“I am not the type to faint
When things are odd or things are quaint
But seeing things you know that ain’t
Can certainly give you an awful fright!
What a sight!”

(Dumbo, 1941)

Dumbo the elephant and his friend, Timothy, the mouse, are having a rather bad moment,

being haunted by a vision of PINK ELEPHANTS.

(Here’s the surrealistic scene from the Disney film, in case you haven’t seen it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcZUPDMXzJ8 )

They can blame this on the fact that they have accidentally been imbibing.


What kind of explanation, however, can you produce when there appears to be no valid reason for seeing something which, in your country, officially, doesn’t even exist?

We’re not talking about Area 51 and its secrets,

but about events which took place in Stalinist Moscow sometime in the late 1920s, early 1930s,

when the Communist government insisted upon an atheistic state and worked energetically to eradicate both churches and clergy.    


(For a short but useful article on Stalinist aggressive atheism, see:  https://www.history.com/news/joseph-stalin-religion-atheism-ussr )

But then Satan appears,

with some very destructive assistants,

including a cat with a taste for vodka.


(And perhaps this gives a new meaning to the German word for “hangover”:   Katzenjammer—“the wailing of cats”.)

What can be the official line when non-existent Satan and those assistants turn Moscow upside down?

What I’m describing here is, in fact, not history, but Soviet-era fiction, in Mikhail Bulgakov’s (1891-1940)

The Master and Margarita (1928-1940).

It’s a very strange and entertaining book which, unfortunately, as least for the near future, I’m doomed to read in any number of English translations, beginning with the first, Mirra Ginsburg’s,

then Michael Glenny’s,

and, just recently, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s.

(For an excellent article comparing translations, see:  https://welovetranslations.com/2022/10/31/whats-the-best-translation-of-the-master-and-margarita/ )

It’s also a very complex book, in which, although Satan (calling himself “Woland”) is a major worker within the plot, that plot also includes:

1. the (otherwise unnamed) Master, a novelist, who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate and character called “Yeshua” but who, suffering from despair, destroys the manuscript and ends up in a Moscow asylum,

2. the dealings of Pilate with Yeshua—and with Yeshua’s disciple, Matthew Levi,

3. the Master’s heroic mistress, Margarita,

4. the poet, Ivan Homeless, who has had an early encounter with Woland and appears in the same Moscow asylum as the Master

5. a large cast of minor characters, many of them from the Moscow theatrical world, who become entangled in the story through Satan/Woland’s one-night appearance at a Moscow theatre

For a plot summary and much more, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_and_Margarita

Although we see the Soviet state incapable of dealing realistically with Satan and his mischief, it did its usual—short of Gulag or execution—with Bulgakov, a venereologist turned novelist/dramatist, insuring that very little of his work ever reached publication or the stage.  In fact, Bulgakov became so desperate that he actually wrote to the head of all state persecutors, Stalin, asking to be allowed to emigrate, as he couldn’t work as a writer in his own country.  (The inevitable answer was, of course, no.)  Oddly, that same persecutor continued to spare Bulgakov, having loved one of his few literary pieces to appear, his play The Days of the Turbins (1926), reportedly seeing it at least 15 times.

(a photo from the original production)

The play was based upon Bulgakov’s 1925 novel, The White Guard,

which, ironically and like so much of Bulgakov’s work, never achieved publication in Russia in his lifetime.  It was begun serially in a magazine (Rossiya), which was closed down before more than the first two parts of the novel could appear.  (The title page above is from an edition published in Riga in 1927.)

In a way, it was Bulgakov’s own fault that he remained in publishing limbo.  Considering that The White Guard makes heroes of the Whites—that is, the anti-Bolsheviks at the time of the Russian Civil War (1917-1923)—

a second unpublished work from 1925, The Heart of a Dog,

(the first English translation)

details the adventures of a stray mutt initially called Sharik, who is turned into a brutal Soviet citizen, Poligraph Poligrafovich Sharikov, and The Master and Margarita shows in outline both the tangled bureaucracy of the new Russia, as well as the police state always just out of sight, but always present, it’s not surprising that Stalin’s literary henchmen would block Bulgakov’s attempts to bring his work to the reading public. 

I find these wonderful, crazy works, but I can also imagine the Soviet censors, faced with such elegant, imaginative criticism, and unable to offer any believable counter-criticism, would behave just as the lyric of that song with which I began puts it, shouting:

“What a sight!

Chase ‘em away!  Chase ‘em away!”

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

If you encounter those elephants, best just to close your eyes,

And know that, as ever, there’s