5 reasons to READ ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

Russia Beyond (Photo: Goskino; Public Domain; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2016)
This iconic novel is one of the favorite books of all Russians, though was banned for many years in the Soviet Union.

1. It’s a novel about Satan and God

German actor August Diehl as Woland in the 2024 movie

‘The Master and Margarita’ is actually a novel inside a novel. So, in essence, it has two parallel plots: the first one features how Satan visits 1930s Stalinist Moscow. He introduces himself as Professor Woland, a foreign specialist in dark magic. One by one, he meets different Soviet writers, officials and activists and even becomes surprised with some of their mindsets. Satan’s entourage consists of a witch, a large talking cat and two other demons who use evil powers to punish or prank people.

Russian actor Sergei Bezrukov as Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus) in the 2005 series

Another plot is actually a manuscript of novel written by the main character, the Master. Absolutely inappropriate for the early Soviet times, he’s writing a piece about Jesus (which he nicknames ‘Yeshua Ha-Notsri’), Pontius Pilate’s trial of him and his last days of life, including the crucifixion.

2. It was written by one of the most talented Russian writers of the 20th century and has many autobiographical details

Mikhail Bulgakov and his third wife Yelena, 1935

Just like the novel about Yeshua and Pilate was a life work of the Master, the novel about Master and Margarita was the life work of Mikhail Bulgakov. (Read more about him here). The writer worked on it from 1928 and until his death in 1940 without ever seeing it published.

The novel has many autobiographical details - problems that the Master had with the novel, Bulgakov had with his books, as well as struggling with Soviet censorship. Just like Margarita, Bulgakov’s beloved woman Yelena was married to a respectful man, but also left him for the poor writer, sacrificing everything and dedicating her whole life to him (and then to his legacy).

The Master and Margarita in the 2005 series

Bulgakov researchers believe that Yelena was a secret NKVD (KGB's predecessor) informant and that maybe Bulgakov knew about it and justified her in the novel. As though she had signed a contract with “evil forces” to save him from prison.

3. It was banned for many years, but made a splash once published

Woland talking to Soviet writers in the 1994 screening

There were few chances that the novel could be published in the USSR, because of its supernatural material, Bible allusions, God and Devil issues and obvious criticism of the Soviet society.

The first very abridged and censored version saw the light only in 1967, more than 25 years after the author’s death. The full version, however, was published abroad and was also spread illegally among Soviets via ‘samizdat’, aka self-published copies.

In 1973, a separate, full version was finally allowed to be published in the USSR - and made quite the splash.

4. It’s one of the favorite novels of all Russians

Yevgeny Tsyganov as the Master and Yulia Snigir as Margarita in the 2024 film

From the time it was first openly published and right until today, polls show, that ‘The Master and Margarita’ is usually among Russians’ most favorite books.

Actually, it has all the features to be one: It has an exciting, intriguing plot, it’s incredibly humorous and has many funny expressions that have become idioms and aphorisms.

Nikolai Burlyaev as Yeshua Ga-Notsri and Mikhail Ulyanov as Pontius Pilate in Yury Kara's film, 1994

Finally, Bulgakov pokes fun at the Soviet realities and depicts them with a metaphorical language; but readers still understand it and read between the lines.

5. It’s impossible to fully adapt to the screen or the stage, so can only be read to be fully appreciated

The Ball at Satan's scene

Not a single theater or screen adaptation so far has been considered successful enough. Hardly any special effects or computer graphics could cope with bringing to life a naked witch flying over Moscow or a large talking cat from Satan’s entourage walking around the city and getting up to mischief.

The latest screen adaptation of ‘The Master and Margarita’ directed by Mikhail Lokshin premiered in January 2024. It prompted another wave of discussions about the pros and cons of the movie and if it really ever was possible to adapt it to the big screen.

Begemoth the Cat in the 2005 series

Moreover, the the novel gained a reputation of a cursed piece, because every time people start working on an adaptation based on it, random mishaps and accidents would keep happening. Some actors got seriously ill and several even died soon after, while other administrative problems constantly kept plaguing different productions.

So, you best read the novel and imagine everything written in it with your own imagination (and wait until AI is talented enough to create a good adaptation!).   

If we still haven’t convinced you to read it, then check out our short summary of the novel here!

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