The Smooth Operator Strikes Again: Ostap Bender as Bulgakov’s Woland

Emily E. Schuckman, University of Washington

As a master of wit, charm, human psychology and political negotiation, simultaneously vile and alluring, the literary rogue immediately captivates the audience with his irresistibly magnetic personality and seductive charm. His absolute disregard for societal norms coupled with his vantage point as an outsider makes the rogue the perfect character to satirize and critique the system in which he functions in a transitory capacity. Ilf and Petrov in Twelve Chairs and in the sequel, The Golden Calf, create a timeless rogue with their character Ostap Bender, and through him, reveal the problems of the emerging Soviet regime of the 1920s. A decade later, Bulgakov reincarnates him as Woland, the Devil in Master and Margarita in order to expose the harsher realities of the Soviet system. The reincarnation of Ostap as Woland the Devil in Bulgakov’s picaresque novel provides the perfect link to demonstrate the evolution of Soviet society from optimistic innocence and harmless pranks to one of jaded realism and deadly games.

Bulgakov has resurrected the beloved and trusted conman of Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf, Ostap Bender, in a much darker yet equally cynical critique of Soviet society in the late 1930s. As Val Bolen explains, “It may be reasonably assumed that Bulgakov intends Master and Margarita to be a polemic sequel to Ilf and Petrov’s satires.” (Bolen, 430) The parallels between Ostap and Bulgakov’s Devil are clear from the moment Woland interrupts Berlioz’s conversation with Ivan in the park. Indeed, Woland’s mannerisms and obvious flair for the dramatic, followed by the fantastic story of Pontius Pilate in chapter two, leave the reader wondering whether Ostap has in fact returned for his most elaborate adventure yet.

This paper explores the concept that the two immortal adventure seekers, Ostap and Woland are in fact one character molded in different images to suit the time and place of their existence. They lead us on a wild journey of encounters with colorful characters and improbable situations to reveal the true nature of the society in which they stopped by to visit. These men are immortal and amorphous and their wise voices will continue to be encountered for generations to come—it is important that we all take heed.

Work Cited:
Val Bolen. “Theme and Coherence in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,” SEEJ 16 (1972), 427-37.