What everybody in Russia is watching
'The Master and Margarita' makes it to native country's screens
MOSCOW, Russia (AP) -- While Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Christ this season, Russians are more preoccupied with Satan.
From taxi drivers to doctors, millions of Russians have been glued to TV screens for two weeks watching the country's first adaptation of "The Master and Margarita" -- Mikhail Bulgakov's cult novel exploring whether the world is ruled by good or evil.
Viewer surveys showed that more than 55 percent of Russians over 18 watched the first episode of "The Master and Margarita" on December 19 after a heavy advertising campaign that included billboards. The series ends Friday.
Combining bitter satire, wild fantasy and eternal philosophical questions, "The Master and Margarita" weaves together three plot lines: the devil and his entourage wreaking havoc in dictator Josef Stalin's Moscow of the 1930s; the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ; and the struggle of two passionate lovers, separated by society, to reunite.
The devil is embodied by a mysterious foreign professor named Woland. He mocks vehemently atheist Soviets, punishes greedy and corrupt officials and lures Margarita, a fine Moscow lady, into becoming a witch to save her beloved, the Master, a gifted writer driven to despair by Soviet censors.
The surreal scenes brought to the screen include an obese black cat from the devil's retinue riding a tram and toasting with vodka, Moscow women running around in their underwear and a naked Margarita hovering above the city on a broom on her way to a ball hosted by Satan.
The ball scene is said to have been inspired by a famous reception at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Moscow in the 1930s.
The novel, which Bulgakov began in 1928 and finished on his deathbed in 1940, was banned for decades until a government-edited version was published in a literary magazine in 1966 following Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's era of relative openness.
Vladimir Bortko, director of the 10-series movie broadcast on Rossiya state television, said the book embodies freedom for several generations of Russians.
"It was like a breath of fresh air in the dead atmosphere of Soviet writing," Bortko told The Associated Press.
He added that, for many Soviet citizens, Bulgakov's novel was their first encounter with the Bible, which was discredited by the atheist communist government.
So dear is the novel that numerous phrases from the text have entered the Russian lexicon, including "manuscripts don't burn" -- a reference to the Master burning his novel -- and Satan's famous "Never ask for anything ... especially from those more powerful than you."
The novel itself always was surrounded by superstitions, including the widely held belief that it was cursed and could not be screened. Several foreign film adaptations were made in the 1970s and 1980s, but a Russian director's attempt to televise the book failed in the early 1990s.
Bortko himself acknowledged having problems selecting actors for his film, and the premiere reportedly was delayed by technical difficulties.
To many Russians, the very fact that the novel made it to the TV screen is a sensation.
"It is one of my favorite books and I am glad they finally attempted for the first time to tell such a complex philosophical novel in the language of cinematography," said biochemist Yulia Berestetskaya, 52.
Because the book is so precious to Russians, expectations run high and meeting them is a challenge.
Moscow is abuzz with discussions of the movie -- including spirited assessments of the special effects.
"Last night I saw this not-naked-enough woman flying around," said Yevgeny Skepner, a 38-year-old computer programmer, referring to Margarita's broom scene. "After Harry Potter, all of this looks pathetic."
Some viewers also complain that the black cat, Begemot -- Russian for hippopotamus -- does not look genuine. Bortko said a Hollywood firm offered to design a $3 million robot, but he opted for the combination of a real cat, an actor and a mechanical device that makes the cat's eyes blink.
Some critics of President Vladimir Putin's government say Bulgakov's novel is becoming increasingly relevant in today's Russia, where all nationwide television channels are controlled by the state and where security forces enjoy extended powers and little accountability.
"In Russia, as opposed to many other countries, several truths are not obvious yet -- neither to the authorities, nor to the people -- (including) that a person has an inherent right to life and freedom, that the state must serve individuals, not subdue them," said Marietta Chudakova, a leading Bulgakov scholar.