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SYMPATHY FOR THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. The Rolling Stones meet Michail Afanas'evič Bulgakov

1. Never Talk to Strangers

At the sunset hour of one warm spring day two men were to be seen at Patriarch's Ponds. The first of them--aged about forty, dressed in a greyish summer suit--was short, dark-haired, well-fed and bald. He carried his decorous pork-pie hat by the brim and his neatly shaven face was embellished by black hornrimmed spectacles of preternatural dimensions. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with curly reddish hair and a check cap pushed back to the nape of his neck, was wearing a tartan shirt, chewed white trousers and black sneakers.

The first was none other than Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, editor of a highbrow literary magazine and chairman of the management cofnmittee of one of the biggest Moscow literary clubs, known by its abbreviation as massolit; his young companion was the poet Ivan Nikolayich Poniryov who wrote under the pseudonym of Bezdomny.

Reaching the shade of the budding lime trees, the two writers went straight to a gaily-painted kiosk labelled'Beer and Minerals'.

There was an oddness about that terrible day in May which is worth recording : not only at the kiosk but along the whole avenue parallel to Malaya Bronnaya Street there was not a person to be seen. It was the hour of the day when people feel too exhausted to breathe, when Moscow glows in a dry haze as the sun disappears behind the Sadovaya Boulevard--yet no one had come out for a walk under the limes, no one was sitting on a bench, the avenue was empty.

'A glass of lemonade, please,'said Berlioz.

'There isn't any,'replied the woman in the kiosk. For some reason the request seemed to offend her.

'Got any beer?' enquired Bezdomny in a hoarse voice.

'Beer's being delivered later this evening' said the woman.

'Well what have you got?' asked Berlioz.

'Apricot juice, only it's warm' was the answer.

'All right, let's have some.'

The apricot juice produced a rich yellow froth, making the air smell like a hairdresser's. After drinking it the two writers immediately began to hiccup. They paid and sat down on a bench facing the pond, their backs to Bronnaya Street.Then occurred the second oddness, which affected Berlioz alone. He suddenly stopped hiccuping, his heart thumped and for a moment vanished, then returned but with a blunt needle sticking into it. In addition Berlioz was seized by a fear that was groundless but so powerful that he had an immediate impulse to run away from Patriarch's Ponds without looking back.

Berlioz gazed miserably about him, unable to say what had frightened him. He went pale, wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and thought: ' What's the matter with me? This has never happened before. Heart playing tricks . . . I'm overstrained ... I think it's time to chuck everything up and go and take the waters at Kislovodsk. . . .'

Just then the sultry air coagulated and wove itself into the shape of a man--a transparent man of the strangest appearance. On his small head was a jockey-cap and he wore a short check bum-freezer made of air. The man was seven feet tall but narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin and with a face made for derision.

Berlioz's life was so arranged that he was not accustomed to seeing unusual phenomena. Paling even more, he stared and thought in consternation : ' It can't be!'

But alas it was, and the tall, transparent gentleman was swaying from left to right in front of him without touching the ground.

Berlioz was so overcome with horror that he shut his eyes. When he opened them he saw that it was all over, the mirage had dissolved, the chequered figure had vanished and the blunt needle had simultaneously removed itself from his heart.

'The devil! ' exclaimed the editor. ' D'you know, Ivan, the heat nearly gave me a stroke just then! I even saw something like a hallucination. . . ' He tried to smile but his eyes were still blinking with fear and his hands trembled. However he gradually calmed down, flapped his handkerchief and with a brave enough ' Well, now. . . ' carried on the conversation that had been interrupted by their drink of apricot juice.

They had been talking, it seemed, about Jesus Christ. The fact was that the editor had commissioned the poet to write a long anti-religious poem for one of the regular issues of his magazine. Ivan Nikolayich had written this poem in record time, but unfortunately the editor did not care for it at all. Bezdomny had drawn the chief figure in his poem, Jesus, in very black colours, yet in the editor's opinion the whole poem had to be written again. And now he was reading Bezdomny a lecture on Jesus in order to stress the poet's fundamental error.


'There is not one oriental religion,' said Berlioz, ' in which an immaculate virgin does not bring a god into the world. And the Christians, lacking any originality, invented their Jesus in exactly the same way. In fact he never lived at all. That's where the stress has got to lie.’

At the very moment when Mikhail Alexandrovich was telling the poet how the Aztecs used to model figurines of Vitzli-Putzli out of dough-- the first man appeared in the avenue.

[…] He wore an expensive grey suit and foreign shoes of the same colour as his suit. His grey beret was stuck jauntily over one ear and under his arm he carried a walking-stick with a knob in the shape of a poodle's head. He looked slightly over forty. Crooked sort of mouth. Clean-shav-n. Dark hair. Right eye black, left ieye for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short--a foreigner.

As he passed the bench occupied by the editor and the poet, the foreigner gave them a sidelong glance, stopped and suddenly sat down on the next bench a couple of paces away from the two friends.

'A German,'' thought Berlioz. ' An Englishman. ...' thought Bezdomny. ' Phew, he must be hot in those gloves!'

The stranger glanced round the tall houses that formed a square round the pond, from which it was obvious that he seeing this locality for the first time and that it interested him.


'You see, Ivan,' said Berlioz,' you have written a marvellously satirical description of the birth of Jesus, the son of God, but the whole joke lies in the fact that there had already been a whole series of sons of God before Jesus, such as the Phoenician Adonis, the Phrygian Attis, the Persian Mithras. Of course not one of these ever existed, including Jesus, and instead of the nativity or the arrival of the Magi you should have described the absurd rumours about their arrival. But according to your story the nativity really took place! '

Here Bezdomny made an effort to stop his torturing hiccups and held his breath, but it only made him hiccup more loudly and painfully. At that moment Berlioz interrupted his speech because the foreigner suddenly rose and approached the two writers. They stared at him in astonishment.

'Excuse me, please,' said the stranger with a foreign accent, although in correct Russian, ' for permitting myself, without an introduction . . . but the subject of your learned conversation was so interesting that. . .'

Here he politely took off his beret and the two friends had no alternative but to rise and bow.

'No, probably a Frenchman.. . .' thought Berlioz.

'A Pole,' thought Bezdomny.

I should add that the poet had found the stranger repulsive from first sight, although Berlioz had liked the look of him, or rather not exactly liked him but, well. . . been interested by him.

'May I join you? ' enquired the foreigner politely, and as the two friends moved somewhat unwillingly aside he adroitly placed himself 'between them and at once joined the conversation. ' If I am not mistaken, you were saying that Jesus never existed, were you not? ' he asked, turning his green left eye on Berlioz.

'No, you were not mistaken,' replied Berlioz courteously. ' I did indeed say that.'

'Ah, how interesting! ' exclaimed the foreigner.

'What the hell does he want?' thought Bezdomny and frowned.

'And do you agree with your friend? ' enquired the unknown man, turning to Bezdomny on his right.

'A hundred per cent! ' affirmed the poet, who loved to use pretentious numerical expressions.

'Astounding! ' cried their unbidden companion. Glancing furtively round and lowering his voice he said : ' Forgive me for being so rude, but am I right in thinking that you do not believe in God either? ' He gave a horrified look and said: ' I swear not to tell anyone! '

'Yes, neither of us believes in God,' answered Berlioz with a faint smile at this foreign tourist's apprehension. ' But we can talk about it with absolute freedom.'

The foreigner leaned against the backrest of the bench and asked, in a voice positively squeaking with curiosity :

'Are you . . . atheists? '

'Yes, we're atheists,' replied Berlioz, smiling, and Bezdomny thought angrily : ' Trying to pick an argument, damn foreigner! '

'Oh, how delightful!' exclaimed the astonishing foreigner and swivelled his head from side to side, staring at each of them in turn.

'In our country there's nothing surprising about atheism,' said Berlioz with diplomatic politeness. ' Most of us have long ago and quite consciously given up believing in all those fairy-tales about God.'

At this the foreigner did an extraordinary thing--he stood up and shook the astonished editor by the hand, saying as he did so :

'Allow me to thank you with all my heart!'

'What are you thanking him for? ' asked Bezdomny, blinking.

'For some very valuable information, which as a traveller I find extremely interesting,' said the eccentric foreigner, raising his forefinger meaningfully. This valuable piece of information had obviously made a powerful impression on the traveller, as he gave a frightened glance at the houses as though afraid of seeing an atheist at every window.

'No, he's not an Englishman,' thought Berlioz. Bezdomny thought: ' What I'd like to know is--where did he manage to pick up such good Russian? ' and frowned again.

'But might I enquire,' began the visitor from abroad after some worried reflection, ' how you account for the proofs of the existence of God, of which there are, as you know, five? '

'Alas! ' replied Berlioz regretfully. ' Not one of these proofs is valid, and mankind has long since relegated them to the archives. You must agree that rationally there can be no proof of the existence of God.'

'Bravo!' exclaimed the stranger. ' Bravo! You have exactly repeated the views of the immortal Emmanuel on that subject. But here's the oddity of it: he completely demolished all five proofs and then, as though to  deride his own efforts, he formulated a sixth proof of his own.'

'Kant's proof,' objected the learned editor with a thin smile, ' is also unconvincing. Not for nothing did Schiller say that Kant's reasoning on this question would only satisfy slaves, and Strauss simply laughed at his proof.'

As Berlioz spoke he thought to himself: ' But who on earth is he? And how does he speak such good Russian? '

'Kant ought to be arrested and given three years in Solovki asylum for that " proof " of his! ' Ivan Nikolayich burst out completely unexpectedly.

'Ivan!' whispered Berlioz, embarrassed.




The novel’s central character. He is Satan, choosing to adopt the form of a man for his visit to Moscow. A paradoxical figure, he is both manipulative and honorable, ruthless and generous

The heroine of the novel, a woman of around thirty years of age. Though she is married to someone else, her true love is the master, though she does not know if he is alive or dead.

He is a weary man who has given up on life. In hushed tones, he explains the two most important elements in his life: the love he shares with Margarita (whom he refuses to name) and his failed novel.

The fifth procurator of Judea and the subject of the master’s novel. His story represents the counterpoint narrative to the main action in Moscow, and centers on his decision to approve the execution of Yeshua Ha-Nozri.

A vital character but actually does not appear much in the novel. He is  accused of wanting to incite rebellion and bring down the temple of Yershalaim

A young, misguided poet. The novel both starts and ends with him.

The chairman of Massolit, the writers’ union and the editor of a literary journal. He is a middle-aged man and prides himself on his atheism, rationality, and learnedness.

Woland’s right-hand man. He usually wears a pince-nez, a jockey’s cap and chequered clothes. He is adept at manipulating the Muscovites into showing the worst of themselves,

A huge black cat who can do everything that a human can do, including talking and walking on his hind legs. He is the most devilish of Woland’s crew

Another key member of Woland’s entourage. He is described as a short, fat, and broad-shouldered man whose mouth shows a single fang.

A beautiful redheaded succubus and part of Woland’s entourage. She is a vampire and almost always appears naked.

Pontius Pilate’s faithful dog, one of the only sources of joy in the procurator’s life.

Sympathy for the Devil is one of the few Stones songs which Mick Jagger wrote alone, without the help of his buddy Keith Richard. At first, he said it was based on a poem of Baudelaire. But later he said it was inspired by The Master and Margarita, which Marianne Faithfull would have offered to him as a present. Faithfull, who was Jagger's girlfriend at that time, said during an interview with Sylvie Simmons from the magazine Mojo in 2005: «I got Mick to read 'The Master and Margarita' and out of that, after discussing it at length with me, he wrote that song».

There are many remarkable similarities between Sympathy for the Devil and Bulgakov's novel. The song starts with «____________________________________________», which parallels strongly the introduction of Woland to Ivan and Berlioz in Michael Glenny's translation: «Please excuse me, for permitting myself, without an introduction...»

And then follow more references to sentences from The Master and Margarita. It starts with the first stanza matching perfectly with the feelings described by Woland when he talks about Pilate:

«I've been around for a long, long year

Stole many a man's soul and faith

And I was 'round when Jesus Christ


Made damn sure that Pilate


And it continues at the beginning of the second stanza with famous events from Russian history which are explicitly or indirectly commented by Bulgakov in the novel.

“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name

But what's puzzlin' you is the nature of my game

Stuck around St. Petersburg

When I saw ___________________________


Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank, held a general's rank

When the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank”

Anastasia is youngest daughter of the czar presumed to have been murdered with her family in July, 1918. Rumors have persisted of her possible escape. In February 1920 she would have been dredged up from the river in Berlin, totally ragged, and suffering from amnesia.


I watched with glee while  ____________________

Fought for ten decades for the gods they made

I shouted out, "____________________?"

When after all, it was you and me

Let me please introduce myself

I'm a man of wealth and taste

And I laid traps for troubadours

Who get killed before ____________________


Just as every cop is a criminal

And all the sinners saints

As heads is tails, ____________________

'Cause I'm in need of some restraint

So if you meet me, ____________________

Have some sympathy and some taste

Use all your well-learned politesse

Or I'll lay your soul to waste

In the brilliant moonlight, brighter than an arc-light, Margarita could see the seemingly blind man wringing his hands and staring at the moon with unseeing eyes. Then she saw that beside the massive stone chair, which sparkled fitfully in the moonlight, there lay a huge, grey dog with pointed ears, gazing like his master, at the moon. At the man's feet were the fragments of a jug and a reddish-black pool of liquid. The riders halted. 'We have read your novel,' said Woland, turning to the master,' and we can only say that unfortunately it is not finished. I would like to show you your hero. He has been sitting here and sleeping for nearly two thousand years, but when the full moon comes he is tortured, as you see, with insomnia. It plagues not only him, but his faithful guardian, his dog. If it is true that cowardice is the worst sin of all, then the dog at least is not guilty of it. The only thing that frightened this brave animal was a thunderstorm. But one who loves must share the fate of his loved one.' ' What is he saying?' asked Margarita, and her calm face was veiled with compassion.

'He always says ' said Woland, ' the same thing. He is saying that there is no peace for him by moonlight and that his duty is a hard one. He says it always, whether he is asleep or awake, and he always sees the same thing--a path of moonlight. He longs to walk along it and talk to his prisoner, Ha-Notsri, because he claims he had more to say to him on that distant fourteenth day of Nisan. But he never succeeds in reaching that path and no one ever comes near him. So it is not surprising that he talks to himself.

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