Bulgakov died in 1940, and would have been more familiar with Felix Dzerzhinsky, leader of Lenin’s secret police the Cheka until 1926, when Lubyanka Square in central Moscow was renamed in his honour, a recognition that lasted until 1990, with pride of place given to the 'Iron Felix' statue built in the 1950s. Beria headed the secret police from 1938 until 1945, when he was promoted into the politburo. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lubyanka_Square
The autocratic theme of plausible deniability is central to state legitimacy, to assert rule by consent while denying the reality of rule by control. The reality of control is masked by ruthless suppression of any emerging challenges to consent, teaching the public that interest in politics is dangerous.
Judas Iscariot was a model for revolutionaries, rejecting the peaceful otherworldly spirituality of Jesus Christ in favour of political rebellion against Rome. His name is said to refer to the sicai, the dagger of the Sicarii rebels. Bulgakov’s presentation of the murder of Judas by Roman cloak and dagger operation reflects how Josephus described the operations of the Sicarii assassins.
So Pilate is in an ambiguous position, wishing to validate the comprador decision to kill Jesus but finding the existence of the man who enabled the execution inconvenient. Judas is guilty of even worse sedition than Jesus, even if Pilate finds it hard to say so to the high priest.
Afranius must navigate this minefield, and his ability to do so with such aplomb marks him as a true Chekist. Mindful of Stalin’s supreme idea that death solves all problems, the Chekist easily discounts any platitudes that seem to contradict basic principles of state stability and security.
I have read translations both by Glenny and by Pevear and Volokhovsky, and find Glenny infinitely more elegant. But at the moment I have the clunky PV version to hand. We find several clues to Pilate’s real intent in the first conversation with Afranius. The command to bury Jesus in secrecy and silence, and the “subtle understanding” of why Barabbas can no longer rebel, reflect an urbane cultivated veneer concealing absolute ruthless intent.
When Afranius returns for the second discussion, Pilate’s grin when given the bloody bag with thirty pieces of silver shows how easily he will reject Afranius’s initial demand to be tried for failure of duty. Afranius well understands this elaborate dance, and proceeds to word up Pilate to ensure their entirely false stories are consistent, to prevent any leak of cracks that might allow light to penetrate this darkness.
The Holmesian prediction of the Gethsemane murder site becomes the only possible truth once all other suggestions have been eliminated. His calm and weighty logic excludes the possibility that Pilate raises that a woman lured Judas out of town, while the reader is fully aware that is exactly what happened. Piling irony upon deception, Afranius notes that these vagabonds lack the big money needed to involve a woman in their plot, showing us how he must have bribed the woman he used to entice Judas out.
The utterly convincing alibi continues with the bizarre reasoning that Judas must have wanted to bury his money at Gethsemane. The constantly darting eyes indicate the real agenda of being able to sell this entirely fake account. The soldiers who allegedly lost Judas in the marketplace will receive a token reprimand, everyone will agree, and the whole episode will be buried and forgotten, a burial in line with the title of the chapter, a burial that the overlords expect will be as successful as their plan to bury Jesus Christ.
The burial of truth by Pilate, with both Judas and Jesus, faces the nasty problem that truth has a habit of resurrecting itself. In the world of fake news, truth is what sells. The utter cynicism of the priority of myth over evidence involves elaborate effort to bury any incriminating detail, with the irony that the reader is well aware that these tactics of imperial control were subverted, according to the Gospel myth, by the rising of Christ at Easter.
Yes, that rogue theory was my first impression, but the astute triple cross, a deception that mirrors Calvary as the burial of the Judas story mirrors Pilate's plan for Christ, shows Bulgakov’s deeper appreciation of the Chekist mindset.
Russian Dolls all the way down. As I mentioned, Brezhnev’s censors in 1966 did not like one little bit the discussion in this and the previous chapter about Christ’s view that cowardice is the greatest sin. So the danger in stating things more clearly is that the censors would simply ban the book, a problem that Bulgakov wrestled with in all his earlier novels and plays, given his background as an enemy of the people.
Pilate has dreams, including a walk on a moonbeam with Christ where Pilate boldly contradicts the messiah’s claim that cowardice is only one among the most terrible vices. Pilate says instead that cowardice is the most terrible vice, claiming for himself the high moral ground above Christ, and cites his military experience to prove his point. Bulgakov is mocking the nomenklatura, who loved to beat their breasts about their political courage in suppressing the kulaks while always making sure they were not the first to stop clapping when Stalin finished speaking, living lives of sheer intimidated terror.