Alfred Barkov

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Source Alfred Nikolayevitch Barkov, Роман Михаила Булгакова «Мастер и Маргарита»: альтернативное прочтение [Mikhail Bulgakov's novel «The Master and Margarita»: an alternative reading] (1994).

Most readers of The Master and Margarita agree that Bulgakov himself was the real prototype of the master, and his third wife Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya (1893-1970) was the source of inspiration for the character of Margarita. But the Ukrainian filologist and radio amateur Alfred Nikolayevich Barkov argues that the above mentioned interpretation is completely wrong. He has, in general, a very particular and most detailed vision on the novel, by the way.

In 1994, Alfred Barkov published a book of nearly 300 pages with the title Роман Михаила Булгакова «Мастер и Маргарита»: альтернативное прочтение or «The Master and Margarita»: an alternative reading, an effort which he repeated in 1996 by publishing another essay with the title Роман М.А. Булгакова Мастер и Маргарита: верновечная любовь или литературная мистификация? or The novel The Master and Margarita by M.A. Bulgakov: an everlasting love or a literary mystification?. In both essays he ranted and raved heavily against the «erroneous opinion» that Bulgakov was thinking of himself when describing the master, and that Bulgakov's spouse Elena Sergeevna was the source of inspiration for Margarita. According to Barkov, this interpretation would not correspond with the «true content» of the book and the real intentions of the author. Moreover, he considered this opinion as a traditional pro-Soviet and pro-Stalin presentation.

This was not Barkov's first attempt to launch idiosyncratic ideas about literary works. Before that, he had been engaged in heavy controversies about the «true content» of the theatre plays Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1831-1837). Barkov was defending categoric points of view that went right into the teeth of more common opinions. His public quarrels with chest grandmaster Garry Kasparov about intelligence and intellect still vibrate heavily on quite some Ukrainean internet pages.

As far as The Master and Margarita is concerned, Barkov argued that the various studies of Bulgakov's work refuse to see the subtle hints in the novel to real situations, and consequently don't understand the satire. Especially non-Russians can never understand it because the hints are so subtle that no translation can ever catch them. Meanwhile, Barkov's own language was not really subtle. Anyone having dissenting views is called «pretentious» and «deceiving», and on the English version of his website he described his own interpretation as «the true content». Modestly, he continued: «Actually, this is the very first work containing an attempt to reveal the 'secret key' to the inner structure of the masterpieces created by Shakespeare, Pushkin, and Bulgakov». Good to know...

Anyway, Barkov advances the thesis that The Master and Margarita is a parody of the theatre play Faust and the City. This play was written by Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky (1875-1933), the People's Commissar for Education, Enlightenment and Sciences in the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1929. In Faust and the City, Lunacharsky sketches an interesting sequel of the famous Faust story written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). He starts from the last scene in Goethe's tragedy and shows Faust as the enlightened ruler over the land he conquered from the sea. The people under Faust's rule are ready to free themselves from despotism, so there is a revolution. Faust is happy with this evolution because he sees it as the realisation of an old dream - free people in a free world. Lunacharsky presents a social revolution as the start of a new historical era.

Despite this ode to freedom in his play, it was Lunacharsky who organised, as a People's Commissar, the first campaigns of censorship in the Soviet Union and he was heavily opposed to Bulgakov. In 1928 he delivered a speech on the Central Comittee of the Communist Party in which he called Bulgakov «the worst anti-Soviet author». According to Barkov, Lunacharsky was Bulgakov's prototype for two characters in The Master and Margarita: the critic Latunsky, and Arkadi Sempleyarov, the self-satisfied chairman of the Acoustics Commission of the Moscow theatres.

Barkov «reveals» many more prototypes from the novel, often focusing on the environment of the Moscow Art Theatre MKhAT. To him, the MKhAT itself is the prototype of the Variety Theatre, although the Moscow Music Hall, which was situated right next to Bolshaya Sadovaya number 10 corresponds better to the description in the novel. The characters of Grigori Rimsky en Ivan Varenukha are, according to Barkov, based on Constantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1859-1943), the founding fathers of the MKhAT. Koroviev would be a parody of Vasily Ivanovich Kachalov (1875-1948), an actor of the MKhAT, and the female vampire Hella would be based on Olga Sergeevna Bokshanskaya (1891-1948). Olga Sergeevna was the sister of Bulgakov's wife Elena Sergeevna and the personal assistant of MKhAT-director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Bulgakov didn't always get along with his sister-in-law, but yet she had typed an important part of the text of The Master and Margarita in the spring of 1938.

Everyone is of course entitled to his own opinion. Other analysts suggest other prototypes for Latunsky and Sempleyarov but that should not be a surprise - it's absolutely normal that in a satire which is criticising a political system, characteristics of different protagonists of the system are bundled in one character. But often it seems that Barkov's sole objective is to make conflicting statements, just as a principle.

The way Barkov analyses the text of The Master and Margarita to come to his conclusions is sometimes rather strange. For example, he holds an endless plea to prove that the Koroviev character is the narrator in The Master and Margarita. One can ask why he spents so considerable effort on it, but we'll talk about that later. Let us first have a look at his way of reasoning. What follows is just an arbitrary grasp from the material he provides. Barkov analyses the scene when the master meets Ivan and starts telling the story of his awakening love. There are three successive paragraphs, all on the same page, starting with more or less the same phrase. In the English translation (1979 - Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) they sound like this: «Ivan learned that the master and the unknown woman...», «Ivan learned that his guest and his secret wife...» and «Ivan learned from the guest's story how the lovers...». According to Alfred Barkov, this is a styllistic lapse. And an important one because, if the narrator was Bulgakov himself, it would be nothing less than an «artistic catastrophy», which Barkov «refuses to believe». So he concludes: this styllistic lapse can only come from someone with a low educational level but who is, by the amount of knowledge he appears to have, close enough to the leading character of the book. So it must be Koroviev, a member of Woland's retinue.

To argue this further, Barkov gathers, in a rather selective way, statements and excerpts from the novel's text. With this collection of citations, Barkov sets out what he calls a language zone. That's a quite homogeneous and harmonious aggregate of excerpts with the same level of phraseology, grammatical characteristics and figures of speech. And, I have to admit, the collection which Barkov builts up to define the narrators language zone is impressive and corresponds pretty well to Koroviev's language zone. At least in some fragments. Because, probably for his own convenience, he forgot to include in the defined language zone a whole number of statements in which the narrator actually shows a very high level of education. So Barkov puts considerable effort in proving that Koroviev is the narrator. He spends almost the full second quarter of his 300 pages plea on it. One could wonder why, but that will become clear later on. Let's first have a look at his other conclusions.

According to Barkov, the Woland character was based on Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). For proving this, he refers to other Professors who appeared in previous novels of Bulgakov like The Fatal Eggs and Heart of the Dog, and to many other details like, for instance, the fact that Woland would have difficulties to pronounce the letter «V», which would be a speech impediment from which Lenin also suffered. Speech impedement? Yes, well... we'll come back to this later on too.

The real proptotype for the master would be the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) - whose real name was Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov. Gorky, who had lived as an exile in Italy for a while, was called back by Josep Stalin (1878-1953) and appointed as the first chairman of the so-called Союз Советских Писателей [Soyuz Sovyetskikh Pisateley] or Union of Soviet Writers. This union was created in 1932 and all the other writers' associations, among which the Российская Ассоциация Пролетарских Писателей (RAPP) or Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, were abolished. The membership was accessible to all writers - including critics and translators - who were «striving for the realisation of the socialist reality». Non-partymembers could also qualify as so-called попутчики [poputshiki] or fellow-travellers. At the first congress, in 1934, the Social Realism was proclaimed as the only essential artistic working method. As from 1934-1935 it was almost impossible for non-members to publish their works. Until his death in 1936, Gorky was systematically called master by the communist party newspaper Pravda.

As a consequence of this opinion Margarita's character would have been a prostitute, hired by «dark forces» to charm the master. For this thesis Barkov refers to Maria Fyodorovna Yurkovskaya (1868-1953), an actress of the MKhAT using the pseudonym Maria Andreeva. Before the revolution, when the bolsheviks were still operating in the underground, she was one of Vladimir Lenin's assistants, comparable to Hella for Woland in the novel. From 1918 to 1921 Maria Andreeva was Commissar for Theatres and Public Spectacles in Petrograd, and from 1931 to 1948 she was Director of the House of Sciences in Moscow. It is said that it was on Lenin's orders that Maria Andreeva «recruted» the talented writer Gorky to serve the bolsheviks. Barkov was not really font of Maria Andreeva, as is shown in his following description: «When this beautiful woman was fourteen, she entertained herself with cutting cats' throats».

Barkov really didn't like Margarita at all. According to him, she had betrayed the master, just like the prostitute Niza had lured Judas to his murderers in the biblical story. Barkov proves his these by the fact that Margarita leaves the master in the basement saying «that she was expected, that she had tot bow to necessity», after which he was arrested. It is clear to Barkov that this shows her contacts with the secret police and that Margarita betrayed the master. For the sake of convenience, Barkov forgets that in the novel is unveiled that the master was betrayed by Aloisy Mogarych, the «friend» of the master who wanted to take over his basement, and who had to justify himself for this at Woland's after the ball. And here it becomes clear why Barkov needed to identify Koroviev as the narrator of the story. Because, if this accomplice of the Devil, this professional liar, is the narrator, then all passages which don't comply with Barkov's theory - and there are many! - can be called attempts of a born liar to veil the truth. «Just like we can observe it in the works of Shakespeare and Pushkin, the biased language of the narrator is deliberately intended to indoctrinate the readers with a false perception of the true content», Barkov writes. Well...

But all right... what else did Barkov discover? Well, that the Matthew Levi character was based on Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) and that Bulgakov would have played a role in his own novel, not as the master though, but as Ivan Bezdomny in the hospital. Bulgakov was addicted to morphine in the 20's and 30's, and his third wife Elena Sergeevna would have helped him to get the drugs. The visit of the master - Lenin thus - to Ivan - Bulgakov thus - would then be an allegory of a brainwashing. Which would be an explanation why the master had the keys of the hospital. The dark power would have sent the master to Ivan. Barkov founds this theorie by hints interwoven in the text by Bulgakov himself. One of such hints would be that, before his injection, Ivan is always called by his name and patronymicum - thee respectful Russian rule of etiquette -, but after that he's called Ivanushka, the fool, the jester, the nitwit.

Just one more observation on Elena Sergeevna: according to Barkov she was an informant of the secret police who had to report on Bulgakov. He comes to this conclusion, again only indirectly, from reports of the secret police that have been made public later.

Of course it is interesting to observe how a man finds evidence to justify a theory by intense and sustained research, often in very small details. But one could wonder if, at such level of details, he can distance himself sufficiently. It seems that Barkov, by searching for details, doesn't see the more obvious and visible clues, needing less coils to fit or, worse, that he ignores them consciously. Alfred Nikolayevich Barkov antagonized many Russian literary researchers with his theories. No great matter as such, of course, it can only keep them alert.

But there is the risk that such nonsense is captured by others as genuine information. On some contributions about Bulgakov on Wikipedia, Barkov is presented as a reliable scientific reference, and the website of the BBC - the respectable British public broadcaster - refers explicitly to Barkov to argue that the character of Woland is based on Lenin as follows:«Not only is Woland [...] bearded, he also has difficulty in pronouncing the letter «V», a speech impediment from which Lenin also suffered.» Well how about that... a beard? One of the first things which Bulgakov writes about Woland is that he is выбрит гладко [vybrit gladko] or clean-shaven. And what that speech impedement is concerned: in Russian, the name Woland is written as Воланд. This can be transliterated as Woland, but Voland is also accurate. So it depends on the translator whether Woland, according to the BBC, has got a speech impediment in English or not.

In November 2003, Barkov promised to do his utmost to publish his disclosures on the internet in English as soon as possible. He would never be able to keep his promises, When I was in Ukraine in 2004 and tried to contact him, I heard that he died earlier that year, on January 4, 2004.

It should be clear by now that I'm not endorsing the theorems of Alfred Barkov. But, as the English writer and biographer of Voltaire Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868-1939) once said: «I disapprove of what he says, but I will defend to the death his right to say it». So, since the texts of Barkov are disappearing from the Internet one after the other since he died, I've made the effort to re-compile them and to make them available in the Archives section of this website.

The Russian text of the first essay
A partial English translation of the first essay
The Russian text of the second essay
An English summary of the second essay

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