.

This question gains special interest when rephrased in terms of the non-traditional conception of censorship presented above. Censorship as control by liberal means of communication seems to exclude such cases as the 1940s’ Soviet terror in literature, particularly as applied to Bulgakov’s plays and The Master and Margarita. Distinguishing inevitable and necessary control from control experienced as domination and restriction becomes problematic. The question is where the line should be drawn to separate these kinds of control.

If we think of systems as recreating themselves on the basis of self-referentiality, isolation and displacement, exclusion and inclusion; and if we assume that systems “emerge, enable and constrain what is to happen, while being nothing else than the relationship between the actor and the phenomenon who both, however, are what they are thanks to that relationship”17, then it is also logical to believe in the essentiality of omnipresent control as a regulating and constitutive force. But when this complex relationship is represented as a kind of communication, and that communication is disturbed, one or more elements are subjected to an authoritarian willperceived as suppression.

Control vs. Domination: Soviet Censorship

The necessity to ask the censored author or artist about his or her experience whilst defending a strongly inclusive conception of censorship was particularly indicated by Helen Freshwater, who pointed out that “without such consideration, we risk perpetuating procedures of exclusion.”18 Perhaps it is exactly because of this necessity that every attempt to define what the term censorship actually signifies makes us explore the cases when censorship is experienced as a restrictive action of an authority violating the principles of privacy and independence of thought. But it perhaps also depends on the ambivalence of control itself, which is a structural necessity on the one hand, but can always turn into a damaging power on the other hand.

From the inception to the dissolution of the Soviet state, Soviet censorship in literature delivers a distinct picture of authors and artists having been either traditionally censored, i.e. in form of prepublication deletions, changes and insertions, or forced to practice self-censorship, that is to produce “revisions effected by the author himself to adjust his work to the censorial demands of the day.”19 Along with this prohibitive role of censorship, which manifested itself mainly in the suppression of newspapers that were considered as hostile to the Communist government, there also existed an educative role, especially relevant for censorship in literature: The Communist Party passed a doctrine of so-called “Socialist Realism” which, in contrast to the “critical” Realism of the 19 th century, was meant to shape Soviet society as a community of obedient and similarly thinking people. In 1934, the Soviet Writers Union passed the bylaws which officially reaffirmed the instructive mission of literature by obligating writers to educate the masses in the spirit of socialism.20 With this, any possible independence of thought and freedom of expression was undermined and any chance for artistic creativity to develop itself on a free basis was taken away. The system was urging the writers to depict “positive” characters and heroes of socialist construction. Control was emphatically verging into domination.

To define the difference between control and domination, I would like to suggest that control is a matter of liberal tradition, where it is applied to protect the morals and to support creativity within a society. Domination is, by contrast, a matter of authoritarianism which imposes its own moral and prohibits creativity as a dangerous constellation of powers. I will test whether domination is a different kind of influence from control: whether its manifestations contrast from mere control by a lack of dialogue between discourses, and by introducing an authority that imposes its own “super” discourses in the stead of dialogue. I will follow tradition and inquire from the censored author, Mikhail Bulgakov, his experience of suppression.

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita is a philosophical novel, its philosophy a response to the historical issues of the time. The nihilistic philosophical tradition of the 19 th century influenced considerably the development of utilitarian altruism within the radical circles of the Russian intelligentsia in the first decades of the 20 th century. It expressed itself in the idea of the all-powerful human ratio and its capability to hedge human happiness and welfare. As a result, religion as a spiritual basis of social life was undermined in the Soviet Union. Instead, authorities proclaimed the official aesthetics of atheism and the so called “socialist faith”21. Though socialists developed the ideas of serving society and its welfare, they considerably distorted their altruistic basis. As Riitta H. Pittman writes, “socialist is not altruist. It is true that he seeks to increase human happiness, but he does not love the people, he loves his idea, that is the idea of human happiness.”22 Perhaps that is why Bulgakov’s Moscow in The Master and Margarita is plunged into the depths of superstition and corrupt materialism, the non-believers of the Soviet capital being suddenly visited by the devil.

The Devil. Or did Jesus exist?

Non-believers do not only deny God, they also deny the devil and the whole existence of an inner spiritual life. That is why the devil in the novel is not juxtaposed to God. On the contrary, he is directly related to the question Did Jesus exist? The devil’s metaphysical dimension forms an opposition to the spiritually impoverished citizens of Moscow, who appear in the novel’s very beginning, when the author introduces “Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, editor of a fat literary journal and chairman of the board of one of the major Moscow literary associations, called Massolit for short, and his young companion (…) the poet Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrev, who wrote under the pseudonym of Homeless.”23 (MM 3) The reader becomes a witness of the conversation between these two Muscovites.

This conversation, as was learned afterwards, was about Jesus Christ. The thing was that the editor had commissioned from the poet a long anti-religious poem for the next issue of his journal. Ivan Nikolaevich had written this poem, and in a very short time, but unfortunately the editor was not at all satisfied with it. Homeless had portrayed the main character of his poem – that is, Jesus, – in very dark colours, but nevertheless the whole poem, in the editor's opinion, had to be written over again. (…) It is hard to say what precisely had let Ivan Nikolaevich down – the descriptive powers of his talent or a total unfamiliarity with the question he was writing about – but his Jesus came out, well, completely alive, the once-existing Jesus, though, true, a Jesus furnished with all negative features. Now, Berlioz wanted to prove to the poet that the main thing was not how Jesus was, good or bad, but that this same Jesus, as a person, simply never existed in the world, and all the stories about him were mere fiction, the most ordinary mythology. (MM 5-6)

Jesus as “mere fiction, the most ordinary mythology” was a popular atheist slogan of the official communist culture in the Soviet Union and constitutes a perspective of Muscovites in the novel of Bulgakov. However, the well-grounded arguments of Berlioz against the existence of God, which he uses to instruct the poet Homeless, are quite easily exposed by the devil, who enters their conversation under the veil of mystery: “But here is a question that is troubling me: if there is no God, then, one may ask, who governs human life and, in general, the whole order of things on earth?” (MM 12) Apart from the fact that the question put by the Satan “who governs human life and, in general, the whole order of things on earth?” alludes ironically to the topic of this essay, it introduces the main discourse of the novel, which is about constraints placed on human artistic creativity, as well as creativity’s critical resistance to these constraints, insofar as they endanger its existence. It is important that the artistic in the novel is not opposed to control but hates domination, cuts and delitions as much as perverse additions and the bare idealism of perfect socialist heroes. This suffering part of artistic creativity constitutes another perspective of The Master and Margarita, which is the perspective of the devil as artist and holyspirituality. This double perspective is a method used by Bulgakov to enter subversive discourses into the novel and challenge Soviet morals.24 In this respect, the dimension of the devil, the spirit of darkness, becomes of special interest. The devil comes to Moscow in the appearance of an ordinary mortal man, who however looks a little bit freaky and unusual, so that the citizens of Moscow are confused to describe him. Their efforts to create a picture of a criminal for the police are poor and absurd:

Afterwards, when, frankly speaking, it was already too late, various institutions presented reports describing this man [the devil]. A comparison of them cannot but cause amazement. Thus, the first of them said that the man was short, had gold teeth, and limped on his right leg. The second, that the man was enormously tall, had platinum crowns, and limped on his left leg. The third laconically averred that the man had no distinguishing marks. It must be acknowledged that none of these reports is of any value. (MM 7)

Just as absurd is the picture of the person described by the friends, Berlioz and Homeless, who define the extraordinary strangeness of the newcomer’s appearance as his foreignness – a hyperbolically presented comic fact of Soviet reality, where people did not confide in foreigners:

First of all, the man described did not limp on any leg, and was neither short nor enormous, but simply tall. As for his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side and gold on the right. He was wearing an expensive grey suit and imported shoes of a matching colour. His grey beret was cocked rakishly over one ear; under his arm he carried a stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle's head. He looked to be a little over forty. Mouth somehow twisted. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. Right eye black, left – for some reason – green. Dark eyebrows, but one higher than the other. In short, a foreigner. (MM 7-8)

In these two passages, Bulgakov seems to play with the materialistic philosophy of Soviet communism by unveiling the empirically grounded knowledge of the Muscovites, who saw a stranger being simultaneously tall and short, having gold teeth, which changed to the platinum crowns at the next moment, and who was limping first on his right and then suddenly on his left leg. In this sarcastic manner, Bulgakov explores the impossibility to describe the devil, because nobody can see him. The devil is spirit. His complexion materialises only in the moments of contact with the mortal men in the novel and acquires different forms every single time. That is why those who claimed to see the devil pervert reality by confusing empirical data. Their atheism denies the spiritual dimension of human life, while their collectivism in turn denies individuality. That is why, while wondering who that strange man with many appearances may be, they declare him “a foreigner.” Of course, it is also puzzling for the reader to get to know the devil as a mortal man, who has a name – Woland, and an occupation – Professor of black magic; who has documents and hires a flat in Moscow. However, this confusion may go back exactly to the way we think about such things as God and Devil, that is to our inability to reach their dimension by an empirically based cognitive process. It is not for nothing, that in her study on the Bulgakov’s novel, Pittmann examines the question whether the devil can settle in the soul of every one of us. She suggests an interpretation of him as a schizophrenic syndrome of the citizens of Moscow.25 Such that the only thing that poet Ivan Homeless can think of in conversation with the Professor of black magic, Woland, is the baffled inquiry: “Have you ever happened, citizen, to be in a hospital for the mentally ill?” (MM 16) In this case as in numerous others in the novel, the permanent error of those who meet the devil is to diminish him to his bare appearance, or to ascribe him a mental illness. And if someone dares to discover more in his figure, he goes crazy himself. That is the reason why professor Woland cried out laughing at the inquiry of the poet Ivan if he had ever been in a hospital for mentally ill: “I have, I have, and more than once! (…) Only it’s too bad, I didn’t get around to asking the professor what schizophrenia is. So you will have to find that out from him yourself, Ivan Nikolaevich!” (MM 16)

With these words, the professor of black magic predicts what will happen to the young poet. From the moment he met Satan, there is a question about power in the empirical or the imagined world: Who rules our life?

Who rules our life?

As Riitta H. Pittman consistently argues, “the question of who controls our lives is explicitly posed at least twice in The Master and Margarita and implicitly suggested throughout the novel.”26 Explicitly, the question is placed by the devil. The poet Homeless replies impatiently, saying that people themselves rule their existence. However, the answer seems not to satisfy the devil, who gently responds to this claim:

“Pardon me, (…) but in order to govern, one needs, after all, to have a precise plan for a certain, at least somewhat decent, length of time. Allow me to ask you, then, how man can govern, if he is not only deprived of the opportunity of making a plan for at least some ridiculously short period - well, say, a thousand years - but cannot even vouch for his own tomorrow? (…) Imagine that you, for instance, start governing, giving orders to others and yourself, generally, so to speak, acquire a taste for it, and suddenly you get ...hem... hem ... lung cancer … and so your governing is over!” (MM 12-13)

Implicitly, the question about power engages the central hero of the novel, the Master, who is a nameless author suppressed by Soviet censors. His novel about Pontius Pilate develops a subversive discourse and is therefore doomed by the system. With the completion of the work, his creativity is exhausted, and he doesn’t find sense in his life any more, since his novel has no chance to enter contemporary dialogue. This fictional situation of the nameless master is of course reminiscent to that of Bulgakov himself, who led a kind of intellectual strife with his high-rank censor Stalin.27 Henceforth, the words of the Master, who says: “When I came out into the world holding my novel, my life ended,” (MM 200) violate the borders of the fictional world. Bulgakov, who felt the approach of his last hour while working on The Master and Margarita, may have autobiographically referred both to physical and intellectual death.28 Nevertheless, this death is of a relative nature. In fact, once having been written, books continue and develop the thought of their authors, who are then to be regarded as creators. It is this function of artistic creativity which indicates a shift of power in direction to immaterial and eternal values. Bulgakov emphasises the non-durability of human existence and consequently the non-durability of man’s power, which ends with his life. The belief that man himself governs his life is a way to think of man as a mere physical object which disappears without a trace after his death; it is also a way to regard a book as a lifeless thing which dissolves after having been banned. But everyone and everything that has ever existed in this world, leaves traces. These traces form autonomous discourses, and it is impossible to exterminate them. In one of the episodes in The Master and Margarita, the hero of the Master’s story, Pontius Pilate, threatens his prisoner Ieshua-Ha-Nozri by saying, his life was hanging by a hair. The latter laughs and responds gently:

“You don't think it was you who hung it, Hegemon?” the prisoner asked. “If so you are very mistaken.” Pilate gave a start and replied through his teeth: “I can cut that hair.” “In that, too, you are mistaken,” the prisoner retorted, smiling brightly and shielding himself from the sun with his hand. “You must agree that surely only He who hung it can cut the hair?” (MM 31)

Similarly, in the devil’s kingdom an episode concerning a chess-game with live pieces and an animated globe ridicules these illusory ambitions of humanity. Pittman points to the sources of this philosophical line in the novel, while she particularly refers to the Neo-Kantian debate in Russia at the beginning of the 20 th century.29 Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason received a lot of attention and came to be regarded as the central anti-Marxist work, on which Mikhail Bakhtin, for instance, ran a study group in Nevel.30 It is therefore not by accident that the devil recalls having breakfasted with Kant in the conversation with Berlioz and congratulates him for having repeated “in full” the thoughts of the great philosopher. In agreement with Kant, the editor has argued that “no proof of God’s existence may be found in the realm of reason” (MM 11) while ignoring the possible existence of dimensions beyond reason. Consistently, Kant believed that an essential basis of human knowledge is direct experience.31 But in his search for God, Kant was deeply preoccupied with the split between knowledge and faith –generally not the case with atheistic ideology.32 In the Kantian sense, Bulgakov mocks the Soviet non-believers by materialising the devil and pushing him into the boundaries of human reason. What lies beyond human possibilities becomes in such a way accessible and allows the devil to speculate on the truth. He agrees with Berlioz that the gospels “cannot surely be considered a reliable historical source, since almost nothing what is described in them ever took place.” (MM 11) However, he claims to have participated in those events himself. (MM 11-12) And ironically, it is very difficult to deflate an empirically based argument even for atheists. Bulgakov’s mocking targets the nonsense of an atheism that tries to argue the non-existence of God by a lack of empirical proof. As a counter argument, Bulgakov evaluates the idea of independence between spiritual and logical parts of human reason in The Master and Margarita. Since Enlightenment, this idea has been guiding the manifestation of freedom and its principles within human society, moving from individual free will, via faith, to the legitimate politics based on a liberal constellation of powers. This consistency of The Master and Margarita’s philosophy with the empirical level of social theory demonstrates how the process of interaction between discourses, which I here termed freedom of censorship, may function. As a bearer of this freedom, Bulgakov’s devil comes to the soviet Moscow and, bewildering its citizens with his felonies, very clearly warns them of the starting dialogue: “Bear in mind that Jesus did exist.” (MM 19)


Given that a real author, whose creativity is severely damaged by censorship, has little chance to make a pact with the devil and be saved from the burdens of existential pressure, the idea that he has always a capacity to resist any abuse of power seems to surpass itself. However, this idea does not necessarily rely on such obscure notions as justice, happiness or acknowledgement. Hence, in dying, the Master in Bulgakov’s novel feels not at all praised or compensated for the evil he has suffered from oppression, but he is awarded another price. He gets back his novel, which he has burned in a desperate agony and which from now on will continue his failed intentions to break the walls of the ignorant system. In this regard, through his creativity and free will, he is to be understood as a free author, whose ethical decision implies the struggle against constraints but not the containment to its rules in which he does not believe. Bulgakov undertakes a similar struggle in The Master and Margarita. How he attacks the powers which expelled an existentially important individual space from the consciousness of the Soviet people, is perhaps best to be observed in his version of Jerusalem, which is in The Master and Margarita a theme of the Master’s novel about Pontius Pilate.

Chudakova suggests that Bulgakov’s version of Jerusalem was a direct response to the Soviet doctrine of atheism, in particular to the atheism of Demyan Bedny.33 Pittman investigates the extent to which this may be true and quotes the following passage from the postscript appended to his 1925 edition of “The Flawless New Testament”:

I took the canonical texts of the Gospels as they exist and adhering meticulously to them I tried to show that Jesus was quite different from what we have come to imagine. I insist that on the basis of the Gospels only this alternative picture of Jesus can be given: he was a liar, a drunkard, a womaniser, and so on… This realisation represents the first stage in our anti-religious campaign. – “Look how pitiful and abominable your god is!” The second stage – “Neither a good god, nor a bad god ever existed. They are a nonsense!” The account of how people dreamt up gods, including Christ, is clearly and convincingly given in many anti-religious books and books about the cultural history of mankind. If the reader having developed an interest in this matter, turns spontaneously to these works and progresses further along the path which signifies his liberation from the clutches of this church idiot, I shall wish him: - Happy journey!34

The quoted passage of course recalls the words of Bulgakov’s protagonists, Berlioz and Homeless, at the beginning of the novel. It demonstrates what indirect ways censorship took in the Soviet Union by aiming its actions against volatile discourses. Growing generations of the Soviet era who were given to read only such books as this of Demyan Bedny also came to believe in this heresy, and propagate it to their descendants. This is the reason why such works as Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita were regarded as dangerous by the system and excluded from the process of communication. This also explains why the existence of such works was so important to the banned dialogue.

The interpretation of the gospels by Bulgakov seeks to create a counter discourse to the one established by the official Soviet moral. His Jerusalem is a careful historical account with Roman politics and the figure of Pontius Pilate within it.35 The Roman Procurator’s office in Jerusalem has been historically verified as a necessary part of the peace keeping effort in its province Judea.36 Pilate was the fifth procurator of Judea and remained in office over a period of approximately ten years (26-36 AD). He was known as a cruel governor and the absolute sovereignty over his dominion rested, of course, with the Roman Emperor Tiberius.37

In the Master’s story, Pontius Pilate is at the centre of the struggle between the Jewish theocracy, with the High Priest demanding his rights on the one hand, and the Roman State as the supreme idea dominating Pilate’s will on the other. Pilate’s position is highly precarious because of the guarantees given by the Roman Emperor that the occupying forces will not in any circumstance violate the sanctity of the Jewish religious law. These guarantees provide local authorities with the means of manipulating the power of the Roman representative to their own advantage. When Ieshua appears in Judea with his rebellious ideology, the High Priest of Jerusalem leaves Pilate no choice; he insists that Ieshua must be executed.

Who is Ieshua in the Master’s story? As Pittman suggests, “Ieshua’s philosophy emulates the presumptions prompted by the rhetoric of the radical Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the twentieth century: “Man is good and malleable; evil resides in external conditions; through corrective action evil can be eradicated and mankind will reach the state of perfection (communism).”38 However, Pittman notes that there is a significant difference between the Russian radicalism and the ideas of Ieshua: while the latter acknowledges the existence of a higher spiritual authority as the final arbiter of human destinies, the former regarded the temporal powers as omnipotent in every respect.39 The conflict between reason and spirituality repeats itself in the dialectic relation between Ieshua and Pilate. Ieshua’s ideas cannot reach the understanding of Pontius Pilate, who is a Roman soldier and whom life has taught to suppress the metaphysical aspects of experience; but these ideas penetrate his consciousness and attract him to the truth they promise. Nevertheless, Pontius Pilate is well aware that if he lets himself be associated with an advocate of the vagrant, it will cost him his life or provoke a war between Rome and Judea, which then may cost thousands of lives.

This situation of Pontius Pilate is, of course, reminiscent to the one within the Soviet Union. The possibility of an author to relate freely to the phenomena of reality was disturbed and could function only through authority as mediator. In most cases it is, however, difficult to outsource the authority of mediation. So, for Pontius Pilate it is both a dilemma of the Roman state dominating over him, as well as a deep ethical problem of preventing the possibility of the bloody strife between two peoples, which draws him into such unpalatable incidents as the sentencing of Jesus. Bulgakov’s Jerusalem opens up another possible interpretation of the Biblical story – perhaps Pontius Pilate chooses to sacrifice his own comfort in order to save millions of people from massacre.

Setting free...

We live under thousands of constraints which we sometimes do not even perceive. We think of them as natural rules of social, political or personal existence. The first of these constraints is our mortal nature which conceals the absolute truth from us. The non-belief in the existence of an all-powerful and all-knowing arbiter who possesses this truth has a damaging effect on our life. Of course, it is natural that atheists deny God as somebody who was dreamt up and would, therefore, never help to prevent catastrophes, personal or global. However, it is a primitive way of thinking about God as somebody who can come down to earth and set-up justice everywhere. But who knows, if such a God will consequently not turn out to be the devil for some mortals.

On the other hand, the atheistic approach to non-belief as a way towards “liberation from the clutches of the church idiot”40 faces another question:_ Will not absence of any faith rather be a way to tighten those constraints entangling our life; and, on the contrary, is not the human faith that there exists something and not nothing at all, the most ordinary way to liberation from the imperfect world of subjection and dependence?

In the end, Bulgakov sets his heroes free. The Master is reunited with Margarita, and both of them are liberated from the burdens of existence. In their case, the sensation of “unburdening” is related not only to their physical weightlessness, but also to the unshackling of their conscience from the lies upon which their earthly life has depended.

Ivan Homeless leaves the psychiatric clinic and is freed from his agonies about Pontius Pilate, the devil and a nameless author, who told him a frightening story of his damaged life. He is now identified by his full name, Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, and designated as Professor at the Institute of History and Philosophy. He will no longer deviate from the official line and has been made to believe that his acquaintance with the devil and all following events came about as a consequence of hypnosis. However, his mind’s erratic wanderings recur at the full moon when the story about Pontius Pilate returns to life in his nightmares, and he is tortured by the image of the “vagrant” Ieshua being executed at the order of the Roman procurator in Judea:

It is always one and the same thing that awakens the scholar [Ivan Homeless] and draws pitiful cries from him on the night of the full moon. He sees some unnatural, noseless executioner who, leaping up and hooting somehow with his voice, sticks his spear into the heart of Gestas, who is tied to a post and has gone insane. But it is not the executioner who is frightening so much as the unnatural lighting in this dream, caused by some dark cloud boiling and heaving itself upon the earth, as happens only during world catastrophes. After the injection, everything changes before the sleeping man. A broad path of moonlight stretches from his bed to the window and a man in a white cloak with blood-red lining gets on to this path and begins to walk towards the moon. Beside him walks a young man in a torn chiton and with a disfigured face. The walkers talk heatedly about something, they argue, they want to reach some understanding. (MM 562-563)

These interlocutors in Ivan’s dream, who are no other than Ieshua and Pilate, are symbolically embedding the restored dialogue which is so essential for the continuity of life. The Master and Margarita itself functions in the same way. The novel ascertains the idea of transience of power, or rather the idea of movement within it, which is the most tangible manifestation of a principle of freedom in this process – a freedom of censorship. Intangible values of human intellect are juxtaposed to constraining and sometimes exterminating censorious action as it was presented in the Soviet Union. Even books that are burned out of hatred and fear, losing the struggle for power, or out of the anguished agonies haunting their creators, will survive; for the force of human thought cannot be damaged. Freedom becomes as omnipresent in the world as power is. And this is best expressed in one of the scenes in The Master and Margarita, when the devil asks the Master why Margarita calls him ’master’; smiling, the latter answers him:

“She has too high an opinion of a novel I wrote.” “What is this novel about?” “It is a novel about Pontius Pilate.” Here again the tongues of the candles swayed and leaped, the dishes on the table clattered, Woland burst into thunderous laughter, but neither frightened nor surprised anyone. (…) “About what? About what? About whom?” said Woland, ceasing to laugh. “And that - now? It's stupendous! Couldn't you have found some other subject? Let me see it.” Woland held out his hand, palm up. “Unfortunately, I cannot do that,” replied the Master, “because I burned it in the stove.” “Forgive me, but I don't believe you,” Woland replied, “that cannot be: manuscripts don't burn.” He turned to Behemoth41 and said, “Come on. Behemoth, let's have the novel.” The cat instantly jumped off the chair, and everyone saw that he had been sitting on a thick stack of manuscripts. (MM 406)

Manuscripts don’t burn. Perhaps, the answer of the suppressed author to the traditional question about his experience with censorship lies exactly here. “It is stupendous!” exclaims the devil. It is stupendous, we may conclude. It is amazing that this author, who is quite aware of the fact that he writes a forbidden work which will most probably damage him, still keeps doing it. It must perhaps really be a torture for an artist to be unmercifully silenced. But it might be better to say that it becomes impossible to silence him; because the genuine artistic creativity knows no limits and can bare no restrictions.


Returning to the theoretical questions of “censorship”, we may perhaps require only a short look back. How many appearances the category of censorship may take on is examplified in The Master and Margarita. With regard to this novel, it would not be a mistake to state that censorship deserves its dialectic and ambivalent nature which is and must be hard to define. Summing up the most important issues to constitute a concept of freedom of censorship:

  1. The dimension of censorship lies within the notions of communication and control through communication. There is a need for all-inclusiveness within the communicative process since everyone is to get the right to protect his / her options against the options of the others, within the limits of their own power and that imposed by the extraneous discourses.
  2. Communication is an interaction, and this means that participating actors are always influenced, that is censored, by their partners. Censorship is therefore always a double-sided relationship.
  3. Domination , as opposed to control, is a consequence of disturbed communication and is to be regarded as an abnormal state of things.

It is important to emphasise that control is thus a central function of censorship. It is obvious that in the course of communication the participating discourses may gain or lose power, and control can in the end grow into different forms, so that authority, domination and even suppression are never fixed on just one side of the coin. Paradoxically, it is not only bad intentions which may trigger the will to burn, exterminate and damage. The ideas of happiness, protection and eradication of evil can relate to censorship as much as the will to dominate. But all of these ideas try to colour the world in black-white. They claim to know the answers to all questions, which would be quite dull.

On the contrary, the idea of freedom of censorship escapes any definite interpretation of the world, about which Derrida says:

There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile. The other which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who, through the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology – in other words through his entire history – has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play.42

There are more than enough indications today to suggest we might perceive these “two interpretations of interpretation” to renounce censorship as a universally restrictive action. Concepts of power and freedom remain absolutely irreconcilable even as we live them simultaneously and reconcile them in an obscure economy, in such a problematic fashion. Such is the basis for the creation of unique outcomes which we perceive as original, but which escape their originality and but exploit mechanisms already present in most our societies.


Baecker, Dirk (2001) „Why Systems?“, in Theory, Culture and Society, 18.1, pp. 59-74.

Bulgakov, Mikhail (2006) The Master and Margarita, transl. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, London: Penguin books.

Brockhaus Enzyklopädie , völlig neu bearb. 19. Aufl., vol.17, Mannheim: 1992, p. 172.

Clark, Katerina and Holquist, Michael (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin, Cambridge u.a.: Harvard University Press.

Čudakova, Marietta O. (1988) Žizneopisaniye Mikhaila Bulgakova (,Biography of Mikhail Bulgakov‘), Moscow: Kniga, pp. 434 – 483.

Deck, Priscilla Conwell (1977) Thematic Coherence in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Ann Arbor/Mich.: Brandeis University (Dissertation), pp. 156 – 206.

Dictionary of World Literary Terms (1970), ed. by Joseph T. Shipley, Boston, p. 39.

Derrida, Jacques (1978) “Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciencies” in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, ed. and trans. by Alan Bass, London: Routledge, pp. 278-294.

Encyclopædia Britannica (1976), 15 th edition, Chicago u.a.: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., vol. 3, p. 1083.

Ermolaev, Herman (1997) Censorship in Soviet Literature: 1917 – 1991, New York: St. James Press.

Freshwater, Helen (2004) “Towards a Redefinition of Censorship”, in Beate Müller (Ed.), Censorship and Regulation in the Modern Age, Amsterdam u.a.: Rodopi, pp. 225-245.

Foucault, Michel (1997) „The Subject and Power“, transl. by Robert Hurley, in Paul Rabinow (Ed.), Power, New York: New Press (Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984, vol. 3), pp. 326-349.

Hart, Pierre R. (1973) “The Master and Margarita as Creative Process”, in Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 169-179.

Jung, Carl Gustav (1963) Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ed. by Aniela Jaffé, transl. by R. and C. Winston, New York: Pantheon books.

Kristeva, Julia (1986) “Word, Dialogue and Novel”, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. by Toril Moi, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 34-61.

Oxford English Dictionary (1989), ed. by Simpson and Weiner, Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol. 2, pp. 1029-1030.

Pittman, Riitta H. (1991) The Writer’s Divided Self in Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Schauer, Frederick (1998) “The Ontology of Censorship”, in Robert C. Post (Ed.), Censorship and Silencing. Practices of Cultural Regulation, Los Angelos: Getty Research Inst., pp.147-168.

Smoltczyk, Alexander (2007) Der Kreuzzug der Gottlosen, Spiegel, Nr. 22, S. 63.

Utechin, Nikolai Pavlovič (1979) „Istoričeskije grani večnych istin. Master i Margarita M. Bulgakova“, (,Historical borders of the eternal truth. The Master and Margarita of Mikhail Bulgakov‘), in Valentin Archipovič (Ed.) Sovremennyj sovetskij roman: Filosofskije aspekty, Leningrad: Nauka, pp. 194-225.

Weeks, Laura D. (1996) “What I Have Written, I Have Written”, in Laura D. Weeks (Ed.), The Master and Margarita. A Critical Companion, Evanston: Nothwestern University Press, p. 3-73.



Foucault, Michel (1997) „The Subject and Power“, transl. by Robert Hurley, in Paul Rabinow (Ed.), Power, New York: New Press (Essential works of Foucault 1954 -1984, vol. 3), p. 327. [zurück]

Foucault (1997) 328 [zurück]

Ermolaev, Herman (1997) Censorship in Soviet Literature: 1917 – 1991, New York: St. James Press, p. 3. [zurück]

Weeks, Laura D. (1996) “What I Have Written, I Have Written”, in Laura D. Weeks (Ed.), The Master and Margarita. A Critical Companion, Evanston: Nothwestern University Press, p. 11-13. [zurück]

Schauer, Frederick (1998) “The Ontology of Censorship”, in Robert C. Post (Ed.), Censorship and Silencing. Practices of Cultural Regulation, Los Angelos: Getty Research Inst., p. 147. [zurück]

Schauer (1998) 147 [zurück]

Schauer (1998) 147 [zurück]

“Censorship” in the Dictionary of World Literary Terms (1970), ed. by Joseph T. Shipley, Boston, p. 39. [zurück]

“Censorship” in the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), ed. by Simpson and Weiner, Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol. 2, pp. 1029-1030. [zurück]

“Censorship” in the Encyclopædia Britannica (1976), 15 th edition, Chicago u.a.: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., vol. 3, p. 1083. [zurück]

Freshwater, Helen (2004) “Towards a Redefinition of Censorship”, in Beate Müller (Ed.), Censorship and Regulation in the Modern Age, Amsterdam u.a.: Rodopi, pp. 225-245. [zurück]

Freshwater (2004) 225-245 [zurück]

Kristeva defines dialogue as “transgression giving itself a law”, in: Kristeva, Julia (1986) “Word, Dialogue and Novel”, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. by Toril Moi, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 41, 47. [zurück]

Baecker, Dirk (2001) „Why Systems?“, in Theory, Culture and Society, 18.1, p. 59. [zurück]

Pittman, Riitta H. (1991) The Writer’s Divided Self in Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”, New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 92. [zurück]

Baecker (2001) 59-74 [zurück]

Baecker (2001) 68 [zurück]

Freshwater (2004) 225 [zurück]

Ermolaev (1997) xiii [zurück]

Ermolaev (1997) 259 [zurück]

Pittman (1991) 1-28 [zurück]

Pittman (1991) 21 [zurück]

I will only quote from the Bulgakov, Mikhail (2006) edition of The Master and Margarita, London: Pinguine Books - which I will from now on call (MM). [zurück]

Under “subversive discourses” I mean here the discourses ignored by the official soviet culture and therefore banned or treated as not existing, as for example religion, sex, foul language, personal “uncleanness” etc. It is obvious that these discourses violated the Soviet norm and therefore can be regarded as “subversive”, in: Ermolaev (1997), 42-47, 89-95, 131-136, 173-176, 214-217, 252-255. [zurück]

Pittman (1991) 97-103 [zurück]

Pittman (1991) 15 [zurück]

Weeks (1996) 12 [zurück]

Weeks (1996) 14 [zurück]

Pittman (1991) 23 [zurück]

Clark, Katerina and Holquist, Michael (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin, Cambridge u.a.: Harvard University Press, p. 43. [zurück]

Clark and Holquist (1984) 58-59 [zurück]

Clark and Holquist (1984) 60-61 [zurück]

Marietta O. Čudakova, Žizneopisaniye Mikhaila Bulgakova.Pisateli o pisateljakh (,Biography of Mikhail Bulgakov. Writers about writers‘), Moscow 1988, p. 50. [zurück]

Pittman (1991) 143-142 [zurück]

It is known that Bulgakov obtained his historical knowledge from the works of D.F. Strauss The Life of Jesus Critically Examined; A. Drew, The Myth about Christ; F.W. Farrar, The Life of Christ; Renan, Life of Jesus.- Refered to in: Pittman (1991) 149 [zurück]

Deck, Priscilla Conwell (1977) Thematic Coherence in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Ann Arbor/Mich.: Brandeis University (Dissertation), p.158. [zurück]

Brockhaus Enzyklopädie (1992) völlig neu bearb. 19. Aufl., Mannheim: F.A. Brockhaus, vol. 17., 172. [zurück]

Pittman (1991) 152 [zurück]

Pittman (1991) 152 [zurück]

For the whole quotation please see chapter “Jerusalem”. [zurück]

Behemoth is the giant cat, who accompanies Woland and who finds demonic pleasure in challenging people and  putting everything in a blaze with a primus stove. [zurück]

Derrida, Jacques (1978) “Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciencies” in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, ed. and trans. by Alan Bass, London: Routledge, p. 292 [zurück]


Kontakt: Alexandra Kudelina Veröffentlicht am 23.01.2008

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