The Master and Margarita showed me just how easy it is to mess up a nation

When I first heard of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita it was 1993 and I was living in St Petersburg during my university year abroad. I was teaching English (very badly), barely coping with temperatures of -15C and fighting a losing battle with the Russian language. This book made me realise I was not going to give up. And that I really wanted to be able to talk to the people for whom this book was everything and to try to understand something about their lives.

I now realise I was probably drawn to The Master and Margarita because its title is virtually the same in Russian as it is in English (“Master i Margarita”) and it gave me a boost that finally I could understand a book title without thinking about it. (To give you some idea of what a big deal this was, Crime and Punishment is Prestupleniye i Nakazaniye.) Soon afterwards I discovered the Russian word for picnic was “piknik” and felt as if I had cracked the Enigma code. These are the desperately pathetic but so important little moments in life that make you think: “Maybe I can do this very difficult thing after all.”

I read it in translation, a Harvill Secker paperback with a picture on the cover of the graffitied stairwell of the Moscow block where Bulgakov lived. At this point I was nowhere near able to start a book in Russian, let alone finish one. At the end of the year I could read the language but by then I had come to the conclusion that people who make out that “literature is so much better in the original” are just idiots who want you to know how clever they are to have mastered a language. No matter how fluently you know a language, you will never read a book in the way a native speaker will read it. So it’s pointless to make out that anyone is “missing something” by reading a book in translation.

All this is to say that I had to endure many stunted conversations (remember, I could not really speak Russian at this point) with Russians violently berating me for not reading Master i Margarita in the original. They were glad I was reading the book (it was then and is now the favourite book of most Russians) but highly suspicious of the idea that it could possibly be the same book in bourgeois English.

Just knowing the book at all felt like finding the key to a secret world. In 1993, during the Yeltsin era, things were changing fast. But essentially St Petersburg was much as it had been for the previous 30 years. It was common for people to insist I must be Latvian, as they were so freaked out by the idea of meeting someone from England. I would frequently encounter people who had never met a foreigner before and genuinely did not believe they would meet one in their lifetime. It’s strange to think that many of the people I knew then – who never believed they would own a passport – now live abroad.

Reading Bulgakov’s satire of 1930s Stalinist Moscow helped me to see just how easy it is to mess up a nation psychologically. In the novel the devil and his retinue (which includes a wall-eyed loon and a talking cat) manipulate “the Master”, a writer, and Margarita, his muse. Simultaneously – because the narrative flits between two stories – Pontius Pilate condemns Christ to death in Jerusalem. I read it as a book about how to go on living when your spirit is broken. The controversial and much-analysed conclusion to the novel is about the Master and Margarita being granted “peace” but not “light”.

I also read it as representing the mental state necessary for surviving in the Soviet Union: you can have some kind of inner peace in your internal life but you’re never quite off the hook. More importantly, I was buoyed up by the book’s sense of humour, mixed with the outlandishly fantastical. I figured that if this was a country where this was everyone’s favourite book, then underneath all the suspicion and misunderstandings and the accusations of being a Latvian and the constant demands for information about the Beatles (“Or maybe you prefer King Crimson?”), there must be a properly beating heart. It took a while for me to acquire enough language to get to it, but eventually I did.

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