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Welcome to Satan’s Ball

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Posted on Mar 9, 2014

By Chris Hedges

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 5, 2013. AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” a bitter satire of Soviet life at the height of Stalin’s purges, captured the surrealist experience of living in a brutal totalitarianism. In the novel’s world, lies are considered true and truth is considered seditious. Existence is a dark carnival of opportunism, unchecked state power, hedonism and terrorism. It is peopled with omnipotent secret police, wholesale spying and surveillance, show trials, censorship, mass arrests, summary executions and disappearances, along with famines, gulags and a state system of propaganda utterly unplugged from daily reality. This reality is increasingly becoming our own.

“The Master and Margarita” is built around Woland, or Satan, who is a traveling magician, along with a hog-sized, vodka-swilling, chess-playing black cat named Behemoth, a witch named Hella, a poet named Ivan Homeless, a writer known as The Master who has been placed in an insane asylum following the suppression of his book, his lover Margarita, Pontius Pilate, Yeshua, or Jesus Christ, and Pilate’s dog Banga—the only creature that loves Pilate.

Throughout history, those who spoke the truth in totalitarian states—people such as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning—have been silenced and persecuted and those who parroted back the lies and served the system have been rewarded with lives of luxury and debauchery. Bulgakov reminds us of this. In the midst of his story’s madness, in which moral goodness is banished and only the amoral is celebrated, Satan holds a ball where Margarita, as queen, plays hostess to “kings, dukes, cavaliers, suicides, poisoners, gallows birds and procuresses, jailers, cardsharps, executioners, informers, traitors, madmen, detectives and corrupters of youth” who leap from coffins that fall out of the fireplace. The men wear tailcoats, and the women, who are naked, differ from each other only “by their shoes and the color of the feathers on their heads.” “Scarlet-breasted parrots with green tails perched on lianas and hopping from branch to branch uttered deafening screeches of “Ecstasy! Ecstasy!’ ” As Johann Strauss leads the orchestra, revelers mingle in a cool ballroom set in a tropical forest.

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In this bizarre world you flourish, are embraced by its fantasy life, only if the state decides you are worthy to exist—“No papers, no person.”

The arbitrary and capricious power of the state permits it to determine the identity and worth of its people, including the writers and artists it officially anoints. When Behemoth and his companion, Korovyov, an ex-choirmaster, attempt to enter the restaurant at the headquarters of the state-sanctioned literary trade union—filled with careerists, propagandists, profiteers and state bureaucrats, along with their wives and mistresses—they are accosted at the entrance.

A pale bored citizeness in white socks and a white beret with a tassel was sitting on a bentwood chair at the corner entrance to the veranda, where an opening had been created in the greenery of the trellis. In front of her on a plain kitchen table lay a thick, office-style register in which, for reasons unknown, she was writing down the names of those entering the restaurant. It was this citizeness who stopped Korovyov and Behemoth.

“Your ID cards?” she asked. …

“I beg a thousand pardons, but what ID cards?” asked a surprised Korovyov.

“Are you writers?” asked the woman in turn.

“Of course we are,” replied Korovyov with dignity.

“May I see your ID’s?” repeated the woman.

“My charming creature ...” began Korovyov, tenderly.

“I am not a charming creature,” interrupted the woman.

“Oh, what a pity,” said Korovyov with disappointment, and continued, “Well, then, if you do not care to be a charming creature, which would have been quite nice, you don’t have to be. But, here’s my point, in order to ascertain that Dostoevsky is a writer, do you really need to ask him for an ID? Just look at any five pages of any of his novels, and you will surely know, even without an ID, that you’re dealing with a writer. Besides, I don’t suppose that he ever had any ID! What do you think?”

Korovyov turned to Behemoth.

“I’ll bet he didn’t,” replied the latter. …

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness. …

“Well, but how do you know, how do you know?” replied [Korovyov].

“Dostoevsky is dead,” said the citizeness, but not very confidently.

“I protest!” exclaimed Behemoth hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

“Your ID’s, citizens,” said the citizeness.

Although the book, whose working title was “Satan in Moscow,” was completed in 1940 it did not appear in print in uncensored form until the 1970s.

“The power structure is symbolized by its anonymity and omnipresence, by its mysterious nature, by its total knowledge against which there is no defense, by its ability to penetrate every space, by putting in an appearance at any hour of the day or night,” Karl Schlögel wrote in his book “Moscow, 1937” in speaking of Bulgakov’s portrayal of the organs of state security. “Investigating officials have no names; they are simply ‘they.’ The word ‘arrest’ is replaced by the sentences “We need to sort something out’ or ‘We need your signature here.’ ”


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