The case of Master and Margarita in Samizdat, and the existence of an extra-Gutenberg culture in the Soviet Union


  • Julia Boechat Machado Università di Bologna



New methods and theoretical approaches to the study of Samizdat - self-publishing and autonomous circulation of texts in the Soviet Union - have been challenging the traditional views that portray as a mere form of dissident activity. More recently, a study by Historian Ann Komaromi classified it as an extra Gutenberg culture, distinct from the Gutenberg tradition because it lacks its characteristics of standardisation, dissemination and fixity. Samizdat, in comparison, is spontaneously copied and distributed, and even altered by anonymous volunteers, and it is marked by its instability. Other oppositions for too long used in the study of Samizdat are also becoming obsolete: official publishers and culture versus dissidents, or Stalinism versus the Thaw. Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita is an interesting case study for new perspectives in Samizdat because it was part of official and unofficial culture, being officially published, circulating as Samizdat, and becoming the inspiration of a collection of thousands of graffitis that appeared in Moscow. It was also relevant in different phases of Soviet history, from Stalinism, when it was written, to the late soviet years when it gained cult status. When the novel was published, censors cut not parts that showed an ideology opposite to Soviet ideas of religion, the part of the novel that could more easily be regarded as dissident, but references to the housing crisis and to nudity. When the novel started circulating as a Samizdat, with the censored parts taped to it, it made a mockery of the official institutions, showing the unreliability of its publication system, the existence of censorship and its pettiness, and how the same miseries the author satirized remained common in the Soviet Union twenty years later. The case study will therefore show hoe the new perspectives in the study of Samizdat apply to a work of fiction.