Gods in the Streets: The Mystery Genre and Urban Space in Early Soviet Culture

Thomas Seifrid, University of Southern California

The point of departure for my remarks is a reading of Bulgakov’s Master i Margarita and the theatrical sense of space that pervades it. Bulgakov’s masterpiece sometimes appears anomalous in the history of Soviet, especially Stalinist, literature, but it can in fact be read as a key to an important and fairly widespread phenomenon in early Soviet culture: the intereaction between theatricality and the sense of urban space, especially as that space was to be transformed following the October Revolution (the intersection of the idea of theatricality with that of the political in this era is an interesting related topic that unfortunately lies outside the scope of this paper).

Like many of Bulgakov’s works, Master i Margarita in effect stages the intervention of divine (or otherworldly) elements into the drab world of Stalinist Russia. The obvious source for the novel’s sense of theatricality is Goethe’s Faust; but Faust is not a simple theatrical model. It is pointedly constructed according to principles of pre-Enlightenment (which is to say, pre-neo-Aristotelian) theater, and draws significantly on the 17th-century concept of “world theater” and the still earlier genres of mystery and Corpus Christi plays, all of which take the theater outside into the city square (or in the case of world theater, encompass the entire world), and all have the transformation of that space as their raison d’etre. Elements of all these traditions carry over into Bulgakov’s novel.

These links would be interesting enough as backdrop to Master i Margarita, but they also open a window onto an even broader landscape of early Soviet theatricality (as well as Stalinist pageants). The medieval mystery genre played a significant role in the culture of Russian modernism (Blok’s 12 is only the most vivid example, and is important in this context for its blending of mystery with the theme of revolution), and is self-consciously invoked in Mayakovsky’s Misteriia-buff (the “first Soviet play”), whose parodic use of the genre relies on that genre’s evidentness in the surrounding culture—for Mayakovsky’s burlesque the tradition parallels its more earnest invocation in Bolshevik street festivals (not least the 1920 mass spectacle Misteriia osvobozhdennogo truda), all of which strove to incorporate large swaths of urban space in Petrograd and Moscow portray the transformation of existence by the advent of socialist utopia. Mayakovsky and the street festivals in turn arguably respond to a 1915 play entitled Tsar’ Iudeiskii by one “K.R.” (the Grand Prince Kirill Romanov), which in effect established the presence of the mystery genre in early 20th-century Russian culture (and which was, as it happens, important to Bulgakov’s composition of the Jeruslaem chapters in Master i Margarita).

My paper will examine these links between the mystery genre and its offshoots, and the idea of transforming urban space, as they manifested themselves in early twentieth-century Russian culture. Particular reference will be made to Moscow and Kiev as the sites most relevant to Bulgakov.