Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837)

Pushkin holds a place in Russian literature perhaps even larger than that of Shakespeare in English. He is the starting point for Russian literature and the Russian literary language as we know it today. Beloved of all Russians, Pushkin wrote lyric poetry, prose, and drama, founding the Russian literary tradition in practically every genre.


Pushkin appears in The Master and Margarita in various guises: as the author of Eugene Onegin, the strains of which accompany Ivan on his chase; as the statue Ryukhin sees when he returns to Moscow from Stravinsky's clinic; as the author of The Covetous Knight, which Nikanor Ivanovich sees performed by Kurolesov in his "dream;" and finally as a character often referred to by Soviets in daily life.

Whether the novel is set in the 1920s or the 1930s, Pushkin would have been on the minds of the Soviet people: 1924 saw the 125th anniversary of the poet's birth, while 1937 was the 100th anniversary of his death. Both were feted in Moscow.

The 1937 Pushkin Jubilee

Bulgakov, like all Russians, loved Pushkin, but he felt particularly close to the 19th Century poet because of the latter's relation to the state. Pushkin was several times exiled because his views got him into hot water with the authorities. Tsar Nicholas I became his "personal censor." While working on Master and Margarita, Bulgakov wrote a play called "Alexander Pushkin" or "The Last Days," which also treats the relationship between the artist of genius and the repressive state (not unlike The Master and Margarita and the play "Cabal of Hypocrites," also known as "Moliere.").

In "The Last Days," while Pushkin is the central character, he never actually appears onstage. Instead we see how everyone around the great artist works. The Tsar's police, in league with Pushkin's enemies, orchestrate his death by failing to stop the duel with D'Anthes. They then manage to hush up his funeral so he cannot create more political unrest even in death.

Of course we know that Pushkin's art has guaranteed him the kind of immortality no petty political machinations could erase, and this is Bulgakov's final irony. Even though he never appears onstage, Pushkin manages to be the central figure through the power of his art.

1827 Portrait by Orest Kiprensky

Written in 1934-35, the play was neither published nor performed in Bulgakov's lifetime. Planned for the 1937 Jubilee, it was accepted by Glavrepertkom (the theater repertoire organization). Pushkin had become such a national hero that the authorities failed to see the threat in Bulgakov's depiction the Tsarist police state. But when "Cabal of Hypocrites" was banned in 1936, theaters were afraid to put on any play by Bulgakov. It was first produced in 1943 and published in 1955, after Stalin's death.

Pushkin also belongs to the less explicit time of the novel, the Romantic age of Goethe and Schubert.

For more on Pushkin see Stephany Gould's Pushkin Page