“O that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth!
There with a passion I would shake the world.”
At the height of Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Bulgakov spent a decade writing his magnum opus, “The Master and Margarita”.
During this time, the Soviet Union was officially atheistic. Writers were allowed to only write what the government wanted them to write, such as atheistic propaganda — some of which include writing off religious figures as though they never existed.
Any writer who merely possessed a manuscript that wasn’t in favor of the Soviet Union’s policies — let alone published it — were subject to imprisonment, exile, or execution. It wasn’t uncommon for such writers to “disappear” after receiving a knock on their door by the KGB (secret police).
Yet, Bulgakov went on to write his satire on the Soviet Union. But understandably, he was afraid. He didn’t see a future for himself as an honest writer in a time of rampant political repression.
So he burned his first draft.
But later on, he realized that he had nothing to lose. He was suffering from kidney failure and his days were numbered. He started working on his novel again, and pressed on in finishing it until the very end of his life, even as his eyesight worsened and he could barely dictate his own words. After his death, his wife honored the novel by completing it and supporting its publication.
In the novel, Satan makes a visit to Moscow with his demonic entourage — a giant cat, a female vampire, a translator in a pince-nez, and a fanged assassin.
They humiliate the literary elite for their cowardice in not saying anything important in their work. Enjoying fine cuisine and holidays, they have only produced work that pleased their government.
They perform absurd tricks on those literary figures, such as teleporting them, framing them for crimes, and tearing one of their heads off and putting it back on without a single stitch or scar — all alive and intact.
They eventually meet a struggling writer named “the Master” (who are in many ways, Bulgakov himself). Discouraged by the literary circle’s criticism on his novel’s manuscript on Pontius Pilate and Jesus’s crucifixion, he decided to burn it. Satan recovers the writer’s manuscript in his hands and tells him, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”
Understand that if your work is truly important — if it carries great value for others — it will outlast us. It will endure criticism and repression, because good things never go away. Good things always find their way through time and seemingly endless obstacles.
But it takes courage on your part to get that work done — to be crazy enough to believe that whatever you’re doing is in service of something much greater than yourself and all your fears, doubts and insecurities.
In Bulgakov’s novel, he relates the cowardice of the Soviet Union’s literary circle with that of Pontius Pilate, who according to Christian belief, ordered Jesus’s crucifixion, even though at heart, he knew that Jesus was a good man. Yet, he refused to follow his moral conscience because he was afraid of the political consequences — what might people say about him? Would he still be respected as a leader?
That decision haunted him forever, even as he made various attempts to make up for it.
If you’re experiencing self-doubts, remember that it’s only in the short term. Criticism and backlash — they burn. But good work doesn’t.
As another writer, Ernest Hemingway wrote in “Green Hills of Africa”, “A thousand years makes economics silly and a work of art endures forever.”