The guests at the ball
All guests at Satan's ball have some common characteristics. They're all dead, of course, and with the exception of the musicians, they all did something which made them go to hell - or which could have made them go to hell. The advantage of them being dead was that Bulgakov did not have to disguise their names. Here's a selection. The Frieda character got a page of her own because, other than the other guests at the ball, she will return in the novel later.
The «waltz king» is the Viennese composer Johann Strauss jr. (1825-1899). His father, Johann Strauss sr. (1804-1849), was quite famous himself as the composer of the Radetzky Marsch. But his son Johann or Schani would rapidly become more famous with unforgettable waltzes as An der schönen blauen Donau, the Kaiserwalzer and Wiener Blut, and with the operettes Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron. In the era of Johann Strauss jr. the Viennese Waltz was not played in theatres or concert halls like it happens today, but mainly in dance halls, at receptions or at other mundane events.
Vieuxtemps is Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881), a Belgian virtuoso violinist from Verviers. At the age of ten he made his debut in Paris, where he was introduced by a virtuoso violinist of my hometown Leuven, Charles Auguste de Bériot (1802-1870). He travelled the world giving concerts, taught in the conservatory of Brussels and for some time, from 1846 to 1851, also in the conservatory of Saint-Petersburg, where he was first violinist of the imperial court and first soloist of the Royal Theatre. He was very successful with his own compositions too, among which 7 concertos, chambre music and compositions for violin and piano. It was common practice to hire musicians from all over the world to play at important receptions like the ones at the Spaso House.
Monsieur Jacques is Jacques Cœur (1395-1456), a rich French merchant who became superintendent of finances under Charles VII (1403-1461). He granted important loans to the king to finance his wars. The start of his career wasn't very lucky because, before he became successful, he was associated with a counterfeiter. And later he was accused of an attempt to poison Agnes Sorel (1422-1450), the king's mistress.
He was condemned to death, which later was changed into a lifelong banishment and a money fine. His properties were confiscated so that the king did not have to refund his loan. Later Louis XI would posthumously rehabilitate Jacques Coeur. In The Master and Margarita Korovyev called him a country traitor and an alchimist, but in fact he was not. He built a splendid castle in his native town Bourges.
Earl Robert, «a queen's lover» according to Korovyev, is Robert Dudley (1532-1588), count of Leicester and a childhood friend of the British queen Elisabeth I (1533-1603). He was the fifth of thirteen children. His spouse, Amy Robsart (1534-1560), died in mysterious circumstances but not, as suggested by Bulgakov, due to poisoning. In reality it was after falling down a flight of stairs.
Many rumours were going on about a liaison between Dudley and the queen. Many believed that Dudley had killed his wife to marry Elisabeth. Ironically enough, Amy's dead made a marriage impossible because Elisabeth was strongly influenced by the public opinion. She placed Count Robert in command of the army - he had to defeat the Spanish Armada - but he died soon after.
In the Энциклопедический словарь Брокгауза и Ефрона [Entsiklopedichesky slovar Brokgauza i Yefrona] or Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, Bulgakov found the name of Signora Tofana or Teofania di Adamo (1653-?) under the lemma Аква Тофана [Akva Tophana]. She was one of a «dynasty» of poisoners from the 17th century. The poison having her name, aqua tofana, probably contained arsenic and deadly nightshade, also called belladonna, which is one of the most toxic plants found in the Western hemisphere. Children have been poisoned by eating as few as three berries. Aqua tofana is a colourless and tasteless liquid, therefore an ideal mean to kill spouses or family members.
We don't know much of the first Tofana, Teofania di Palermo, except that she got executed for various poison murders.
The second Tofana, Teofania di Adamo (1653-?), was from Naples, and would have got the recipe from the first Tofana. She would have been driven by manhate and would have sold the poison in bottles with the portrait of Saint-Nicolas, hence the tradename Manna di San Nicola. Her poison would have killed at least 600 people. She was tortured in public and executed.
The third Tofana, Giulia Tofana, operated in Rome and would have been the sister or the daughter of the second. She would have been sentenced to death, and executed at the Campo di Fiore.
The marquise is Marie-Madeleine Dreux d'Aubray (1630-1676), marquise de Brinvilliers, a notorious poisoner who, with the help of her lover, army captain Jean Baptiste Godin de Sainte-Croix (?-1672), killed her father, her brother and her two sisters in order to get their inheritances. She would have used the notorious aqua tofana for it. There are rumours that she also killed poor people whom she frequently visited at hospitals. She was condemned to the trial by water, which is the forced drinking of sixteen pints of water, followed by decapitation and cremation.
Madame Minkin, or in full Anastasiya Fyodorovna Minkina (1782-1825), was the housekeeper and lover of Count Aleksey Araksheyev (1769-1854), military advisor of czar Alexander I (1777-1825). She was an extraordinarily cruel and pernicious woman - one day she burned, blinded by jealousy, the face of a maid with curling tongs. Her own personnel revolted against her and killed her in 1825. Aleksey Araksheyev himself had little to learn from his mistress. The woman farmers on his country Gruzino near Novgorod were obliged to give birth to at least one child per year, and because he was font of the singing of the nightingales he let hang all the cats on his territory.
The emperor Rudolf
Emperor Rudolf or Rudolf II of Habsburg (1552-1612), German emperor and son of Maximilian II (1527-1576), lived in Prague and was the patron of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johann Kepler (1571-1630). In 1572 Brahe discovered a new star in the Cassiopeia constellation. He described this event in his book The Stella Nova. Later he became famous because it appeared to be a supernova. It proved that the atmosphere of the stars as it was described by Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) wasn't constant. Johann Kepler was an assistant of Tycho Brahe. He became known for his elaboration of the laws of the movements of planets. Later, Isaac Newton (1643-1727) would use his discoveries for the development of his gravity law.
The Moscow dressmaker
The Moscow dressmaker is Zoya Denisovna Pelts, the heroin of Bulgakov's own theatre play Zoya's apartment. Zoya managed a brothel under the guise of a dressmaker's shop. Her girls were so-called models and she was obsessed by the wish to change the Soviet Union for Paris.
Various prototypes are named for the figure of Zoya. The first might have been one Adèle Adolfovna Trostyanskaya who really had a brothel disguised as a boutique. Bulgakov had read an article on her trial in the newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta in October 1924. Later, there would also have been an article in the same newspaper about a certain Zoya Buyalskaya who was arrested because she had a brothel disguised as a sewing workshop. Finally, there is Zoya Petrovna Zhatova, who was arrested in the spring of 1921 in Moscow because she held a clandestine restaurant. Among the clients who were arrested together with her were the poets Anatoly Borisovich Marienhof (1897-1962) and Sergey Alexandrovich Yesenin (1895-1925), the husband of the American dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927).
Zoya Zhatova ran her business in apartment no. 38 of Bolshaya Sadovaya no. 10 where she has been staying for a while. That apartment belonged to the Armenian-Russian avant-garde artist Georgy Bogdanovich Yakulov (1848-1928). For the description of the physical characteristics of his Zoya, Bulgakov had been inspired the wife of Yakulov, Natalya Yulevna Shiff.
Caligula is the nickname of Gaius Caesar (12BC-41). He was the youngest son of Germanicus (15BC-19) and Agrippina Senior (14BC-33), and he succeeded Tiberius (42BC-37) as the emperor of Rome. People called him mentally ill, because he put Rome through many tyrannical brutalities and got eventually killed. Caligula was raised in a military camp. He was popular among the soldiers and there he got his nickname Caligula, from the Latin caligae (soldier's boots). In his own time nobody used this nickname, it got only popular because historians used it all the time.
Messalina, in full Valeria Messalina (15BC-48) was the third wife of the Roman emperor Claudius (10BC-54), the successor of Caligula. She was the daughter of Domitia Longina (10BC-54) and Valerius Messalla Barbatus (11BC-21). She was from a respectable Roman family, but she was known for her immorality. Once she would have challanged a notorious Roman prostitute, Scylla, to a sex competition. Scylla gave up after 25 men, but Messalina persisted until daybreak. Eventually she was executed because Claudius heard that she had organised a conspiracy against him. Later her daughter Claudia Octavia (39-62) would become the first wife of emperor Nero (37-68).
Maliuta Skuratov with his «truly fiery beard» is the nickname of the Russian nobleman and notorious historical character Grigory Lukyanovich Skuratov-Belsky (?-1573), the right-hand man of Иван Грозный [Ivan Grozny] or Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), the first Russian czar. Czar Ivan had proclamed so-called опричнина [oprichina], a state policy including the institution of a secret police. Skuratov was in command of the oprichniks, a special corps that terrorized the country with fire-raisings, plunderings and murders. With his own hands he strangled the Orthodox archbishop Philip II (1507-1569).
The last two guests
The last two guests are not explicitely named in the novel. But from the dialogue between Margarita and Koroviev we learn that the first one is the People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs and chief of the secret police NKVD Genrich Grigoryevitch Yagoda (1891-1938) and the second one is his secretary Pavel Pavlovich Bulanov (1895-1938). Both fell into disgrace and they were accused for having sprinkled the walls of the office of Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov (1936-1938), Yagoda's successor, with poison. In 1938 they were sentenced to be shot during a show trial that got very famous, and for which they had been questioners themselves. Yagoda was a notorious gambler and womanizer.
Film director Yuri Kara (°1954) presents another opinion in his film Master i Margarita. He shows Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and Joseph Stalin (1887-1953) making their appearance before Margarita. According to Kara, Bulgakov would have been thinking of them when he wrote: «The last two guests were coming up the stairs!». But he would not have named thise two dictators because, when the novel was written, they were still alive.
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Johan Strauss jr.
Jacques Coeur on a bank note of
50 francs from 1941
Count Robert Dudley
Marie-Madeleine d'Aubray, Marquise
de Brinvilliers undergoing the trial by water
Count Aleksei Arakchheev
Rudolf II of Habsburg
Gaius Caesar (Caligula)
Maliuta Skuratov approaches Philip II
The guests at the ball
according to Yuri Kara