I want to write about Master and Margarita but I don’t know how to introduce the subject. In the past, writing about a book has been because teacher told me to do so. This isn’t in exchange for a grade.

So, here we go! Fail me teacher! Cowardice is the greatest sin, and I will not be blocked for fear of a bad intro.

Pilate’s Cowardice

Master and Margarita contains two parallel plots. The secondary plot is being written by a character in the primary plot.Our protagonist, a thirty-something Moscavite called the Master, has been trying to finish a novel on the story of Jesus Christ. In his story, Pontius Pilate is the primary character, and the real conflict of his story is Pilate’s internal struggle over the condemnation of Jesus. The novel weaves in and out of the story of Pilate and the story of the events happening in Moscow.

The book’s primary plot revolves around the devil’s return to earth. Satan decides to visit 1930’s Moscow and perform a black magic show. The literary purpose of the devil is mainly to satire Soviet life. One of the things he does is to manipulate his audience’s love of money to make fools of themselves. Additionally he mocks the atheist citizens by killing the head of the literary society after an argument over the non-existance of the devil. Bulgakov’s Satan is portrayed as a dignified entertainer, and not of a goats hooves and horns type. Satan’s interactions with the locals provide a means for Bulgakov to satire Soviet society. I’m not too interested in the devil here, but it’s important to note that the biblical theme is not limited to the secondary plot.

It’s not arbitrary that at a time when Soviet Russia was rejecting Christianity, that Bulgakov chooses Satan as the message to the Muscovites, and has the secondary plot explore an alternative version of the Passion of Christ. In particular, he examines the character of Pontius Pilate in a narrative which spans the two days over which Jesus is tried and crucified.

And it is a mystery to any inquisitive reader: why should Pilate be given a central role in a novel about the devil coming to Moscow?

Generally, Christians see Pilate as one dimensionally malevolent. Not much about him is written in the New Testament other than his involvement in the sentencing of Jesus. This gives Bulgakov creative leeway in his Pilate interpretation, and the freedom to make Pilate more than just a simple, malevolent force.

The root of Pilate’s struggle comes from his competing sense of conscientiousness around his responsibility to the state, versus his awakened internal moral compass.

Now, a small note before we go on. Bulgakov chooses to re-name biblical characters with names which are more historically fitting. Maybe he does this to draw a clear distinction between his fiction and the biblical account. Or, maybe, he’s suggesting that his retelling is more real that the biblical account. I’m not sure.

On to Pilate.

Before Yeshua is thrown in front of him, Pilate is exhausted from insomnia, and suffering from a migraine. He hates governing Jerusalem and wants to return to his native home. More broadly, he is painted as a man defined by his service to the state. In his interactions with other Roman officials, he proclaims the state dogma that Caesar is king of all men. In this sense, his belief in the Roman system is his religion.

During his interaction with Yeshua, Pilate is disarmed. Initially annoyed by Yeshua for interrupting his migraine, Pilate becomes disarmed when he accurately explains Pilate’s psychological character. Yeshua explains that Pilate has lost passion for life in his all-demanding service of the state. At this point, the only thing which brings Pilate joy is his loyal dog. Pilate, being reasonable and open to Yeshua’s boldness, immediately recognizes the diagnosis is true. Pilate expresses a restrained compassion and friendliness towards Yeshua.

At the same time, Pilate recognizes the political reasons that Yeshua is standing judgment. His crime against the Roman state is claim that he is king of the Jews. This is an affront to the all powerful Caesar, and he could stand for punishment under the Roman system. Pilate realizes this, but also knows that he could easily send Yeshua to exile from Yershalaim, and send him somewhere safe. He suggests to Yeshua that he go to an island where Pilate happens to own an estate- a clear announcement that Pilate is not only concerned for Yeshua, but interested in having more conversation.

If it were just the Roman system which brought Yeshua to trial, Pilate probably could have saved him without jeopardizing his career. However, the real reason Yeshua was arrested came from the Jewish leadership, notable Kaifa. Kaifa sees Yeshua is a threat to their spiritual authority and therefore uses the legal system illegitimately to convict Yeshua. This is confirmed when the Kiafa chooses to exonerate a dangerous murderer over a Yeshua in a Passover tradition where the Romans let the Jews pardon one prisoner who is standing on death row.

So Pilate is in a bind. He understands the situation: Yeshua is an innocent man whose fate is consequent of his truthful and loose words, but that the Jewish authorities want him dead because his words are a threat.

What Pilate doesn’t consciously address is his own cowardliness. He chooses the easy option of crucifying innocent Yeshua. It’s ironic, for what Pilate is trying to preserve (his career) is the very thing that Yeshua pointed out is driving him to hate his life. Pilate’s service to the state made his lonely and sick. When given the opportunity to make a morally correct decision over a legally correct one, he chooses not to risk his loathsome job. His actions after the crucifixion indicate that he feels remorse. He goes as far as to offer one of Yeshua’s disciples a job as librarian. His attempt to free himself of guilt is noticed by Matthew and Matthew rebukes his offer, “…it won’t be very easy for you to look at me now that you have killed him.” To this, Pilate sticks to his hardline and offers Matthew more cash.

Pilate is someone who does not consciously address his moral compulsions and Pilate’s great sin is his cowardice in the face of a moral decision. He had a moment where he could have acted on his free will, and he let the moment pass.

Cowardice in Soviet Life

I can’t help but think that Bulgakov is trying to express something about cowardice that he saw around him during the worst days of Soviet power under Stalin. My knowledge is limited here, so I’ll cite something which I picked up from Timothy Snyder’s little book, On Tyranny. Snyder relates the political regression to totalitarian regimes in the 30’s to current day events.

In one chapter, he talks about individual responsibility in standing for what you see as the right thing:

He offered the parable of a greengrocer who places a sign reading “workers of the world, unite!” in his shop window.

It is not that the man actually endorses the content of this quotation from The Communist Manifesto. He places this sign in his window so that he can withdraw into daily life without trouble from authorities.

In one sense, the grocer is a coward. He chooses to quietly obey.

In this example, the grocer is a low-class person, and, in contrast to Pilate, his actions do not directly result in death. The element of cowardice, is still present, no matter the social class or direct consequence. I imagine that Bulgakov was quietly criticizing Soviet leadership when he wrote the story of Pilate.

Confession and Forgiveness

Satan’s punishment for Pilate is to place him in a kind of purgatory. For two thousand years, Pilate sits on his thrown. Isolated from humanity in an alpine wilderness, he and his faithful dog are left to sit and think. He’s kept awake by the light of the full moon which hung over Jerusalem on the night of Yeshua’s death, and he therefore has no peace and must contemplate his actions.

Now, at the end of the novel, Pilate is forgiven when the Master, the Master’s girlfriend Margarita, and Satan meet Pilate at his eternal thrown. The Master realizes that because he has finished his earthly task of writing his biblical masterpieces, the secondary plot, there’s nothing left for him on earth. Kindly, Satan kills him and Margarita. He promises their reincarnated spirits eternal peace, and a conclusion to the novel.

Throughout the primary narrative, the Master has been struggling, trying to express in writing the story of Pilate. Margarita has faithfully been at his side, and lived through his depression when the literary community rejects him for reasons unrelated to his talent. As readers, we get to see parts of the Master’s novel, but are always cut off short of the fate of Pilate, until the end. The two separate narratives are joined together when we see Pilate be set free as the Master completes his writing, and then dies with Margarita.

It’s as if the writing of the Master’s interpretation of Pilate exonerates Pilate. In my view, the Master’s exploration of Pilate’s cowardice is writing a kind of confession. To play on more of the Christians themes, confession is believed by Christians as a necessary sacrament for forgiveness to take place. You cannot have peace until you confess your sin. Pilate’s entrapment in purgatory is only ended when the Master fully captures Pilate’s sin.