In the 1930s, Mikhail Bulgakov started writing his most famous novel, The Master and Margarita. It was a farcical satire of the Soviet Union, and wasn’t published until 1966—even then, it was heavily censored. The censored parts circulated for a while as samizdat, self-printed manuscripts passed around secretly among adventurous readers. Yet, it wasn’t published fully until the 70s, and it was still considered quite controversial. It has since become part of the Russian literary canon—its sayings have become colloquial and its characters, including a sarcastic black cat and Satan himself, iconic. Gone are the days when the Russian powers didn’t accept the book for a masterpiece.
This year marks the 125th birthday of Bulgakov and the 50th anniversary of the first publication of his novel. As part of the celebrations, Mosfilm Studio, the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum, and Google have collaborated to stage an online reading of the classic text using technology and artistry.
In August, Google launched a platform called Master and Margarita: I Was There, where visitors can chat online with two of the novel’s most infamous characters—the illusionist Koroviev and the giant talking cat, Behemoth. This turns out to be a quiz that the website uses to transport you to one of the animated fantastical locations in the book, such as Satan’s Ball or a mental hospital. There, visitors can record a video of themselves reading an excerpt from the book as an online audition.
The online oration will be filmed with a green screen and partially in 360˚ mode, which will allow readers to teleport to the location they’re reading about, plunging viewers deeper into Bulgakov’s dreamlike world. The reading is estimated to take more than 15 hours, and will be broadcast on YouTube on November 11 and 12 from eight Russian cities and Tel-Aviv.
In Russia, it is the Year of Russian Cinema, which prompted the organizers to bring literature and visual elements together for this project—it is partly an attempt to bring the Russian literary tradition into the 21st century. The readers will be a mixture of professional actors and ordinary people found through the online casting.
"It will be very interesting to take part in such an unusual experiment and try to tie together cinema, literature, and other new technology in the format of an online reading,” says director Karen Shakhnazarov. “Master and Margarita: I Was There is not just another way to read the story, but a way for each of us to become a part of it."