Saturday, December 31, 2005

Satanic Verses


Writing in Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal on December 23, Leonid Radzikhovsky caused something of a stir when he suggested that the Soviet author Mikhail Bulgakov, far from being an advocate of free speech and "pure" aesthetic and moral ideals, was actually a surreptitious defender of fascism.

In his long and persuasive essay, Radzikhovsky reflects on how Bulgakov's reputation and status as an author - he was the object of a quasi-religious cult among young dissident students and intellectuals in the Soviet Union of the late 1960s and 1970s - rested largely on the fact that it was in one of Bulgakov's novels, The Master and Margarita (now to be shown in a screen adaptation on Russian television), that they were able to find extended allusion to the "eternal themes" of Christ, the New Testament and the immortality of the soul. Such a book appeared as a treasure in the stultifying intellectual and political climate of Brezhnev's Soviet Union.

Radzikhovsky argues that one of the novel's principal ideas is that the Devil is really in charge of human destiny. Kant's proof of the existence of God is put to scorn and ridicule, and there is even a conversation where it's suggested that Kant be sent to the GULAG as punishment for his silliness. Bulgakov's sympathies, Radzikhovsky suggests, are really with the Devil. He also puts Bulgakov into the context of the period in which the book was written - the 1930s, and comments that having rejected both the Whites and the Reds during and after the Civil War, Bulgakov found himself in search of the truth. He found it, Radzikhovsky says, in the Strong Man (read Stalin). This was nothing unusual in the world of those days:
For today's politically correct contemporary intellectual, "fascism" is an indivisible (and, to be honest, very abstract) profanity (like "Zionism" for the comrade-patriots). But it was not always so! Intellectuals finally turned away from fascism when it died. But when they knew it by feel, many were not averse to continuing the acquaintance. The intelligentsia was split right at the time of its flowering (the 1920s and 30s). There were antifascists, there were fascists, fascists were all colours of the rainbow... Brown fascism appealed to Heidegger, to Hamsun and Richard Strauss, while Brecht, on the contrary, preferred red. As is well known, Mayakovsky and Ezra Pound, Berdyaev and Ustryalov, all fell sick with fascism.
Razdzikhovsky notes that Bulgakov’s fascism expressed itself in a worship of the strong “hero-executioner”: in his novels there is not a word of criticism in condemnation of the Chekists. “On the contrary, they are always the force which brings order to chaos. The Devil as the creator of the world…”

All this has naturally brought a storm of protest from those who wish to defend Bulgakov from the accusations, and now the journal has even published an article by Alexei Makarkin in which he attempts to refute Radzikhovsky's arguments.

None the less, what Radzikhovksky has written is a serious essay in literary criticism, and it deserves serious consideration. Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal is to be congratulated on opening its columns to such material, which goes far beyond the analysis of purely contemporary political issues in the Russian Federation and tackles matters that concern Russia's moral and spiritual past, and its future.
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