Novel that Stalin banned grips Russian television audience

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The Independent Online

Joseph Stalin banned it, while the Russian Orthodox Church worried that its text might undermine people's faith. Its plot lampoons state authoritarianism and censorship in a country that has atradition of both.

Now the first screen adaptation of Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov's novel Master and Margarita, one of the Communist era's finest pieces of literature, has been shown on Russian television. More than half of the adult population has tuned in over the past few weeks and revelled in a plot in which the Devil takes centre stage.

Master and Margarita has quickly become the top-rated programme in Russia. The novel has been serialised on the state-owned Rossia channel with the final instalment due to be broadcast today.

Although some purists have quibbled with some of the casting, most commentators have acclaimed the serialisation as a hit. The fact that the novel has been brought to the screen at all is a real achievement.

Bulgakov died in 1940, thinking that Master and Margarita would never see the light of day. In the Soviet era, every word published had to be passed by the censors. Bulgakov's novel broke too many rules for them and was not published until 1966, when Nikita Khrushchev was in power.

Previous attempts to bring it to the small or large screen have failed and the novel, which has satanic and surreal undertones, was considered by superstitious Russians to be jinxed.

The narrative weaves a dark, thought-provoking and sometimes slapstick tale of 1930s Moscow being visited by a foreigner called Woland, who is supposed to represent the Devil.

Woland was said to have been inspired by Stalin himself, which is one reason why the text was banned, and he brings with him a ghoulish entourage including a cheeky talking cat called Begemot (which means hippo in Russian).

Two other plots, one focusing on Pontius Pilate's decision to allow the crucifixion of Jesus and the other on the tale of two modern lovers (the Master and Margarita of the book's title), intermingle with the Woland plot.

For some, the fact that such screen adaptations are possible in Vladimir Putin's Russia is a sign of how much things have changed. Others have highlighted disturbing parallels with post-Soviet Russia's own censorship and authoritarianism.