Devilish deeds capture attention of Russians

From Associated Press

While Christians celebrate the birth of Christ this season, Russians are more preoccupied with Satan.

Millions have been glued to TV screens for two weeks watching the country’s first adaptation of “The Master and Margarita” -- Mikhail Bulgakov’s cult novel exploring whether the world is ruled by good or evil.

Viewer surveys showed that more than 55% of Russians older than 18 watched the first episode of “The Master and Margarita” on Dec. 19 after a heavy ad campaign. The series ended Friday.

Combining bitter satire, wild fantasy and eternal philosophical questions, “The Master and Margarita” weaves three plot lines: the devil and his entourage wreaking havoc in dictator Josef Stalin’s Moscow of the 1930s; the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ; and the struggle of two passionate lovers, separated by society, to reunite.

The devil is embodied by a foreign professor named Woland. He mocks vehemently atheist Soviets, punishes greedy and corrupt officials and lures Margarita, a fine Moscow lady, into becoming a witch to save her beloved, the Master, a gifted writer driven to despair by censors.


The surreal scenes brought to the screen include an obese black cat from the devil’s retinue riding a tram and toasting with vodka, Moscow women running around in their underwear and a naked Margarita hovering above the city on a broom on her way to a ball hosted by Satan.

The novel, which Bulgakov began in 1928 and finished on his deathbed in 1940, was banned for decades until a government-edited version was published in a literary magazine in 1966.

Vladimir Bortko, director of the 10-series movie broadcast on Rossiya state television, said the book embodies freedom for several generations of Russians.

“It was like a breath of fresh air in the dead atmosphere of Soviet writing,” Bortko said. He added that, for many Soviet citizens, Bulgakov’s novel was their first encounter with the Bible.

So dear is the novel that numerous phrases from the text have entered the Russian lexicon, including “manuscripts don’t burn” -- a reference to the Master burning his novel -- and Satan’s famous “Never ask for anything ... especially from those more powerful than you.”

To many Russians, the very fact that the novel made it to the TV screen is a sensation. And Moscow is abuzz with discussions of the movie -- including assessments of the special effects. “Last night I saw this not-naked-enough woman flying around,” said Yevgeny Skepner, a 38-year-old computer programmer, referring to Margarita’s broom scene. “After ‘Harry Potter,’ all of this looks pathetic.”