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VESTNIK, THE JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND ASIAN STUDIES  / "IRRATIONAL" REBELLIONS AGAINST SOCIALIST REALISM
22.05.2006


Gina M. Peirce holds an MA in Russian & East European Studies and Political Science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is currently Assistant Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies Slavic literature through the post-baccalaureate program.
She wrote this paper with guidance from Dr. Lauren McConnell.

 “Irrational” Rebellions Against Socialist Realism:
Czech and Russian Variations on the Legend of Faust
By Gina M. Peirce, 2005

Introduction

During the 20th century, communist parties assumed state power in Russia and a number of Central and East European countries. The communist leadership of these nations imposed socialist realism as official doctrine governing artistic production. The ruling parties’ ideology emphasized human rationality as the means for creating a well-ordered socialist society, which would be free of the injustices of capitalism. The doctrine of socialist realism stated that literature, theatre, and other visual and performing arts would be employed as a tool to shape the consciousness of a new generation in accordance with the rational and enlightened values of socialism, and therefore to create a new type of human being who would be capable of building the envisioned socialist paradise. 

At the First Soviet Writers’ Conference in 1934, the state-sponsored Union of Soviet Writers adopted socialist realism as the official policy of the Soviet Union. A statement issued at the Writers’ Conference decreed socialist realism to be “the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism” and defined it as “truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development,” which “must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.”[1]

The doctrine of socialist realism, which originated in the aesthetic philosophy of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky,[2] was further explicated by several high officials of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the First Soviet Writers’ Conference. A rationalist viewpoint associated with materialist philosophy, and a corresponding rejection of artistic elements and ideas opposed to rationalism, were featured prominently in these explanations. According to one Party official, Karl Radek, “While the literature of dying capitalism invokes the aid of the irrational, of the unconscious and the subconscious, the literature of social realism demands a consciousness of the fate of humanity; it demands tremendous work of the mind.”[3] To this denunciation of the artistic use of unconscious and subconscious processes, the prominent official Nikolai Bukharin added a rejection of irrational superstition and mysticism: “Realism generally and socialist realism in particular, as a method, is the enemy of everything supernatural, mystic, all other-worldly idealism. This is its principle and definite attribute.”[4]

When several Central and East European countries fell under Soviet domination following World War II, socialist realism was imposed in those nations as well. This included Czechoslovakia, where a Stalinist regime under Klement Gottwald seized power in 1948. In 1949, the Czechoslovak Communist Party issued “directives for a new socialist culture” at its Ninth Party Congress, declaring that, “Literary and artistic production is an important agent of the ideological and cultural rebirth in our country, and it is destined to play a great role in the socialist education of the masses.”[5] Until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 (with the exception of the brief interlude of the Prague Spring in the late 1960s), Czech writers and artists had to contend with the limits imposed by the official doctrine of socialist realism.

In the later years of communist power in the 1970s and 1980s, the focus of state censors in Czechoslovakia and the USSR gradually narrowed from broadly ideological criteria to more concrete political concerns. However, governmental censorship of the arts began to be lifted only in the late 1980s after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and introduced policies of liberalization, an example that was followed (if sometimes reluctantly) by governments throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

Yet throughout the entire period of state censorship, a number of talented novelists, playwrights and other artists in both the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia rebelled against the ideological constraints placed on their creative freedom. Such resistance could take both public and private forms, resulting in various types and degrees of risk to the artists who engaged in them. Some writers rebelled by rejecting the socialist realist prescription to elevate rationalism while minimizing or giving a strong negative coloration to portrayals of irrationalism in literary works. Instead, they employed themes of supernatural occurrences, unconscious and irrational human impulses, and skepticism of the ability of rationality and science to solve humanity’s problems. Writers who openly pursued this approach could risk being banned, arrested, or, during certain time periods, meeting even more severe fates. For this reason, some engaged in purely private rebellions, sharing their work on “irrational” themes only with a trusted circle of close associates, while others circulated their works openly despite the potential consequences.

This paper will examine the cases of one Czech and one Russian writer, each a prominent member of his nation’s literary scene, who assigned a central position to irrationalism in their works in violation of socialist realist doctrine. The Czech playwright Václav Havel and the Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov (who also had an early career as a playwright) comprise a particularly intriguing cross-national comparison, because they each wrote a well-known work based upon the centuries-old legend of Faust, a man who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in order to achieve his worldly aims. Despite this shared theme and its obvious incompatibility with socialist realism, significant differences exist in style, tone and emphasis between Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (written in the 1930s) and Havel’s play Temptation (written in 1985). In addition to the unique literary styles and philosophical outlooks of the individual authors, these differences reflect the particular historical and political conditions under which each work was written. Temptation and The Master and Margarita will be discussed in this paper in order to explain how each author conveyed a worldview conflicting with the officially approved, “rational” view of human society.

Václav Havel’s Temptation

In 1963-68, Václav Havel established his reputation on the Czech literary scene by writing three plays portraying a heavily bureaucratized universe that did not operate according to comprehensible, rational rules. These plays, titled The Garden Party, The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, were performed at Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade, where Havel worked as dramaturg. The relatively liberal political atmosphere of the period leading up to the Prague Spring allowed this despite the plays’ deviations from socialist realist dictates and sharp critiques of social conditions under the Czechoslovak Communist Party.

However, Havel was completely banned from publishing in his home country during the “normalization” period following the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the Soviet leadership had concluded that the Czechs and Slovaks were straying too far from communist orthodoxy. Havel, the future president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, endured several prison terms of various lengths for his dissident political activities, and the plays that he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s could be published and performed only abroad. The content of these works was not even formally reviewed by the Czechoslovak state censors due to the unconditional ban on all of Havel’s writings. Havel’s play Temptation (in Czech, Pokoušení), completed in October 1985, was no exception. Although in Czechoslovakia it circulated only in the samizdat (underground) publication Edice Expedice, the play premiered at the Vienna Burgtheater on May 22, 1986, and a Czech-language edition was published in Munich during the same year.[6]

In Temptation, Havel features supernatural themes, including a scientist who secretly practices black magic and a character who is apparently a servant of the devil. In addition, Havel creates a bitingly satirical portrait of the Czechoslovak Communist regime’s attempts to enforce rational, scientific thinking and eliminate irrational and superstitious attitudes among the general population. The events in the play demonstrate the persistence of irrationality in human behavior despite the efforts of the regime, while the unmasking of the “devil” at the play’s conclusion as an all-too-human informer who causes the downfall of the main protagonist suggests a parallel between the communist system, which led its citizens to abandon their ethical standards, and the demonic force that exploited human weaknesses in the legend of Faust.

The play focuses on the employees of a scientific “Institute” that is never given a more descriptive name, nor are its functions specified in more than the vaguest terms. The room of the Institute where much of the play’s action takes place is described as “something between a business office, a doctor’s office, a library, a club room, and a lobby,” with furnishings that “are not an indication of any specific areas of interest or even of any particular personality but correspond, rather, to the indefinite mission of the entire Institute.”[7]

In the first scene, the Director of the Institute expounds on the need to confront “irrational attitudes” resulting from an incorrect understanding of “the systemic complexity of natural phenomena and the historical dynamic of civilizational processes,” which a certain segment of society interprets “either in the spirit of pseudoscientific theory […] or in the spirit of an entire spectrum of mystical prejudices, superstitions, obscure doctrines, and practices disseminated by certain charlatans, psychopaths, and intelligent people.”[8] Later, in the fifth scene, the Director describes the Institute as “a kind of lighthouse of truthful knowledge […] something of a faithful watchdog over the scientific core of science itself.”[9] While the impression is conveyed that the mission of the Institute is to defend the officially approved, rationalist worldview from potential threats, the organization hardly seems equal to this task. Its employees are shown to be consumed by such mundane concerns as competing for one another’s romantic attention, buying oranges, and creating underwater light displays for office parties. Irrationality therefore thrives unimpeded, even among the presumed standard-bearers of scientific rationality.

In order to explore the theme of ethical corruption in such a setting, several of the central characters of Temptation are drawn directly from the legend of Faust, with names that reflect their origin. The main protagonist is named Dr. Foustka, a diminutized Czech version of the protagonist of Goethe’s 19th-century drama. Foustka’s tempter, whom he believes to be an agent of the devil, is named Fistula. This word is a medical term for “an abnormal passage leading from an abscess or hollow organ to the body surface or from one hollow organ to another,”[10] and therefore signifies a disease or defect; it also is phonetically similar to Goethe’s devil, Mephistopheles. The innocent young woman whom Foustka abandons, after winning her love with the power of verbal eloquence that he has gained from meeting Fistula, is named Marketa. She represents Goethe’s Margaret/Gretchen, a character who is seduced and betrayed by Faust.[11] 

Yet Havel’s characters, particularly Fistula and Foustka, are highly satirized versions of their counterparts in Faust. Fistula is described as “a smallish person, almost a dwarf, limping, and giving off a distinctly unsavory impression,”[12] and suffers from a foot fungus with an odor similar to Limburger cheese. As for Foustka, his main preoccupation seems to be maintaining the ability to study black magic without losing his position at the Institute. He accomplishes this by lying both to his colleagues at the Institute (the purported defenders of scientific rationalism) and to Fistula (a supposed master of occult practices), claiming to each side that he is merely gathering information for its benefit by working with the other side. Foustka also makes no attempt to defend Marketa when she is dismissed from the Institute for speaking up on his behalf after he is publicly accused of dabbling in black magic. As the Institute Director points out in the final scene, Foustka is unable to “take a side”[13] and appears to lack any firm convictions. 

The rather banal traits assigned by Havel to both Fistula and Foustka, in contrast to their more imposing counterparts in Goethe’s Faust, may be a reflection of the widely perceived grayness and banality of the normalization period in Czechoslovakia. During this time, opposition to the communist regime rarely resulted in death, as was sometimes the case during the country’s Stalinist period in the 1950s. Instead, threats such as losing the ability to practice one’s profession or to send one’s children to university kept open dissent to a minimum. In an age with few colorful heroes or villains on the political stage, many people were tempted to set aside their ethical concerns in exchange for a more materially comfortable existence. As explained by Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, “Although the devil in Havel’s play is a shabby informer, Faust has become a mediocre corporation scientist, and evil, in Hannah Arendt’s famous words, has become ‘banal’, and, in Havel’s own words, ‘domesticated’, the subtle process of temptation, albeit by less ‘traditional’ means, continues.”[14]

Foustka, however, does seem to experience a flash of genuine understanding about the nature of totalitarian power at the very end of the play, when his downfall has been assured. He declares, “I was an arrogant madman who thought he could exploit the devil without signing away his soul to him! But as everyone knows, one can’t deceive the devil!”[15] He then further clarifies the type of power that he has in mind when referring to the devil (to whom he views Fistula as merely a “subordinate”): “I want to accuse the pride of that intolerant, all-powerful, and self-serving power that uses the sciences merely as a handy weapon for shooting down anything that threatens it, that is, anything that doesn’t derive its authority from this power or that is related to an authority deriving its powers elsewhere.”[16]

The anti-hero Foustka appears to be echoing Havel’s own views on the misuse of scientific rationalism by the communist regime. Havel wrote two essays addressing this theme in 1984, the year prior to Temptation. In “The Politics of Conscience,” he wrote, “Modern rationalism and modern science, though the work of man that, as all human works, developed within our natural world, now systematically leave it behind, deny it, degrade and defame it,”[17] and further urged that, “Modernization must not be simply an arrogant, megalomaniac and brutal invasion by an impersonally objective science.”[18] He even referred to attempts to replace belief in a divine being and respect for the natural world with supposedly objective science as “an expression of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price, as did Don Juan and Faust.”[19] 

The second essay, “Thriller,” addressed the harmful effects of rationalism’s displacement of ancient myths, which had served as a repository of unconscious human impulses:

It is certain that the whole rationalistic bent of the new age, having given up on the authority of myths, has succumbed to a large and dangerous illusion: it believes that no higher and darker powers—which these myths in some ways touched, bore witness to, and whose relative ‘control’ they guaranteed—ever existed, either in the human unconscious or in the mysterious universe. Today, the opinion prevails that everything can be ‘rationally explained’ […] This, of course, is only a grand self-delusion of the modern spirit.[20]

Havel then proposed that, with the suppression of myth as a means of channeling humanity’s darker inclinations, “the demons have been turned loose and go about, grotesquely pretending to be honourable twentieth-century men who do not believe in evil spirits.”[21] This direct challenge to the enforcers of socialist realism found a powerful literary expression in Temptation.

Despite the sharply negative image that Havel creates in this play of the political and ethical environment of Czechoslovakia under normalization, he also uses the voice of the tempter Fistula to refer to the power of the individual to choose a path that is more morally sound. In the first scene in which Fistula appears, he replies to Foustka’s question about what happens next with, “That depends entirely on you.”[22] At the play’s conclusion, Fistula says to Foustka, “You had a number of alternatives, and […] you alone were the master of your fate!”[23] Perhaps most importantly, Fistula states that, “If the devil exists, then above all he exists in our own selves!”[24] In other words, despite their irrational impulses and vulnerability to temptation, human beings are responsible for the choices that they make and the moral consequences of those choices—a theme that appears regularly throughout Havel’s dramatic and expository writings.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

Throughout the 1920s, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a number of novels and plays, some of which were quite successful in the relatively open political and artistic environment of the early years of the Soviet Union. However, as Stalinism took hold and censorship was tightened, Bulgakov’s writings were labeled “anti-Soviet” by literary critics, and he found (as did Havel during the normalization period in Czechoslovakia) that his works could no longer be published or performed. None of his prose was published in the USSR from 1927 until his death, and only one of his plays was briefly produced during this period. Bulgakov began writing his final novel, The Master and Margarita, in 1929. After completing the main text in 1938, he continued to work on revising it until shortly before he died in 1940.[25]

Bulgakov’s choice of themes for The Master and Margarita was extremely radical and risky during the time of Stalinist terror in the USSR: “In the politically polarized Soviet society of the 1920s choosing the wrong theme could be dangerous to your career; in the 1930s, it was dangerous to your life. The very nature of the concept of The Master and Margarita marks Bulgakov as a risk-taker of the first order.”[26] The Master and Margarita is suffused with mysticism, supernatural beings and events, religious themes, and satire of the irrationalities of Soviet life. By the standards of socialist realism, therefore, the novel was unacceptable; Bulgakov wrote what is now viewed as his greatest work with virtually no expectation of publication during his lifetime. He kept the manuscript hidden, sharing it only with his wife and close friends. A censored version of The Master and Margarita finally was published in a Moscow journal in 1966. The full text was not permitted to appear until even later, when restrictions on the arts in the Soviet Union had become less severe.[27]

The Master and Margarita is composed of two parallel, yet interrelated narratives. One tells the story of the arrival of the devil and his retinue in 1930s Moscow and the effects that their actions exert on the lives of local citizens, including two atheists (the editor Mikhail Berlioz and his protégé Ivan Bezdomny), as well as a persecuted writer known only as the Master and his true love, Margarita. The second narrative takes place in Jerusalem (to which Bulgakov refers by the Aramaic name, Yershalaim) at the time of Christ. Bulgakov describes the encounter of Jesus, to whom he refers as Yeshua, with the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, then gives an account of Yeshua’s execution and the reactions of Pilate to this event. The Yershalaim narrative is presented as a novel written by the Master, which has resulted in his being denounced by the Soviet literary critics, arrested and sent to an internment camp, and then driven to retreat into the confines of a psychiatric hospital. The devil, Woland, liberates the Master and reunites him with Margarita, after Margarita has been transformed into a witch and served as the queen of Satan’s ball in order to save the Master. Woland also finally brings about Pilate’s liberation from the centuries of guilt that he has suffered for his decision not to save Yeshua from execution.

Like Havel’s Temptation, The Master and Margarita is full of references to the legend of Faust. The novel opens with an epigraph from Goethe’s Faust, and in this way “immediately draws attention to itself as a self-consciously ‘Faustian’ novel.”[28] The name Woland is very similar to Goethe’s “Valand,” which he used as a name for the devil.[29] The carved head of a poodle on Woland’s cane recalls that Goethe’s devil, Mephistopheles, appeared in the shape of a poodle.[30] The scenes in The Master and Margarita of the witches’ sabbath and Satan’s ball (a version of which also appears in Temptation, with its final scene of a costume party with a “witches’ sabbath” theme) parallel the Walpurgis Night scene in Goethe’s drama.[31]

In addition to Goethe’s version of the Faust legend, The Master and Margarita refers to elements of the composer Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” and “The Damnation of Faust,” giving further significance to the name of Mikhail Berlioz.[32] Margarita’s name, like Marketa’s in Temptation, also appears to be taken from the Faustian character of Margaret.

Nevertheless, as with Havel’s Temptation, The Master and Margarita includes a number of significant differences from the Faust story, particularly in the characterization of the central figures of the novel. For example, while Woland wreaks havoc on the lives of many Muscovites whose actions are driven by greed and by the desire for power over others, his arrival has a very different effect on the title characters of the novel, as previously noted. “Woland seems to serve a purpose quite different to that of Mephisto [Mephistopheles]: not only does he evidently wish the hero and heroine no harm, he even works positively to ensure their salvation.”[33] Woland seeks “to awaken the Master from the state of ‘unconditional repose’ into which he has fallen after the destruction of his manuscript”[34] and to convince him not to forsake his art in the face of adversity. He presents Margarita with the opportunity to save the Master through a series of self-sacrificing acts, so that “through his [Woland’s] agency, Margarita, like [Goethe’s] Gretchen before her, has come to embody the redemptive power of love, while the Master has at last achieved the commitment to striving which is synonymous with the Faustian principle.”[35]

The Master and Margarita’s commonalities with Goethe’s Faust and Margaret/Gretchen, however, are also limited. It is difficult to perceive the bold and strong-willed Margarita as a victim on the model of the seduced and betrayed Gretchen. As for the novel’s hero:

The Master, like Faust before him, has given up a conventional occupation and academic learning in order to pursue his personal quest. In this gesture against their respective worlds, both characters obey a similar romantic urge to transcend the limitations imposed on them by their environment. Yet […] the Master’s urge to write his novel is only a pale reflection of Faust’s desire for experience and knowledge […] In destroying his work and escaping to the asylum, he has succumbed in precisely the way that Faust never did.[36] 

The Master also does not enter into any deal with Woland that would compromise ethical principles, nor does Woland attempt to convince him to do so, as occurs with Foustka and Fistula in Temptation and with Faust and Mephistopheles in Faust. Given the very imprecise parallel between the Master and Faust, some critics have attempted to draw connections between Faust and other characters in The Master and Margarita, suggesting, for example, that “the Bulgakovian Pilate becomes a Roman Faust.”[37] 

However, there may be another explanation that relates to the time and place in which The Master and Margarita was written:

The contrast between the tragic grandeur of Faust’s struggles with Mephistopheles and the altogether less grand or tragic confrontation between Woland and the Master induces a profound sense of sorrow for a world in which the Faustian element in man has been reduced to such an abject state that the devil’s role is to fan the spark before it is extinguished forever. In this view, the Goethean element signals a radical gesture against a modern age in which the human will and its creative potential have become submerged almost beyond retrieval.[38]

This recontextualization of the Faust legend by Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita contrasts with that of Havel in Temptation by portraying a desperate struggle not only for preservation of the individual spirit, but also for physical survival in the highly dangerous world of Stalinism, where a person could disappear forever at any moment on the whim of state authorities. Bulgakov shows humanity to be unable to withstand such severe pressures without supernatural intervention. Havel, on the other hand, portrays the atmosphere of Czechoslovakia during the normalization period, when the danger of physical annihilation of individuals by state power had largely ceased and yet the spirit of creativity was also threatened. Fistula, the “devil” in Temptation, has relinquished the role assumed by Mephistopheles and Woland of spurring humanity to creative striving, and instead encourages the pursuit of “black magic” that ultimately proves powerless to lift its practitioner, Foustka, above the banality of his surroundings. Bulgakov’s version of the Faust story, therefore, is ultimately less pessimistic than Havel’s despite the more drastic nature of political repression in the Stalinist era. Correspondingly, the granting of eternal peace to the title characters at the conclusion of The Master and Margarita reflects the final salvation of Goethe’s Faust and Gretchen more closely than do the unfortunate fates of Foustka and Marketa at the end of Temptation.

Like Havel, however, Bulgakov draws a highly critical portrait in The Master and Margarita of the officially approved, scientific rationalist worldview that rejects the possibility of any religious or mystical phenomena. This is most clearly shown through Bulgakov’s portrayal of the atheists, Berlioz and Bezdomny, who are the first people in Moscow to encounter Woland. Woland’s arrival interrupts a conversation in which Berlioz is proclaiming, while using a number of examples from ancient cultures to show off his erudition, that “a whole host of sons of God were [said to be] born even before Jesus […] But, in short, none of them, including Jesus were ever born or existed.”[39] Woland insists that Jesus indeed existed and that the devil exists as well, an assertion that is strongly denied by the two atheists. Their failure to comprehend the true identity of the “foreigner” with whom they are speaking results in Berlioz’s death under the wheels of a streetcar, which was predicted by Woland as proof of the devil’s—and, therefore, also of God’s—existence. Bezdomny’s attempts to apprehend Woland, whom he now views as Berlioz’s murderer, result in his confinement in a psychiatric hospital, where he meets the Master and at least temporarily is able to acknowledge the reality of mystical forces. [40] 

The fatal error of Berlioz and Bezdomny may be summarized as follows:

Bulgakov’s pseudo-intellectuals ignore the pitfalls of moral perplexity. They emulate the 1930s example of the Soviet superhero, whose progress towards a ‘higher’ social awareness did not allow for digression from the clearly marked ideological path. Since Bulgakov’s writing is in no way guided by the Socialist Realist literary norms, but frequently conceived to parody them, his heroes inevitably lose their way. In The Master and Margarita they are led, or misled (depending on the point of view), by the devil well beyond the legitimate boundaries of ‘socialist reality’ towards the acknowledgment of the power and actuality of the irrational.[41]

Characters who are able to accept the existence of “irrational” power, such as Margarita, meet more positive fates in the novel. The Master and Margarita may be viewed as “a polemic with the dominant force of his [Bulgakov’s] time, the belief in enlightened rationalism which in his country ended in a totalitarian structure.”[42]

Bulgakov uses the disruptive actions of Woland and his retinue to expose the absurdities of state socialism and the base motives of individuals who use the system to gain material privileges for themselves at the expense of others, such as hack writers who echo the official ideology, housing committee chairmen who accept bribes, etc. “Once again it has been the devil’s task to act as an agent for the unveiling of everyday Soviet reality.”[43] To consider this theme in another way, supernatural events such as the deaths and disappearances of certain Moscow citizens that are caused by Woland are hardly any more bizarre than the Stalinist terror: “The fantastic reality of life is not far removed from the fantastic unreality of the supernatural.”[44]

Yet the complex beauty of The Master and Margarita suggests that Bulgakov’s wish to expose and satirize the rampant absurdities in his society (even if only to his own circle of acquaintances) was combined with his desire to produce a novel of almost poetic lyricism alternating with wild humor, which would lead the reader to experience laughter, sadness, wonder, and reflection on philosophical questions, all within a single unified work. “The fantastic nature of The Master and Margarita itself is Bulgakov’s answer to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities.”[45]

Conclusion

Several differences are apparent between Václav Havel’s and Mikhail Bulgakov’s variations on the legend of Faust. Supernatural occurrences are a very real part of life in The Master and Margarita, while in Temptation it appears that Foustka and Fistula are merely ordinary humans playing with the idea of black magic. The “devilish” figure in Temptation indeed contributes to leading the “Faustian” protagonist onto a path of moral error, even if in the context of a deeply corrupt society; in The Master and Margarita, however, evils are committed by people who have given in to the pernicious influence of their societies—communist Moscow and Yershalaim under imperial rule—and it is Woland’s role to put those evils right. It may be convincingly argued that Woland does not function as an agent of justice consistently throughout the novel, but delivers apparently capricious and excessive punishments to certain characters such as the bookkeeper and buffet manager of the Variety Theater, whose offenses seem to be limited chiefly to their association with that establishment; while some individuals who clearly deserve severe punishment, such as the informer Aloisy Mogarych, do not suffer permanent harm from Woland’s actions. Nevertheless, Woland is responsible for liberating the two title characters of the novel from extreme suffering and empowering them to achieve their human or “Faustian” potential.

Bulgakov successfully attempts to evoke sympathy on the part of the reader for characters such as the Master, Margarita, Yeshua, and even (at times) Pilate and Bezdomny; Havel does not create any sympathetic characters in Temptation, with the possible exception of the victimized Marketa, but rather appears to view his characters primarily as objects of satire. Finally, Havel offers no apparent hope for his characters, living under the dispiriting conditions of normalization in Czechoslovakia, to recover the lost “Faustian” spark of individual creative striving, while Bulgakov offers supernatural assistance for his protagonist to reclaim this human impulse that has been nearly eradicated by Stalinist repression.

Yet despite these differences, it is clear that both Temptation and The Master and Margarita were artistic rebellions against the restrictions imposed on literature by socialist realism, as well as compelling challenges to the official ideology of the former Soviet Union and its East European satellites, which credited human rationality with the ability to create utopian societies. Both Havel’s and Bulgakov’s works exposed the lingering irrationality of states that were governed by “scientific” socialist regimes, yet still populated by human beings who had retained their darker unconscious impulses and their capacity for moral weakness. Both demonstrated the failure of scientific rationalism to eliminate human greed, fear, and desire for power, and its simultaneous inability to fully extinguish the creative spirit of art.


[1] “Socialist Realism.” Dictionary on Labor Law Talk. 13 Mar. 2005 http://encyclopedia.laborlawtalk.com/Socialist_realism.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers’ Conference.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Ed. Bernard F. Dukore. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 1974.  p. 965.

[4] Ibid, 967.

[5] “Society of Communist Czechoslovakia.” Dictionary on Labor Law Talk. 13 Mar. 2005 http://encyclopedia.laborlawtalk.com/Society_of_Communist_Czechoslovakia

[6]  Vladislav, Jan, ed. Václav Havel: Living in Truth. London: Faber and Faber, 1986. p. 312.

[7] Havel, Václav. Temptation. Trans. Marie Winn. New York: Grove Press, 1989. p. 5.  A 1991 production of Temptation directed by Jan Grossman, Havel’s former director from the Theatre on the Balustrade, gave the Institute an even more generic appearance by placing only several wooden chairs and a coat rack on the stage against a solid black backdrop. 

[8] Ibid, 13.

[9] Ibid, 49.

[10] “Fistula.” Merriam-Webster Online. 11 Aug. 2005 http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=fistula&x=26&y=10.

[11] The character of a young woman similarly seduced by the central protagonist appeared in Havel’s 1984 play Largo Desolato with the strikingly non-Czech name of Marguerite; in this case her name was not even converted to a Czech equivalent, as in Temptation. Marguerite, the French equivalent of Margaret, was the name given to the betrayed female protagonist of Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera Faust, which was based on Goethe’s drama.

[12] Havel, Temptation, 16.

[13] Ibid, 99.

[14] Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. “Variations of Temptation—Václav Havel’s Politics of Language.” Critical Essays on Václav Havel. Ed. Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz and Phyllis Carey. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999. p. 236.

[15] Havel, Temptation, 100.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Havel, “Politics,” 139.

[18] Ibid, 140.

[19] Ibid, 138.

[20] Havel, “Thriller,” 159.

[21] Ibid, 162.

[22] Havel, Temptation, 27.

[23] Ibid, 99.

[24] Ibid, 59.

[25] Proffer, Ellendea. Commentary and Biographical Note. The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov 371-72.

[26] Proffer, Ellendea. “Bulgakov the Magician.” Afterword. The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov 368.

[27] Various theatrical adaptations of Bulgakov’s novel also have been produced since that time. A particularly well-known production, directed by Yuri Lyubimov, premiered at the Taganka Theater in Moscow on April 6, 1977 and continues to be performed there today (Karmanov).

[28] Barratt, Andrew. Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to The Master and Margarita. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. p. 269.

[29] Proffer, Commentary, 340.

[30] Hunns, Derek J. Bulgakov’s Apocalyptic Critique of Literature. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.  p. 256.

[31] Proffer, Commentary, 351-53. 

[32] Proffer, Commentary, 339.

[33] Barratt, 272.

[34] Ibid, 273.

[35] Ibid, 288.

[36] Ibid, 274.

[37] Hunns, 254.

[38] Barratt, 301-02.

[39] Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. New York: Vintage International, 1995. p. 6.

[40] Interestingly, confinement in a mental hospital is also Marketa’s fate in Temptation. The recurrence of this theme in literary works reflected the reality of frequent use of psychiatric imprisonment in the Soviet Union and its Central and East European allies to remove from public view those individuals who would not conform to the official version of reality. See, for example, the section on “Psychiatric Abuse in the Soviet Union” on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website (“Resource Information Center”).

[41] Pittman, Riitta H. The Writer’s Divided Self in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. p. 65.

[42] Proffer, Afterword, 366.

[43] Pittman, 79.

[44] Edwards, T. R. N. Three Russian Writers and the Irrational. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. p. 148.

[45] Proffer, Afterword, 369.

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