The Control of Semantic Space: Bulgakov’s Challenge of the Stalinist Vision

Published: September 3, 2013

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967) and Heart of a Dog (1925) are among the most provocative works which challenge the Stalinist vision of controlled cultural space. His stories illustrate in detail how space forms society and influences cultural development. Through his prose, Bulgakov exhibits a unique understanding that Stalinism maintained control of society by controlling Soviet space. His challenge to Stalinism rests within the framework of his narrative setting and also within the wisdom and actions of his main characters, who exemplify how we interact with space on a very individual level.

In order to understand how Bulgakov presents his challenge, we must first establish an understanding of the importance of space, place, and semantics in Russian culture. In this analysis, space is organized as internal space, external space, and the boundary separating them, which I have labeled as liminal space. I also examine closed and open spaces and analyze movement throughout them. Secondly, I address the notions of life-place, both of the home and the familiar, as well as the potentially threatening anti-home. Through these mediums and their relationships, I analyze how Bulgakov provides a unique commentary concerning the advancement of the Stalinist vision and its culmination, as well as a means to challenge and subvert the perversely authoritarian-dominated reality. To achieve this, I will bring together the main ideas of two theorists, Yuri Lotman and Yi-Fu Tuan, as well as basic notions of Russian theologian, Pavel Florensky.

Yuri Lotman, a well-known Soviet linguist and literary scholar, had several theories  concerning semiotics, the semiosphere, and symbolic space.[1]  His book, Universe of the Mind (1990), illustrates his theory in detail and provides a well-established basis for my assertions. Inherent to all cultures, according to Lotman, is an organized structure of semantic value, known as the semiosphere. Lotman defines the semiosphere as the “semiotic space [the structure of sign systems in a culture] necessary for the existence and functioning of languages” (123). He posits that the semiosphere “is the result and the condition for the development of culture” (125). I also explore Lotman’s theory that text is a meaning-generating mechanism. Text has the potential to manifest new ways in which semantics are interpreted—by whomever engenders the text—subsequently altering the semiosphere and culture. He summarizes this idea in a few words, saying “a text strives to make its readers conform to itself” (63). After applying this theory, I will show how Bulgakov illustrates the Stalinist attempt to seize cultural space by altering the semantics of the internal culture. More importantly, it will be made clear how Bulgakov hopes to challenge Stalinism itself.

I also employ eminent geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s concepts of space and place in my analysis, through his book Space and Place (1977).[2] Tuan finds culture and space symbiotic, each building upon the other to create what he simply calls “place.” He argues that the conception of place is at the center of all human thought and reasoning. Like Yuri Lotman, Tuan places special emphasis on how place is perceived semantically and writes that humans are “capped by an exceptionally refined capacity for symbolization” (5). I employ Tuan’s thoughts particularly when analyzing the macrocosmic environments of the cities in which The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog take place.

Finally, I implement the cursory ideas of theologian Pavel Florensky, who, in his book Iconostasis (1996), discusses the symbolic and spiritual importance of the icon as well as a semantic analysis of dreams.[3] His idea that the icon serves as a liminal boundary between what is internal and what is external has applications in both of the Bulgakov works. Florensky also posits that the artist is like the icon, in that he can transcend the liminal boundary. I argue that the way in which Russian culture interprets the Orthodox icon resonates with how space can be perceived and defined.

I. Living Spaces: The Home and Anti-Home

First we must establish how space is important to Russian culture. Within The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog lies a specific notion of living space. Apartments and the home in both novels are prevalent and possess semantic value. Within the texts, the Stalinist state tries to seize living space because it represents the free cultural space common to all people. Both Tuan and Lotman understand this. Tuan, in the introduction of his book, says that culture is “taken for granted; culture is inescapable…” (Tuan 5). Lotman writes that “[for] Bulgakov, and Pushkin in the 1830s, culture was inseparable from private life” (190), and that, for Bulgakov, this tradition is extremely important because “the symbolism of the opposition ‘home/anti-home’ is one of the organizing ideas of all his writings” (185). Lotman theorizes that the home is a place “which is one’s own” and a “place of safety, culture, and divine protection” (185). Conversely, the anti-home is the “center of the abnormal world” and possesses a connection to death (186). It is corrupted and antithetical to the home.

The home is what Tuan would define as life-place. It exists simply as a living space, but at its core it fosters the growth of culture and society. Life-place is familiar and defined by individuals. It is a center of individualism and semantic interpretation through which, when examined broadly, culture and society develop. It is also open and allows semantic information to freely enter and exit. The anti-home is a corrupted space. It is dictated and subverted. It forces those within it to conform to itself without mercy and seeks to keep its space closed because it perceives foreign influences as a challenge.

Applying Lotman’s definitions, the anti-homes in Bulgakov’s works are corrupted and subverted Stalinist life-places. In The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog, Stalinism seeks to destabilize the established life-places of both the bourgeois and poor homes and institute a new one; a space controlled by the state. Using the literal application of Lotman’s theory, the semantics of the home are changed through codes propagated by Stalinism. A new culture is thereby generated, over which the authoritarian state holds all power.

Cultural space, then, is the cornerstone of my thesis. Thus, I move to examine space within the Stalinist state. One of the primary functions of space is a symbolic indicator of status, and this function is extremely important to both Heart of a Dog and The Master and Margarita. In the modern era, since the existence of technologies that allow mankind to live conveniently in high stories, spatial hierarchy has been constructed. The rich live on the upper floors—the penthouse—which possess ample space as well as spatial views of the cityscape. As Tuan assesses, the distinction of the wealthy is “made evident to outsiders by the superior location of their residence” (38). In nearly all cultures, Russian culture included, owning expansive property signifies wealth; that is, a wealthy man is surrounded by a private, large space. The poor, on the other hand, live below, close to the dirty, noisy alleyways and streets, with limited views of the next building. They are left with small, confined spaces.

The spatial environments of the rich and poor in Heart of a Dog and The Master and Margarita are indeed different from one another. Following the Bolshevik revolution, and thereafter throughout the 1920s, a mass consolidation and communalization of large apartments took place. These apartments were owned by the hated bourgeois, i.e. those wealthy individuals who lived in higher stories. Heart of a Dog takes place here: in a multi-room apartment facing consolidation. It is within this environment that Bulgakov exposes the first stages of Stalinist-seized cultural space. Doctor Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky’s apartment contains several rooms, each ascribed for a specific function in daily life. He has several people employed to maintain his own, private place where he can conduct his business with the utmost expedience. The large apartment remains continuously under the watchful eye of the local housing committee, which seeks to collectivize and communalize his life-place. The doctor has contacts within the bureaucracy to prevent the transformation, but he is scrutinized by the committee nonetheless.

Philipovich’s home thus serves as a remnant of the pre-revolutionized world contained within a separate space, with the Soviet revolutionized world threatening it. His apartment can be likened to a shadow of the romanticized home that Lotman analyzes, in which culture and private life are inseparable. When the housing committee and doctor have their first encounter, Preobrazhensky forces the representatives of the committee to conform to his privately self-maintained cultural space. He discovers a woman dressed in men’s clothing, to whom he says, “In that case, you may keep your cap on,” but to one of the men he says, “As for you, dear sir, I must ask you to remove your headgear” (Heart 24).

As the parties converse, Preobrazhensky learns of their purpose. He refuses to communalize or sacrifice his apartment. When told that “nobody has a dining room in Moscow” and to take his meals in his bedroom, Philipovich replies, “…allow me to take my meal where all normal people take theirs, that is, in the dining room, and not in the foyer or nursery” (Heart 27). Throughout the discourse, we see the frustrated doctor preserving his old-world life-place from the invading force. Interestingly, the majority of the novella’s events take place within the confined space of the apartment, which serves as a microcosm of the exterior world.

Heart of a Dog also illustrates the impact life-place exerts on its inhabitants, both psychological and physical. When the dog Sharik is introduced in the novel, he is starving, destitute, and homeless. However, after being taken in by the doctor, he quickly changes. Not only is he physically healtheir and nourished, he even begins to take on the mental characteristics of a nobleman, or in this case, a noble “dog:”

I’m a handsome devil. Am I perhaps an unknown canine prince—incognito, the dog wondered, gazing at the shaggy coffee-colored dog with a well-pleased muzzle wandering about in the depths of the mirrors. It is very possible that my grandmother had sinned with a Newfoundland. Look at that white spot on my chin. Where does it come from, I ask you? Philp Philipovich is a man of excellent taste—he wouldn’t pick up just any stray mutt (Heart 40).

His final transformation into the cultured bourgeois lifestyle is completed when the doctor purchases a collar for him. As Sharik is walking the streets, Bulgakov states that: “There was fierce envy in the eyes of all the dogs he met” (Heart 42). He has now been elevated above the other dogs around him. Sharik eventually undergoes a second transformation, the main plot device, which turns him into a man—also the product of living within the doctor’s maintained space. Neither the transformation into a man nor the transformation into the cultured, bourgeois lifestyle, however, succeeds.

Moving forward in time, by the 1930s when The Master and Margarita takes place, the consolidation of large-scale apartments was nearly complete. Single family, multi-room apartments were a rarity, and most citizens lived in newly collectivized and now crowded communal living spaces. Compared to the setting of Heart of a Dog, we see that Stalinist control of cultural space has come to near culmination.

In The Master and Margarita, the home remains lost due to collectivization efforts and the wary and intruding eye of the state apparatus. The possibility of a genuine home does not exist in the novel until the end, when the Master and Margarita are rewarded with peace when they leave Moscow behind. As Lotman explains:

After all his experiences of pseudo-homes, the camp, the madhouse, and after being purged by the flight… the master is rewarded with a world of tender domesticity, of life steeped in culture which is the fruit of the labours of past generations; he is rewarded by an atmosphere of love, a world without cruelty (190).

While in Heart of a Dog we witness the private life-place being subverted, in The Master and Margarita we see an attempt by the heroes to restore it. Until the end of the novel, any mention of a true home comes to the reader through the nostalgic retellings of the Master. When the Master first meets Homeless[4], he describes with passion the details of his former life: “A completely private little apartment, plus a front hall with a sink in it” (Master 138).[5]

Conversely, anti-homes in The Master and Margarita—which include most of the flats in Moscow—are under the control of the bureaucratic apparatus. Most apartments are small and cramped. Tuan writes that “spaciousness is closely associated with a sense of being free” (52), thus paralleling the argument that Stalinism controlled society by consolidating space. Secondary effects, such as an invasion of privacy, are also caused by crowding. Tuan later says that “crowding is an awareness that one is observed. In a small town people ‘watch out’ for one another. ‘Watch out’ has both the desirable sense of caring and the undesirable—and perhaps malicious—curiosity” (60). This crowded environment added to the paranoia induced by Stalinism. It was easy to find faults and report one’s neighbor to the authorities because people lived practically on top of one another. This occurs consistently throughout The Master and Margarita, when apartment dwellers threaten to report their neighbors and flat-mates.

Yet the anti-home within the novel is much more than crowded. The strange, terrible, and chaotic occur within the subverted life-places, which are dominated by an omniscient, external power. In the novel, the most profane example of the anti-home is apartment number 50 on Sadovaya Street: “It must be said that this apartment—no. 50—had long had, if not a bad, at least a strange reputation” (Master 75). The tenants of the apartment each disappear one by one. The owner of the home, the widow of a jeweler, Madame Anna Frantseva de Fougeray, lets out three of the five rooms to lodgers. The first to disappear is one “with a lost name” who left with a policeman. The second is a man with the surname Belomut, who disappeared in a car, followed by his wife. Finally, Anna Frantseva disappears herself, despite leaving for her dacha for an extended period. Note that Anna Frantseva did what Preobrazhensky in Heart of a Dog refused to do: collectivize a multi-room apartment. This apparently did little to save her.

Anna Frantseva, with her seemingly bourgeois former lifestyle as the wife of a jeweler and French-sounding name, is no doubt a prime target of the Soviet state. Her housekeeper, Anfisa, remains convinced that the apartment is filled with “колдовство” (witchcraft) and tells Anna Frantseva that “she knew perfectly well who had stolen both the lodger and the policeman, only she did not wish to talk about it towards night-time” (Master 76). Thus, apartment number 50 is immediately depicted by Bulgakov as an anti-home. Its space is corrupted and, in turn, corrupts the lives of its inhabitants.

The reader knows, however, that the tenants’ disappearance was not because of sorcery, but rather police interrogations and arrests. Bulgakov also describes the apartment as sealed, or “запечатанный,” from outsiders after becoming vacated. “Но этого мало: двери обеих комнат, которые занимали супруги Беломут, оказались запечатанными!” (78)[6] Remarkably, the Russian word “запечатать”[7] shares the same root as “to print” or “to type”— “печатать.” Thus, there is a linguistic connection showing that the method used by Stalinism to seal the home space is heavily related to the writing, printing, and reading of literary material. Bulgakov employs Lotman’s theory of text as a meaning-generating mechanism on a very literal level. Outside of the fictive story, at a meeting with favored Soviet writers, Stalin is even quoted as saying, “And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul” (Stalin). These ideas will be analyzed and expressed in more depth later. In the end, the life-place of the apartment becomes totally subverted after the deliberately French-named Anna Frantseva de Fougeray disappears.

It is important to note, however, that the strange events within apartment number 50, primarily the continual disappearances of its tenants, happen well before the arrival of the devil, Woland. The apartment’s space was already subverted. Bulgakov uses Woland’s dark magic and knowledge of the “fifth dimension” to control the space, transcending it to a metaphysical level. Yet the devil cannot be likened to the same force as Stalinism or the Soviet state—a common misconception by many readers. The impossibility of this connection is made evident when one of Woland’s henchmen tells Margarita that he has “known people who had no idea, not only of the fifth dimension, but generally anything at all, and who nevertheless performed absolute wonders in expanding their space” (Master 250). The “people” the henchman refers to are no doubt particular citizens of the Soviet Union, who seek to expand their space by either accusing neighbors of counter-revolutionary activity or staying in favor with the authorities. They use the new government as a means to spatial expansion. This behavior is propagated by Stalinism, which controls space through encouraging these actions. In this way, the “people” Woland’s henchman refers to could be interpreted as being the state itself. He proclaims that Woland and his cohort are only one force among many seeking to dominate space. The devil, then, does not serve as a representation of Stalin for Bulgakov. Rather, he is a tool to illustrate exactly how Stalinist visions were achieved by taking control of the apartment and subjecting it to his will.

More examples of the anti-home exist throughout Moscow in the The Master and Margarita. The madhouse to which Ivan Nikolayich Ponyryov, or Homeless, is committed stands as such an example. Etymologically, the word “madhouse” is constructed the same in Russian: “сумасшедший дом,” meaning “crazy house.” In English, “дом” translates both as house and home. Thus, it is only logical to conclude that the “сумасшедший дом” is the quintessential anti-home. The madhouse in the novel is controlled entirely by the state. It is full of both the irrational and the absurd. In a sense, the madhouse is metaphysical, particularly when Homeless is drugged by the doctors. He slips into delirium, and the continuation of his stay is other-worldly in nature.

The doctor and his staff continually persuade Homeless to remain calm: “You’ll be helped here…you’ll get relief…it’s quiet here, all peaceful” (Master 94). Homeless had previously witnessed Woland’s prediction coming true: Homeless’ colleague, Berlioz, died after slipping on sunflower oil and falling under a tram, which decapitated him. He panicked because he knew that Woland was a foreigner and was certain the strange man was engaged in some type of espionage, congruent with the mass paranoia propagated by the state. Homeless had witnessed truth, despite its absurdity, and hoped to retell it. He was immediately rushed to a closed anti-home—the madhouse—separated and sealed from the external world, from which he cannot escape to harm or frighten the inhabitants of the external world. His stories of the irrational, the chaotic, and the foreign are perceived as dangerous. It is in this anti-home where he is falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Another example of the anti-home pertinent to this discussion is The House of Griboedov, or “Дом Грибоедова.” The building, to which Homeless flees before being sent to the mental hospital, is the meeting place of the Massolit writers’ union (Masters of Socialist Literature), of which Homeless is a member and his decapitated colleague Berlioz was director.[8]

Bulgakov calls the members of Massolit the “languished twelve writers,” satirizing them as the apostles who waited for Jesus at the last supper. Like the apostles, they have the ability to write their version of truth. That truth is socialist idealism, as propagated by Stalinism. Like the sealed rooms, Massolit is controlling the space of Moscow through interpretation of the word, which is written in the anti-home of Griboedov. Thus, the House of Griboedov is a closed space. The restaurant on the first floor is only open to those with proper identification and closed to most citizens of the external world. Having once been a private home, it is now under the control of the state, like the mental hospital.

These twelve writers have an interesting connection with the meta-fiction within The Master and Margarita. The Master’s book seeks to retell the true story of Jesus Christ. As mentioned above, the twelve writers of the guild are a parody of the disciples, who wrote about the life of Jesus. If the Master is telling the true story of Christ, then it would be insinuated that the original twelve disciples wrote a false story. This would in turn suggest that the twelve writers of the guild are also writing falsehoods, i.e. socialist realism.

The anti-home exists in Pilate as well, particularly Pilate’s residence at Herod’s palace. The palace is sealed and under the foreign, imposing control of the Roman Empire. Pilate says the palace “positively drives me out of my mind” and causes him frequent headaches (Master304). Most of the events that take place within the palace, and not on the open balcony, are menacing and concerned with death, such as the plot to kill Judas and negotiation of his bounty, or the discussion of Yeshua’s fate.

More importantly, Lotman’s theory can be applied to the story within a story; that is, to the Master’s novel within The Master and Margarita. The Master’s purpose in writing the novel—much like Bulgakov—is to propagate truth and is using text to redefine a widely accepted belief. His book seeks to reorganize the semantics of Jesus’s story, which would certainly change society. Bulgakov is doing the same by writing The Master and Margarita, except that he hopes to shed light on the widely conceded lie of Stalinism and subverted, controlled culture.

II. Open vs. Closed Space; Internal vs. External Space

Thus far, I have analyzed how homes and anti-homes in each work serve as the basis for the development of culture. I will now focus specifically on the idea that the home and anti-home also function as open and closed spaces, respectively, and provide a more detailed analysis.

The open, homey life-place is a free place. The original home of Margarita and the Master, before the novel takes place, is filled with love. Margarita is free to come and go as she pleases, and the Master writes without limitation. The space is filled with positive energy, as the Master describes to Homeless: “Ah, what furnishings I had! The extraordinary smell of lilacs!” (Master 139).

His novel about the true story of Pontius Pilate and Jesus finds its birthplace and growth within the inspiring, nurturing, and creative open life-place. Thus, the home is the cradle of truth and pure culture. The home is ruined, however, after the Master’s freedom to write without censorship is taken away from him. When his novel is deemed unacceptable by the editor, the effects of encroaching exterior power sweep over the Master’s home, quickly subverting it. It then becomes a closed space and anti-home, incapable of sustaining the sought-after positive lifestyles of Margarita and the Master, and indeed truth itself.

The most pertinent example of a closed and sealed space is, of course, apartment number 50. It is rendered completely separate from the exterior world, other than the immortal visitors of Woland and his cohort. Having been transformed into a witch, Margarita is taken to apartment number 50, which was “dark as underground” and much larger than it had been before, expanded by the “unclean” powers of Woland (Master 249). After Satan’s ball, the cohort returns to the apartment, where Margarita asks that Frieda, an eternally punished soul, be released of her wicked curse. Woland replies: “One thing remains, perhaps: to procure some rags and stuff them in all the cracks of my bedroom” (282). Margarita does not understand the seemingly random necessity of rags. Woland replies: “I’m talking about mercy…It sometimes creeps, quite unexpectedly and perfidiously, through the narrowest cracks. And so I’m talking about rags” (283).

Woland’s logic here, though unclear on the surface, is entirely congruent with Lotman’s theories. His anti-home is self-maintained. Its sealed nature, however, is threatened by Margarita’s mercy and kindness. Woland is not entirely opposed to mercy in practice, as we see at the end of the novel, but it nonetheless changes the dynamics of his space. Margarita’s mercy is seeping “through the narrowest cracks” from the exterior world and exerting influence upon Woland’s anti-home. Her mercy is an external force, and Lotman says that our quest for understanding “is a dangerous aspect of culture which is lopsidedly oriented towards the acquisition of information from the outside” (35). In his theory, he continuously underscores the power that external semantics and information have on our interior worlds. Perhaps herein rests Bulgakov’s hope for overcoming and defeating the Stalinist vision. For Woland, subverting the home and life-place was relatively easy. Keeping it entirely sealed, however, proved difficult for him and for the Stalinist-controlled state as well. Ideas, information, and acquisition of new thoughts were extremely difficult for the Soviet Union to regulate.

From here, the binary notions of closed and open spaces progress beyond apartments and rooms. They expand macrocosmically to the larger world. Within this grandiose space (i.e. the Soviet Union as a whole), we witness the same closed or open characteristics. The Soviet Union is a closed space, as Bulgakov would have us see it. Therefore, it seeks—much like apartment number 50—to resist external influences. Internal and external spaces exist in all cultures. As Lotman posits: “Every culture begins by dividing the world into ‘its own’ internal space and ‘their’ external space” (131). A boundary also evolves that separates the internal and the external, and thus liminal space is created. From here, I will examine the expanded ideas of internal, external, and liminal space.   

Both The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog present internal, external, and liminal spaces, although in Heart of a Dog they are perhaps not at the forefront of the storyIn the novella, spatial dimensions are defined on the basis of Preobrazhensky’s apartment. The conflict between open and closed space—a home becoming an anti-home—occurs here. As Sharik develops into a man, the battle of the internal versus external world continues.

Sharik’s second and main transformation is crucial to understanding this tension. He is being transformed into a new organism with a different thought process. The operation that Preobrazhensky performs is obviously the catalyst for Sharik’s physical evolution, but his mannerisms and ways of thinking must also be changed. Interestingly, Preobrazhensky and the leading member of the housing committee, Shvonder, are competing over the man that Sharik will become.

Herein lies the conflict of the internal and the external. Sharik (or Sharikov, as he is called after the surgery) is, for the purpose of this argument, a blank slate. He is the hollow of a man, which, when filled and surrounded by a certain idea—a certain space—develops in a certain way, congruent with the previous assessment that space influences character and society. Preobrazhensky attempts to keep him within the internal apartment of pre-revolutionized Russia, separated from the external, revolutionized Soviet society. Sharikov shows great progress in developing the ideas and mannerisms of pre-revolutionized Russian society, but only as long as he remains in this internal atmosphere. When he ventures outside and is exposed to the Soviet propaganda, or when Shvonder enters Preobrazhensky’s apartment, much to the doctor’s dismay, Sharikov begins to show characteristics of the proletariat-conscious revolutionized man. When Preobrazhensky tells Sharikov that he refuses to address him by his patronymic and instead calls him “Mister Sharikov,” Sharikov retorts, “I am not a mister, all the misters are in Paris!” (Heart 96).

This entire dynamic shows the continual state of competition between the external and internal worlds. Moreover, while the home and anti-home are fixed, what is internal and external is relative to the individual. As Tuan writes, “Every person is at the center of his world…” (41). For Stalinism, the internal world is revolutionized Russia. Within it is the ardent fervor of building the socialist utopia. It attempts to close itself from the external world—the capitalist west. Conversely, for Preobrazhensky, the internal world is his apartment, which holds the ghost of the old home and imperial Russia. The external, from which he strives to keep Sharikov, is Soviet space.

Just as Bulgakov argues through Sharikov in Heart of a Dog that people are a product of their environments, he makes the same argument in The Master and Margarita. When Woland and his cohort have their exhibition, the auditorium becomes an internal, closed space. His cohort makes dollars fall from the ceiling and brings the women in the audience to a frenzy when he gives them western clothing. In the matter of a few minutes, the seemingly devout socialist citizens are transformed into greedy capitalists. Woland remarks about the audience: “They love money, but that has always been so…In general, [they are] reminiscent of the former ones…only the housing problem has corrupted them” (Master 126).

Moving forward in our analysis, and having examined the relationship between internal and external, it is important to note that their shared border is also of vast importance. Liminality has permeated Russian culture for millennia and is defined as an intermediate state, phase, or condition. It can be found in connection with space and time in Russia’s folklore and stories, whether it is a person crossing a bridge or a clock passing midnight. Liminal space is both captivating and forbidden, revered and feared. It promises the tools to save the hero, but is also dangerous. More importantly for our analysis, the mysteries of liminal space are only understood by the wise and powerful.

Liminality is recurrent in Slavic folklore, and folklore can be representative of a society’s basic understandings. Thus, to analyze how Russian culture perceives liminal space, I digress to examine a popular Russian folktale, The Firebird. In the story, the archer protagonist must find the legendary and elusive firebird, and bring it to the Tsar. He must also capture the equally beautiful and other-worldly Princess Vasilissa, who lives “in the land of Never, on the very edge of the world” (Ransome 112). Both midnight and the edge of the world represent a liminal divide. The hero’s “horse of power” has the knowledge of liminal space to bestow on the protagonist. “‘I told you,’ says the horse of power, ‘that if you took the feather you would learn the meaning of fear… Go to the Tsar and ask him to have a hundred sacks of maize scattered over the open field, and let this be done at midnight’” (Ransome 109). Later in the folk-tale the horse explains how he will capture the Princess: “Go to the Tsar and ask him for a silver tent with a golden roof, and for all kinds of food and drink to take with us on the journey” (Ransome 112). The ancient horse of power has a deep understanding of liminality. He knows it is powerful and also has the knowledge to cross it.

Woland in The Master and Margarita is a representation of the power through which a force can cross the liminal threshold of the internal and external. After all, it is Woland and his retinue who bring the chaos of the foreign to Moscow. At the beginning of the novel, when the devil first makes the acquaintance of Homeless and Berlioz, they continually refer to him as “иностранец,” or foreigner, and label him as such before they even speak to him. “Рот какой-то кривой. Выбрит гладко. Брюнет. Правый глаз черный, левый– почему-то зеленый. Брови черные, но одна выше другой. Словом—иностранец” (Мастер 9).[9] Throughout their first dialogue, Homeless and Berlioz are utterly perplexed. They resort to calling him “немец,” or German, which was common for the time period, although they aren’t certain of his actual heritage. Nor can they understand why his Russian is so pure. His presence threatens the two characters’ internal space, because he represents the thoughts of the external. This is made apparent when Woland, Berlioz, and Homeless have their first discussion about the legitimacy of the story of Jesus Christ. Berlioz and Homeless, being staunch and devoted communist writers, reject the story of Jesus. Woland, on the other hand, very openly claims the story is true.

Woland is also polylingual, as Berlioz and Homeless soon discover, and as Lotman says: “The boundary is bilingual and polylingual. The boundary is a mechanism for translating texts of an alien semiotics into ‘our’ language, it is the place where what is ‘external’ is transformed into what is ‘internal,’ it is a filtering membrane which so transforms foreign texts that they become part of the semiosphere’s internal semiotics while still retaining their own characteristics” (137).

Woland serves as the same mechanism Lotman describes here, which has the power not only to manipulate space and time—as Woland continually does throughout the novel—but also to change how the residents of a closed, internal space view and perceive foreign semantics. He does this at his exhibition with the western clothes and money: both are representative of what the Soviet Union would label western greed, yet in only a few minutes Woland spreads chaos amongst the Muscovites with these temptations. Therefore, one who can cross a liminal boundary has the power to fundamentally change a culture and redefine truth. This is precisely what threatens Stalinism, and it is precisely why Stalinist policy sought to completely close Soviet space. Not only does The Master and Margarita illustrate this idea, but it brings the challenge directly to the doorstep of Stalin himself.[10]

Those like Woland and the Master have inherent knowledge and access to information from across liminal space. Bulgakov, as the genius who created them, does as well. These characters have access to the external world and can find truth within it. More importantly, and more dangerously for Stalin, they have the ability to bring this external knowledge back to their internal worlds and translate it for those who, without them, could not understand it. To support this argument, I will employ the theories of Pavel Florensky, who examines the icon painter and spiritual artist as one who can transcend to the plane of divinity and spirituality. In regard to Bulgakov’s works, the individuals—the artists—who can move past the boundary into the external are like the icon and its painter. Both are searching for a pure source of knowledge. Florensky says: “An icon is a transfixing, an annunciation that proclaims in color the spiritual world; therefore, icon painting is the occupation of a person who sees the world as sacred” (78). It is important to note that Bulgakov, like the icon painter, sees the world as sacred, and through writing literature, seeks to bring truth to his readers.

III. Movement and Awareness through Space

Having established the central ideas of the space of home and differentiating external and internal space, it is appropriate to examine how the most important characters in The Master and Margarita move through this space. The ways that the characters are free to move through space or restricted from it are indicative of the purpose they serve in Bulgakov’s message to the reader. If a culture is defined by space and life-place, and if Stalinism and Bulgakov’s response thereto is also solely dependent on the influences and control of space and culture, then it follows that an analysis of how Bulgakov’s characters physically interact with their environments is of equal importance.

Tuan spends a great amount of time explaining the importance of movement and how we perceive direction. Direction is entirely relative to an individual in western culture: “circumambient space is differentiated in accordance with the schema of his body” (Tuan 41). Front, back, left, and right are generally defined by the direction we are originally facing. Our goals and responsibilities are always ahead of us, where we are travelling to. Doctor Preobrazhensky, Sharik, the Master, Margarita, Woland, and Homeless all define the spaces around them individually. They decide where they move and when they have crossed to the internal or external. They decide whether to maintain their spaces as open or closed.

Margarita is a special example and deserves specific analysis. Her predominant method of travel, other than by conventional means, is flight, which gives her the ability to be above everything. Tuan articulates that flight is associated among most cultures with freedom because spatial movement becomes nearly unlimited (52). This happens to Margarita after she is transformed into a witch by Azazello’s cream. Her unhappiness and restricted life, both physically and mentally, are changed instantly with her new abilities. The first sentences of the chapter, Flight, are: “Invisible and free! Invisible and free!” (Master 235).

Flight is a representation in this case of spatial awareness. Margarita has been granted the gift of spatial understanding from Azazello, a supernatural member of Woland’s cohort. In this way, she is akin to the hero in The Firebird, who is granted the understanding of space by his horse of power. Margarita’s new perspectives are illustrated immediately. Her flight gives her the ability to see the spaces of Moscow as a collective quickly and without restriction. She becomes antithetical to closed spaces. She first stops, without reason, outside of a building and gazes into the kitchen of a communal apartment. Here she sees three women arguing, one threatening the other to have her evicted by the housing committee. Margarita speaks to frighten the women, turns off the stove, and flies away. Thus, she sees the space of the average Muscovite, corrupted by the housing problems. Her second stop is the apartment of a man named Latunsky, a literary critic who ruined the Master’s writing reputation. She destroys the apartment and exits the closed anti-home quickly thanks to her invisibility. In this apartment, she sees the space of the privileged party member and sponsored writer. This all means that Margarita, thanks to her spatial understanding, now has the ability to cross the liminal boundaries which divide the spaces of Moscow.

At the end of the novel, the Master and Margarita are, once again through the power of flight and spatial enlightenment, granted total freedom. They leave the city of Moscow behind and fly away with Woland and his cohort, where they are granted eternal paradise. The removal from their restricted spaces and their gained awareness grant them happiness and immortal metaphysical transformation. In paradise, their cultural life-places are not controlled by Stalinism or a foreign malignant force. As Lotman theorizes when discussing Bulgakov’s ideas of values: “[they] are set by Bulgakov in a complex hierarchy: on the lowest step is inert materiality, and on the highest absolute spirituality. The former needs a living space and not a home, while the latter does not need a home…” (189). The Master and Margarita attain this high level of spirituality, and their paradise is void of a space that can be controlled, open, or closed.

IV. Conclusions: Challenging and Understanding the Stalinist Vision

While the story has a happy ending for the Master and Margarita, for those still living under the autocratic and bureaucratically organized society of the Stalinist Soviet Union, a practical solution cannot be as simple. Through his prose, however, Bulgakov provides the tools necessary to challenge the perverting forces of Stalinism.

Bulgakov reveals in Heart of a Dog that people and society are products of their environments. He also illustrates the power that the Stalinist vision possesses and shows the mechanisms through which it consolidated power. In the novella, the final operation is a failure, and Sharik/Sharikov reverts back to a dog. The reader can assume that the housing committee collectivizes Doctor Preobrazhenksy’s apartment. The novella ends on a somber note, with the doctor continuing to conduct research on how to successfully alter and evolve organisms. In Heart of a Dog, Bulgakov warns that both mankind and its spaces are corruptible. He clearly illustrates that space and life-place are pivotal influences on character and individual understanding. If space is unrestricted and open, culture and the society within grow and progress healthily. However, when it is controlled or perverted, its growth becomes inhibited. Those within it cannot achieve a full understanding of their surroundings or themselves. While Heart of a Dog serves as a warning, in The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov finally reveals the key to challenging the Stalinist vision. Bulgakov believes that individuals such as the Master and Jesus/Yeshua have a greater sense of spatial understanding because they can access outside knowledge. This allows them to escape the closed, sealed spaces they are previously confined to. As soon as Margarita is granted spatial understanding, she is freed as well.

In order to challenge Stalinism, those living under it should aspire to be like the Master and Yeshua. By communicating with those who have spatial understanding, either literally or through reading, we attain new knowledge. The end goal is to live prosperously in an open, free, and natural cultural space. The means to do this is to keep our space open. This allows new ideas, visions and semantics into our space so that we can further our society. Individuals such as Bulgakov and the Master translate new ideas so others can understand them. Stalin saw these foreign influences as a threat to his power, and he propagated mass xenophobia across the Soviet Union. Bulgakov and Lotman suggest that all people define an internal and external world for themselves. Certainly, the internal world is more comfortable because we can understand it. The danger, according to Bulgakov, is closing the internal world completely from the external. The inhabitants lose a greater perspective and their lives become restricted. Yet just as Margarita’s mercy could penetrate the smallest cracks of Woland’s sanctuary, Bulgakov knew it was possible to slip through the strongest grip of the Stalinist vision. By reading and understanding his message, perhaps others can do the same.

Works Cited

Bulgakov, Mikhail. Heart of a Dog. (1925) Trans. Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. (1973) Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin, 1997.

Florenskiĭ, P A. Iconostasis. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000. Print.

Lotman, Yuri. Universe of the mind: a semiotic theory of culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Ransome, Arthur. The Firebird and Other Russian Fairy Tales. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 1995

Stalin, Joseph. “Speech at home of Maxim Gorky.” 26 October 1932.

Tuan, Yi-fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Булгаков, Михаил. Мастер и Маргарита. Санкт Петербург, Россия: Азбука, 2011.



[1] Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs, symbols, and signification. It is the study of how meaning is created, not what it is. Semiotics studies sign systems, most importantly verbal language, to examine how sign systems arise. These systems are the codes through which cultures derive meaning from symbols.

[2] Tuan is a specialist in humanistic geography, which focuses on the role of relationships in human contact and exchange.

[3] Florensky was assassinated by the NKVD in 1937, most likely due to his opinions on philosophy, religion, and ethics.

[4] In some English sources, translators use Homless’ original, but transliterated name, Bezdomny. For the purpose of this paper, congruent to the source and reference used, the name is translated.

[5] Observe how the nostalgic apartment is described by the Master as “private,” further illustrating how the true home is undisrupted and not subverted by an external force, i.e. Stalinism.

[6] “And not only that: the doors of the two rooms occupied by the Beloumut couple turned out to be sealed” (Master 76).

[7] The word запечатать translates roughly “to seal up.”

[8] Socialist realism was a style for all arts developed and encouraged by the Soviet state for the purpose of furthering the goals of socialism and communism. Writers’ guilds were common during this time period, and their mission was to spread socialist ideology through literature. Only state-approved writers could be members of writers’ guilds, and they were privileged with many benefits concerning the ability to publish.

[9] “The mouth is somehow twisted. Clean-shaven. Dark haired. Right eye black, left—for some reason—green. Dark eyebrows, but one higher than the other. In short, a foreigner” (Master 10).

[10] Interestingly, Bulgakov personally requested permission from Stalin to leave the Soviet Union. His request was denied.

About the author

Ethan McKown

Ethan McKown is majoring in Russian and Political Science at the University of Montana. After graduating next autumn, he plans to apply for the Fulbright Program and English teaching positions in Russia.

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