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Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers 
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Post Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
Opens with a discussion in a Moscow café between the editor of a Stalinist magazine and a young poet who has written a poem on Jesus Christ. The editor’s main complaint is that the article, although otherwise ‘sound’ in communist terms, fails to explain that Jesus was fictional.

Opening a novel about Soviet Russia with such a startling topic illustrates how debate about Christian doctrine and origins has wide political and historical impact, and is indeed central to questions of social identity. The world communist movement before WW2 supported the Christ Myth theory in its propaganda, but this has largely been forgotten.

In my reading of modern Christ Myth literature, I have not encountered any discussion of this high level political support from the USSR. Perhaps this is because the topic of atheist critiques of Christianity lends itself to concealed political agendas and emotive assumptions, and the enthusiastic backing of monsters like Lenin and Stalin is somehow seen as unwelcome and best suppressed. It also shows that the sociology of Christianity is a wide and complex topic, and that large areas of history can easily be overlooked, especially when these are politically inconvenient.

There is a constant tone of bullying menace in the discussion, for example when the poet suggests that Immanuel Kant deserved three years in jail for his proof of the existence of God. Bulgakov aims to convey the intolerant mood of ideological violence that is intrinsic to totalitarian thinking.

The translator notes that Bulgakov in his very first sentence places the discussion in Patriarch’s Square, using the old Tsarist name which had been abolished by the Bolsheviks. Such seemingly innocuous titles send a clear and deliberate signal to the reader, that Bulgakov sympathises with the old regime and is a critic and satirist towards communism, resistant to the totalitarian impulse to rewrite history to obliterate its objects of hate. In Stalin’s day that alone would have been enough for the author to get ten years in the gulag as an enemy of the people.

A tall stranger appears, urbane and courteous, but with eyes of different colours and an interest in black magic. He proceeds to take over the conversation by offering to tell the real story of the life of Jesus.


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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
I am feeling mildly dilemminous about discussing this magnificent book. You see, the back cover of my copy opens with a complete spoiler, saying “one spring afternoon, the Devil, trailing fire and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into Moscow.”

So naturally, having read this and several other reviews which attested to his Satanic Majesties’ identity, I expected Beelzebub with horns, forked tail, cloven feet, red skin, a petite Clarke Gable set of manicured moustaches, twinkling mesmerizing bewitching eyes and other standard luciferous accoutrements.

So imagine my surprise when this first chapter introduces such an urbane sophisticated gentleman, fully concealing his real identity! Admittedly there are clues, such as one eye having a pitch black iris and the other being of the brightest shining iridescent green. And then there is the matter of his bloodcurdling prophecy about the Stalinist literary man Berlioz, his possession of a gold and diamond cigarette case, his professed interest in black magic, and his claim, as attested by Mick Jagger in Sympathy for the Devil that he was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain.

It really is little wonder, after several erudite scholastic pages of patient atheistic explanation of the Christ Myth Theory, that the advocate for this monstrous heresy, Mr Berlioz, should find himself the object of the devil’s attention. Surely the father of lies must object to such revelations.

The first clear sense that this stranger is the devil incarnate comes when he informs his conversationalists that the philosopher Kant could not be in the gulag because, in a piece of information conveyed with flashing eyes, Kant is in hell, due to his blasphemous atheistic logic, and, what is more, that hell is even worse than Stalin’s camps. If not the devil, who else would know that?

Then, rushing in with incredible naivety where angels fear to tread, displaying the most foolish cavalier disregard for his personal safety, and of course in profound ignorance of precisely with whom he was interlocuting, the director Berlioz asks Satan how he will die. The devil obliges by whizzing up a horoscope and telling Berlioz he will be decapitated, after slipping on spilt sunflower oil.


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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
Robert Tulip wrote:
There is a constant tone of bullying menace in the discussion, for example when the poet suggests that Immanuel Kant deserved three years in jail for his proof of the existence of God. Bulgakov aims to convey the intolerant mood of ideological violence that is intrinsic to totalitarian thinking.
I think the tone is a matter of genius. Bulgakov is masterful at going far enough to make a satirical point without going so far as to lose his credibility by appearing to be merely an opponent.

I am quite enjoying the book through 2 chapters. I had forgotten the peculiar flavor that I enjoyed dabbling in Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. Somehow Russian literature always reminds me that chess is the national sport - this is no Jane Austen critique of personality but a slow savoring of contrasting worldviews and the character they give rise to.

Robert Tulip wrote:
A tall stranger appears, urbane and courteous, but with eyes of different colours and an interest in black magic. He proceeds to take over the conversation by offering to tell the real story of the life of Jesus.
The observation that the stranger appears differently to different people is going to be important, I suspect. "What's troubling you is the nature of my game."



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Tue Aug 22, 2017 12:32 pm
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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
I don't expect anyone to respond since the group is well past where I am entering, but I wanted to make posts more for myself, and then if anyone wanted to discuss a bit, awesome.

There are a few interesting choices Bulgakov makes to describe the "foreigner." Of course, we understand now he is the devil, but the portrayal gives some nice treats to the reader. A number of things strengthen the readers' feeling of eeriness as well as convincing us this is no ordinary person:
The poodle cane is perhaps an extremely strong reference to the character of Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, wherein a black poodle turned into Mephistopheles in the story. However, the symbolism runs deeper. Dog, man's best friend, tried and true companion for qualities we very widely regard as honourable, is now twisted and perverted into a symbol associated with the devil. As a cane, the idea of the dog as a literal tool of Satan is palpable. Poodles were bred for their attractive qualities, but also their intelligence, two things portrayals of the devil often contain: his elegance, and his intelligence. However, the cane being black, of course taints the positive qualities of a dog into elements serving only evil: loyalty, intelligence, companionship.

The foreigner’s heterochromia is also interesting. Classically, the devil is said to embrace duality in his nature, God, unity. Here we see this re-emphasised with the eyes. Classically thought of the windows to the soul, they’re also regarded as the door of knowledge, both permissible and forbidden, into the consciousness. In this instance, we see both black and green, colours symbolic of the unknown and evil, and life, respectively.

Finally, his depiction as a near magician; a polyglot able to produce seemingly anything brought up in conversation from his pockets, reinforces elements associated with the devil. He is at once completely exposed, and yet clandestine. He seems straightforward in his conversation and presentation, yet speaks in an almost sidelong manner. He finishes the chapter, inviting the two to hear the true tale of the nature of Jesus Christ, very much reminiscent of how he invites Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.



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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
Harry Marks wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
A tall stranger appears, urbane and courteous, but with eyes of different colours and an interest in black magic. He proceeds to take over the conversation by offering to tell the real story of the life of Jesus.
The observation that the stranger appears differently to different people is going to be important, I suspect. "What's troubling you is the nature of my game."



I found the whole stranger aspect of the chapter interesting. The characters betray a general feeling of xenophobia. They both spend most of the first half of the conversation with the stranger trying to figure out from what country he hails. They move on to concluding he must be a foreign spy, and then finally relent when he produces papers. Additionally, I found the building, smouldering anger of Bezdomny about how good the stranger's Russian is to be interesting. Are they put off by how easily he speaks fluent Russian? Does it bother them because it gives no clue as to his origins? Is it a matter of national linguistic pride that it shouldn't be so easy to learn? I don't know that it's at all important to the whole of the story, but the reaction was fairly strong for something that seems relatively innocuous to me.



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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
capricorn152244 wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
The observation that the stranger appears differently to different people is going to be important, I suspect. "What's troubling you is the nature of my game."
I found the whole stranger aspect of the chapter interesting. The characters betray a general feeling of xenophobia. They both spend most of the first half of the conversation with the stranger trying to figure out from what country he hails. They move on to concluding he must be a foreign spy, and then finally relent when he produces papers.
Greetings, Capricorn, and welcome to BookTalk. Very interesting comments - I hope you enjoy the book as much as I have (or even as much as Robert!).

I would like to draw out for you two observations based on having read the entire first half of the book now. First, it seems to me a strong characteristic of Bulgakov's writing, at least in this piece of magical realism, that he is at his best when showing the reactions of the observers, rather than in relating a story about the main characters.

No doubt this is due to all the indirection necessary when looking at tyrants who are still in power. But it makes your observation about xenophobia stand out. Bulgakov is an interested observer of the Russians, and the Russians do seem to have a certain automatic in-groupness. Tolstoy observed it in a famous passage about the basis for confidence of the various generals allied against Napoleon. Each had a basis that was peculiar to their culture, (e.g. the German's was based on his theory), and the Russian's was confidence based on being Russian.

It is also probably a sly observation by Bulgakov about Lenin having been sent by the Germans. He was, in a sense, a foreign agent (of Marx as much as of the German Foreign Ministry), but the Russians accepted him with his roots in their struggle against the oppression by the nobility.

Which raises the question of the papers, which you note are decisive in putting off the aversion of the two Russians. Over and over in the book, Woland, (the devil), or his henchmen are able to manipulate the legalities at will. Many modern people distrust the legal fictions we all depend on, such as money and rights, and Bulgakov decisively endorses that distrust. The Soviets obsessed on papers and certifications and registrations, what with using bureaucracy to allocate resources, and Bulgakov is not shy about observing how this can be manipulated.



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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
Harry Marks wrote:
It is also probably a sly observation by Bulgakov about Lenin having been sent by the Germans. He was, in a sense, a foreign agent (of Marx as much as of the German Foreign Ministry), but the Russians accepted him with his roots in their struggle against the oppression by the nobility.


Thank you for the warm welcome, Harry :)

I always found Russia's relationship with Marx interesting. As you point out, the Red Russians embraced his ideals through Lenin as an almost Christ-like figure. And as you point out, after the oppression they suffered at the hands of the aristocracy and the Russian royal family, its hardly surprising. However, ironically, in just a few short years after this work was composed, the Germans become demonized, with religious fervor due to the rise of fascism in their country and its close allies. So less than 30 years after the Revolution, neither Marx nor Lenin would likely have ever been able to gain a foothold in Russia philosophically, due mostly to Marx's country of origin.

Harry Marks wrote:
Which raises the question of the papers, which you note are decisive in putting off the aversion of the two Russians. Over and over in the book, Woland, (the devil), or his henchmen are able to manipulate the legalities at will. Many modern people distrust the legal fictions we all depend on, such as money and rights, and Bulgakov decisively endorses that distrust. The Soviets obsessed on papers and certifications and registrations, what with using bureaucracy to allocate resources, and Bulgakov is not shy about observing how this can be manipulated.


It seems like "papers" are the hallmark of a totalitarian regime. What WWII movie doesn't have some arrogant Nazi officer asking to see someone's papers? You make an interesting point about the manipulation of the government with them. Papers, and the kinds of administrative tools totalitarian regimes use are a dual edged sword for them; at once, it's a tangible manifestation of a leviathan state permeating its way into every corner of the citizenry's lives, but it's also like a multi-tentacled animal that has no idea what each arm is doing, and which has become so complicated as to make granular control impossible. Orwell drew a similar parallel to those seeking to exploit the system in Animal Farm with the character of the Cat. Albeit a minor character, she seems to represent the portion of society who is wholly self interested, and therefore willing to manipulate the system to her own ends.



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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
capricorn152244 wrote:
I always found Russia's relationship with Marx interesting. As you point out, the Red Russians embraced his ideals through Lenin as an almost Christ-like figure.
Solzhenitsyn, in Lenin in Zurich, explores the theme of how the Germans sought to weaponize Lenin as an instrument of war by sending him from Switzerland to the Finland Station in Petrograd across the frontline at the height of the First World War.

They imagined he would work like some form of chlorine gas, assisting the German war effort. In some sense that worked with the Peace, Bread and Land slogan delivering the capitulation by Russia to Germany in Lenin’s Treaty of Brest Litovsk a hundred years ago, on 3 March 1918. But the subsequent events under Stalin showed what a disastrous and botulistic miscalculation that move was for both Germany and Russia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Brest-Litovsk says “The Petrograd Soviet started to form its own paramilitary power, the Red Guards, in March 1917. The continuing war led the German Government to agree to a suggestion that they should favor the opposition Communist Party (Bolsheviks), who were proponents of Russia's withdrawal from the war. Therefore, in April 1917, Germany transported Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and thirty-one supporters in a sealed train from exile in Switzerland to Finland.[7] Upon his arrival in Petrograd, Lenin proclaimed his April Theses, which included a call for turning all political power over to workers' and soldiers' soviets (councils) and an immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war.”

So your suggestion makes sense that Woland, as a mysterious German professor wreaking havoc in Moscow, is designed by Bulgakov as a deliberate satire on Lenin and his arrival in Russia in 1917.

Australia’s most famous historian, Manning Clark, was a notorious communist who once said Lenin was “Christ-like in his compassion”. The ability of communists to get away with such propaganda lies is truly astonishing, and the recrudescence of this failed ideology today even more remarkable after the communist death toll of around one hundred million people in the last century.


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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
I had time to read Ch 1 today. Enjoyed it. Lots of footnotes, which I had to make use of. I'm not well versed on Russian literature, the period history of the book, the layout of Moscow and so on. I know I'll like the book and will learn from it, but the nuances will be lost on me.

Normally I don't read translations because there's so much good writing in English. I read for style and flow of words as much as for substance, and verbal flow gets choppy when it jumps languages. And humor doesn't usually translate well. Physical description and action, slaptstick and such, that translates, but not verbal humor. Not when it comes to a play on a name, for example. But then there's the locals in this book viewing the Devil as a German...that made me chuckle.

Yeah, I'll like The Master and Margarita. Won't be able to add much if anything to this conversation, but I'll jump in where I can.

Thanks for recommending the book, Robert.


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Post Re: Master and Margarita Chapter One - Never Talk With Strangers
KindaSkolarly wrote:
I had time to read Ch 1 today. Enjoyed it. Lots of footnotes, which I had to make use of. I'm not well versed on Russian literature, the period history of the book, the layout of Moscow and so on. I know I'll like the book and will learn from it, but the nuances will be lost on me.
Thanks for joining the discussion! An excellent link I mentioned earlier, http://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/01b ... iding.html states “Today Bulgakov is seen as one of the best Russian writers ever, and The Master and Margarita is still the most popular novel in Russia. In a survey in September 2009, the ranking of the best books was headed by The Master and Margarita. It was mentioned by 16% of those interrogated, way before the others. “

The reason why this book is so popular is its satire of communism. For someone like you, with an interest in right wing politics, it is very helpful to understand the context of communism as it is now perceived in Russia, where bitter experience has delivered the most familiarity. If people want to avoid a catastrophic repeat of the Satan/Lenin experience as satirized by Bulgakov, understanding this book is helpful.

There is no need to worry about Russian literature or the layout of Moscow, but seeing how this book satirizes Lenin and Stalin is important.


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