Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times

By Cristina Vatulescu | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The Master and Margarita
The Devil’s Secret Police File

As a singularly powerful genre of writing in Soviet times, the secret police file cast a long shadow over contemporary literature. This chapter argues that this shadow extended as far as the most famous novelistic representation of the Soviet 1930s, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. A copious intertextuality riddles Bulgakov’s novel, and critics have illuminated, among others, Menippean, Dantesque, Faustian, Gogolian, Orthodox Russian, Gnostic, and Manichaean influences behind characters, themes, and motifs.1 However, the parts of The Master and Margarita written under the shadow of dominant textual practices of its day—such as the secret police file and censorship—have remained so far in the dark. My investigation of The Master and Margarita’s complex relationship with the secret police file aims to enrich rather than dispute existing studies of the novel’s intertextuality. Similarly, pursuing the novel’s relationship to the file is not aimed at disputing the novel’s status as a legend of literary subversion. Rather, I aim to show that the influence of the secret police file can be discerned even in the writing of a novel deemed so subversive as to be first published—still partly censored—only in 1966, twentysix years after the death of its author. In this account, influence is considered in its broad spectrum of meanings, including power, pressure, authority, effect, affect, spell, inspiration, impact, and imprint.2 Likewise, literature is seen to be shaped by, but also against and around, the influence of the secret police file. Like “any link one establishes” in this babel of a novel, The Master and Margarita’s link to the secret police file and censorship “is more of an association than a direct likening or equation”3; yet, pursuing this link does illuminate some of the lasting puzzles of the novel.

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