Mikhail Bulgakov’s career was situated in a time when questioning the wrong dogmas might earn someone political and literary censor and if extreme enough cost someone their life. The rise of the Soviet Union occurred in 1922, right around the same time Bulgakov published his first novel, White Guard. Throughout his career censorship would plague his attempts at publication and eventually found a great deal of his works hidden away, in themselves satires of the regime he didn’t support.
Throughout his works, you’ll note the various and growing disapprovals of the singular, absolute and extreme views of Stalin’s Russia. So it was that Master and Margarita found itself hidden away for so long, lost in the notes and manuscripts of a man born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bulgakov’s composition of Master and Margarita defied all conventions of the time, of existing genres, of the works he borrowed from, and of the literary theories applied to it. Even after its rediscovery some 20 years past his death, during a time of vast and torrential experimentation, the novel still resisted classification.
In looking at the succession of drafts and titles (those that were not burned at least) Bulgakov’s process of thinking becomes a bit clearer. For all intensive purposes the original novel revolved around the devil character. Original titles included The Black Magician, The Consultant With a Hoof, and The Gospel According to Woland. The first half of the novel doesn’t even mention the title characters, and with good reason. It was written before a great deal of changes had taken place in his life.
The character of Margarita didn’t begin to take shape until 1934 with his marriage to Sleen Sereevna Shilovskaya. The first half of the novel, written almost entirely devoid of the eventual title characters deals still with Woland, Pontius Pilate, and the ironic inversion of absolutist views, both religious and political. The matter of authorship which takes hold of the second part of the novel would thus appear to be a concern Bulgakov develops later in life, after his marriage and sickness. Master and Margarita at first concerned itself with neither character. But as Bulgakov’s tortured life as a writer dragged on, so did the portrait painted in his work of who he and his friends and enemies were.
The contemporary Russian novel, from that of Nabokov to the very contemporary works of Pelevin are all in debt to the mastery of Mikhail Bulgakov. His singular voice, however hidden away eventually rang loud and clear, denouncing the society in which he was stuck.