Chapter 28: The Final Adventure of Koroviev and Behemoth
Satire, of a pure and hilarious quality, pervades these concluding activities of the devil’s accomplices in Moscow. Bulgakov uses The Master and Margarita
to poke fun at communist Russia, perhaps nowhere more pointedly than in this chapter of tales of slapstick derring-do.
The first victim of their attentions is the foreign currency department store. Those familiar with communist economics know that the rouble was not a tradeable currency. Whereas ordinary stalwart Soviet citizens had to queue for hours to get shoddy goods, and often endured shortages of basics, a veritable Aladdin’s cave was available to those with real Western money. Satirising this disparity in the worker’s paradise could earn a quick ticket to the gulag, but in the privilege of his secrecy, Bulgakov can express exactly what everyone thought, hence the great love the Russian people have for this book.
Koroviev and Behemoth manage to sneak their way into the dollar shop, firstly with Behemoth overcoming the ban on cats by turning into a large fat man with tattered cap and vaguely feline looks, then by lying and issuing false slanderous threats. Once inside this non-workers paradise, Koroviev sings the praises of the wonderful stock on display, in a way calculated to stoke the resentment of ordinary Russians about the inequality of communism.
Then, after the catman has eaten several tangerines, and Koroviev’s offer to pay next week is rejected, he seeks to win sympathy by telling a doleful story, ‘ridiculous, tactless and no doubt politically dangerous’, of how unjust the double standard is between Russians and foreigners. In a gradually escalating riot, Behemoth stuffs himself with herring and eventually burns the place down, the two of them allegedly rising to the ceiling and bursting like balloons.
Another aspect of the Soviet penchant for double standards comes out in the next tale, with the pair of rogues descending on the writer’s club that has featured throughout The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov’s theme here is the hypocrisy and incompetence of the political preferment system of communist literature. This well-appointed place provides all sorts of cushy benefits for members who sell their soul to the communist devil, while utterly shunning, despising and rejecting those like Bulgakov who insist on artistic integrity. So he has his dynamic duo start off by speculating that the house may contain a future author of a Don Quixote, a Faust or a Lost Souls.
This last mention of Gogol is a carefully calculated attack. No Gogol could possibly prosper under Stalin, given that Gogol’s effort to demonstrate the flaws and faults of the Russian mentality and character would have immediately drawn adverse political attention. Wikipedia tells us
the "dead souls" of Gogol's characters represent different aspects of poshlost, a Russian noun rendered as "commonplace, vulgarity", moral and spiritual, with overtones of middle-class pretentiousness, fake significance and philistinism. Bulgakov’s point is the whole culture of lies that art should expose has instead co-opted literature to its propaganda goals, descending into the complacent and pretentious fakery that Gogol satirised.
This time the putrid pair of devils try the same tricks to get into the club restaurant. Their complaint that Dostoyevsky did not have a membership card is met by the reply from the door clerk that they are not Dostoyevsky. But salvation arrives from an unlikely quarter. The restaurant manager escorts them to the best table, with a crackle of starch producing a new white tablecloth whiter than a Bedouin’s burnouse. With some foreboding, he has recognised them from the press reports of the Variety Theatre black magic night, and hopes somehow to avoid a repeat of the path of destruction they have wreaked. The reader can guess at his success.