I had the pleasure of reading a Swedish translation of Михаил Булгаков's (that's Michail Bulgakov in the Cyrillic Russian Alphabet (CP1251 encoded)) excellent surrealistic novel in association with attending the IB program. Despite the relative thickness of the book, and despite the fact that I am a rather slow reader, I was through it in a matter days. The following is a translation of an essay I originally wrote in Swedish. While it contains brief recollections of events, I do not believe these constitute spoilers, as the main reading experience of novel lies in the way that the events are presented. Others may disagree, and you have been warned.
How Does Bulgakov Criticize the Police Force in The Master and Margarita?
Michail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is not only a classical account of the struggle -- or in this work perhaps the walk on the tightrope -- between good and evil; it is also largely a criticism of several aspects of the contemporary Soviet society. Probably the most blatant aspect criticized is the antireligious tendency brought along with Communism, but also the description of the literary association MASSOLIT, which bears witness of Bulgakov's aversion to the cultural snobbery, is important to emphasize. The description of the housing problems in Nikanor Ivanovich's dream and Korovyev's and Behemoth's last adventures in the exchange control office constitutes a criticism caustic enough to be omitted in the first edition.
A criticism perhaps not as manifest, but more recurrent, is that of the blind faith that the public has in the police force. As soon as something unexpected or abnormal occurs, the police is called for. Most public places have a caretaker on guard, who have virtually no concrete authority, and whose only weapon while on duty is a whistle, used to fulfill their task of drawing the attention of the police. This of course implies that police officers must always be within hearing distance. However, this always seems to be the actual case, a picture that can be confirmed by anyone having visited the Soviet Union while the Communist regime was in power.
Already in the opening chapter we see the first example of the Moscow citizens' faith in the Law. Here, Ivan suspects that the mystical stranger (later known by the name of Woland) is a foreign spy. Consequently, he reasons that the Aliens' Bureau should be contacted immediately, something that Berlioz is also convinced of after Woland tells his story of Pontius Pilate. This is the phone call Berlioz is on his way to make when he gets run over by a trolley -- an event that of course results in profuse whistling on behalf of the police. In the opening of the fourth chapter, Bulgakov describes the fading sound of whistles as two ambulances drive away, each with a separate part of Berlioz. The author has thus highlighted the inefficiency of the paramedics and the police alike. The police whistle, but does Berlioz benefit from this? He still remains decapitated.
Still, the would-be wise police does not aid Ivan in his hunt for Woland, but instead play an important role in capturing Ivan and sending him to a mental institution; neither are they keen on sending out the five motorcycle-equipped police officers with machine guns as Ivan recommends, calling from the aforementioned institution, which of course could be deemed understandable. Most ironical perhaps is that Ivan is the only one realizing the threat that Woland poses to the city. Naturally, automatic weapons would probably achieve little on the Devil himself, but would nevertheless have been a more adequate reaction, had they realized the actual situation at hand.
As soon as the authorities realize the course of events in the theater -- or rather realized that some sort of events took place in the theater -- the traces lead to the apartment of the late Berlioz, where Woland has been living during the eventful last few days. It is in this episode that the criticism towards the police authorities is most prevalent. Bulgakov points at the vast resources of the police -- twelve men are working on the theft of the head of Berlioz -- and at the same time its inefficiency, well hidden by a veil of contrived explanations of highly supernatural phenomena. The incompetence, however, is completely unveiled when a group of plain clothes police officers shoot blindly at Behemoth and, among other things, shoot him five times in the head -- with only material damage as a result.
Why then all this criticism of the police? Bulgakov questions the lack of faith in the individual that exists in his contemporary Soviet Union. When all actions taken are to benefit society, the individual's ability to think and act freely is only taken seriously if the individual is acting on behalf of the agency that he or she represents. Apprehending a criminal is up to the police. A civilian should therefore always first and foremost try to draw the attention of the police. Also, there should be no hesitation in calling for the police, since order is of utmost importance in the Soviet Union. Ivan and Berlioz consider it odd enough that a stranger says a few curious things to contact the Aliens' Bureau.
The fact that neither the master nor Margarita show any signs of this excessive faith in the police is an important observation, since it shows how Bulgakov separates the wheat from the chaff among the people. Most of the novel's characters are weak individuals who call for the police instead of taking action themselves, hence they are usually subjected to the punishing evil of Woland. The master and Margarita are the liberated, progressive individualists who, through their personal strength, deserve eternal peace. Like Bulgakov himself, the characters are averse to the society whose strive for equality has become a struggle for conformity and nonplus.
As mentioned earlier on, the version I studied was a Swedish translation as part of the World Literature component of the Language A1 (Swedish) HL course of the IB program, attended during the two school years of 1999-2001. While I can give no statement with regards to the quality of this specific essay (it was written purely as practice), I received a 7/7 in Swedish altogether. It may also be suitable to mention that I have relatives in Estonia, which was still (contrary to the population's desire) a part of the Soviet Union the first time I visited.