Classless society with privileges
The story of the origin and the development of the Soviet society is described in the Context section of this website. The subject of this page is one of the excrescences: the new elite that was created in what should have been the classless society, and how it is criticized by Bulgakov with consummate skill in The Master and Margarita.
In the revolutionary year 1917, Vladimir Lenin ascribed an important role to the soviets (the councils) of laborers and soldiers as instruments for the victory. Yet he did not allow them, as many were hoping, to become the core of a new social structure. The first soviets were created in 1905 as organs of the laborers in the factories - influenced by menshevik ideas - and in 1917 they developed at all levels. By their local, regional and national organisation they seemed to be a state in the state. Especially in Petrograd and in Moscow the different socialist parties were fighting hard for the power in the soviets, the bolsheviks often won - at least in these two cities - from the mensheviks.
The soviets were used as levers to overthrow the government, but after the victory Lenin turned against the councils and called them «germ cells of a decentralized social democracy». Already in June 1918, the soviets in the factories were de facto deprived of their power, because the directorates were no longer chosen by the laborers, but appointed by the government. Lev Davidovich Trotsky (1879-1940) carried out a drastic discipline in the army, which made an end to all democratic illusions.
The management of the new industrial and collective farms was entrusted to specialists who, compared to ordinary people, ran more risks to fall into disgrace, but at the same time were favoured in a material way. The wage gap and the privileges of this «new class» of party officials and state functionaries, law-abiding artists and scientists on the one hand, and the masses on the other hand only became bigger under Stalin.
Bulgakov liked to draw a bead on this new class and its privileges by using funny overstatements. A classic example of this is his description of Griboedov.
«Massolit had settled itself at Griboedov's in the best and cosiest way imaginable. Anyone entering Griboedov's first of all became involuntarily acquainted with the announcements of various sports clubs, and with group as well as individual photographs of the members of Massolit, hanging (the photographs) on the walls of the staircase leading to the second floor.
On the door to the very first room of this upper floor one could see a big sign: 'Fishing and Vacation Section', along with the picture of a carp caught on a line.»
In the same satiric style Bulgakov described the inscriptions on the other doors of the writers' house: «One-day Creative Trips. Apply to M. V. Spurioznaya» and «Sign up for Paper with Poklevkina», «Cashier», «Personal Accounts of Sketch-Writers". and the inscription «Perelygino» which Bulgakov described as «totally incomprehensible», but which stands for Peredelkino, where was situated the dachas of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960) and others. And then:
«If one cut through the longest line, which already went downstairs and out to the doorman's lodge, one could see the sign 'Housing Question' on a door which people were crashing every second».
Beyond the housing question there opened out a luxurious poster on which a cliff was depicted and, riding on its crest, a horseman in a felt cloak with a rifle on his shoulder. A little lower - palm trees and a balcony; on the balcony - a seated young man with a forelock, gazing somewhere aloft with very lively eyes, holding a fountain pen in his hand. There was an inscription: «Full-scale Creative Vacations from Two Weeks (Story/Novella) to One Year (Novel/Trilogy). Yalta, Suuk-Su, Borovoe, Tsikhidziri, Makhindzhauri, Leningrad (Winter Palace)». There was also a line at this door, but not an excessive one - some hundred and fifty people.
And then followed: «Massolit Executive Board», «Cashiers nos. 2,3,5», «Editorial Board», «Chairman of Massolit», «Billiard Board»...
In The Master and Margarita Bulgakov practises the so-called menippean satire. This kind of satire turns the world completely around. Authorities are interchanged, fabrications become true, the social order is mixed up. The motives are grotesque and blusterous. The menippean satire laughs about the socially legitimated cultural expressions and connects them to the absurd and the abnormal. It's a parody of the established power, which doesn't mean by definition that it casts off authorities or the official thruth. The menippea only denounces the ridiculous character of the official discourse. The characters in the satire experience very different and extreme psychological situations. It varies from insanity, schizophrenia and interchange of identities to unrestrained daydreams and an excessive wish for scandals and excentricity. The satire questions the dominant cultural order. It is expressed by wiping the floor with the morality, norms and etiquette of the higher class. In general the official representatives of power are challenged.
This form of satire was inspired by the Greek Anatolian Menippus of Gadara (300 BC-260 BC), an adept of the cynical philosophers who loved to promote a moral purpose in a witty way.
A menippean satire is characerized by a content with a high degree of freedom and variety, and a form which is called prosimetrum: prose alternated with poetic fragments in different metres, and a preference for daily speech. The cynical philosophers, of whom Diogenes of Sinope (404 BC-323 BC) is the most famous, considered civilization as artificial and unnatural, and therefore they made fun of behaviour that was considered as socially acceptable. Diogenes is still remembered as the man who used to stroll through Athens at full daylight with a torch in his hand, "just looking for an honest man".
The satires of Menippus laughed about vanity and intellectual pretensions. In Menippus' theatre plays the elite was ridiculized as much as in The Master and Margarita. Some other famous writers of van menippean satires are Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963) and Alexander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008).