The Master, Margarita, Moscow and Music
August 1st, 2015 became a significant day for local shoegaze fans – it was the first Slowdive show ever in Russia. My shoegaze-addicted friends spent some time and money to leave home for several days and move 500 kilometers from north to see the gig in one of Moscow parks. I’m not a big Slowdive fan, but they were not disappointed neither by gig nor by Moscow walks, one of my favorite kinds of activity. I’ve been living in Moscow for 6 years and prepared a nice tour for my friends, including Spiridonovka street. They asked me here: “Is it THE PLACE where Bezdomny chased Behemoth?”
Yes, it was the place. These names can mean nothing or almost nothing for you, but not for Russian people, because almost all of us have read the masterpiece novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov. He worked on the manuscript during “The Great Terror” era until his death in 1940; after edition by Bulgakov’s widow the novel saw a light only in 60s. There’s no surprise why it spent so much time “on a bookshelf”: strong censorship disallowed any art except “socialist realism” at cruel Stalin times.
“The Master and Margarita” has nothing common of realism: the main figure of the book, mysterious and elegant Professor Woland, visits Moscow “to look at the Muscovites”. Every reader recognizes Woland is the Devil just from the very first pages of the novel, but the characters are satirically blinded by the atheistic propaganda. Existence of Jesus and Devil is denied by communist ideology, but a strange man and his secret lover are Moscow citizens who still believe in supernatural forces. Under pressure of the NKVD spurred by envious untalented belletristic writers, the man has to burn his genius novel about Pontius Pilate and move to mental hospital. Here he denies his real name and becomes just “the master”, while his lover Margarita lives in misery with her unloved husband.
Woland and his extraordinary retinue represent more justice forces than evil ones, regarding epigraph line “Who are you then? I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.” taken from Faust. They ironically punish Soviet people for greediness, alcoholism, bribery, disbelieving, lies, annoying stupid jokes, and other sins. On the other hand, the Satan reunites the master and Margarita, whose prototypes are Bulgakov himself and his third and last wife Yelena. The “autobiographic” slice of the novel is very solid, as in other Bulgakov’s works: most of characters and events have real prototypes, while locations are always connected to the real places, like Spiridonovka street or Patriarchi ponds. As a result, “Bulgakov Tours” are highly popular tourist attractions in Moscow and Kiev now.
The third slice, among “satirical” and “autobiographical”, is the “mysterious”. The novel is filled with symbols, and researches continue to explain them in one way or another, claiming Bulgakov to be christian, freemason, occultist or even satanist. Anyway, the broken pitcher, the Primus stove, Woland’s sword and Pilates white cloak with a blood-red lining are immediately associated to “The Master and Margarita” in my mind. Although music doesn’t play a significant role, there are two pieces that are symbols too. They are “Hallelujah” foxtrot and Strauss waltzes – on the Satan’s Great Ball, dead king of waltzes conducts the orchestra himself.
The impact of “The Master and Margarita” to modern music is even more interesting. The novel was translated to English in 1967 and quickly reached success during 60s culture boom. It is believed that Marianne Faithfull gave the book to Mick Jagger, who was inspired enough to write “Sympathy for the Devil” without Keith Richards. The Rolling Stones hit clearly follows Bulgakov’s Devil concept: he lives among us as “a man of taste and wealth”, but we don’t understand “the nature of his game”. Lyrics “Tell me baby, what’s my name” slightly recalls the book episode where everybody forgets Woland’s name.
The master’s novel composes the second storyline of “The Master and Margarita”. It can be considered as “Gospel of Bulgakov”, picturing Judea procurator Pontius Pilate at the last days of Yeshua Ga-Nosri. This storyline lays behind Pearl Jam’s 1994 song “Pilate”.
One of my favorite book episodes – the flight of Margarita – was converted to song “Love and Destroy” by Franz Ferdinand in 2004. The Scottish guys definitely have mutual love with Russia.
The latest Patti Smith album “Banga” contains tracks inspired by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and film director Andrei Tarkovsky, but Patti claims that the heaviest influence was “The Master and Margarita” – even the album’s name is taken from the novel.
“The Master and Margarita” is full of little puzzles, so let the origin of the word “Banga” be one of them for you. I’ve read the book several times, and each time I solve some puzzles and find new ones. The other thing I enjoy is a big variety of contexts: funny, unserious episodes are immediately turned by deep philosophic dialogues and vice versa. I hope you’ll enjoy this masterpiece book too, as did Mick Jagger and Patti Smith!