Between Rome and Jerusalem: Messianic Cities in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita

Judith E. Kalb, Wellesley College

This paper aims to explore the concept of the messianic city in Mixail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. I base my argument on Jurij Lotman and Boris Uspenskij's discussion (1984) of the medieval doctrine of "Moscow the Third Rome." Lotman and Uspenskij write that Moscow followed the lead of Constantinople, the "Second Rome," in claiming simultaneously for itself both secular/imperial authority, symbolized by Rome the city, and religious authority, symbolized by Jerusalem. An initial vision of Moscow as a theocratic New Jerusalem, unifying the imperial and the religious, gave way to a belief that Russia's national identity was torn between its secular and religious elements.

I argue that as Bulgakov interweaves scenes from Jerusalem under Roman rule (B. Gasparov 1978) and Moscow under Stalin, he portrays the unholy and divided nature of both potentially "messianic" cities. Russia's complex interaction between the religious/otherworldly and the secular/ imperial is reflected in Bulgakov's novel not only in the relationship between Yeshua and Pilate, but also in the relationship between the Russian writer and the Soviet state, represented by the Muscovite Master and, curiously, the often Stalinesque Woland. This latter relationship sheds light on and in ways parallels Bulgakov's own relationship with his mentor/tormentor Stalin.

With the final artistic vision of his hero the Master, Bulgakov asserts a promising rapprochement between Yeshua and Pilate. In so doing, through the connections he has already established in his novel, Bulgakov signals his own hope in a potential, eventual reconciliation of Russia's own warring elements. Even as he displaces this unifying vision to an apocalyptic framework (Bethea 1989), Bulgakov nonetheless intimates the possibility of the Russian "Third Rome's" eventual transformation into a messianic New Jerusalem.