The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction Analysis

David M. Bethea

The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

David M. Bethea has written the only work that demonstrates the impact of apocalyptic thinking on the major Russian novels written in the decades before and after the Soviet Revolution of 1917. Of the five novels Bethea examines, two were written before the Revolution: Fyodor Dostoevski’s Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887) and Andrey Bely’s Peterburg (1913; Petersburg, 1978). The publishing history of the three novels written after the Revolution reflects the repressive nature of Stalinism. Andrey Platonov’s Chevengur was completed in 1929 but not published until 1972 (English translation, 1978). Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master i Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940; an expurgated version of the novel was published in 1966-1967, with an unexpurgated version following in 1973. The first English translation, The Master and Margarita (1967), was based on the expurgated version. Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958), the last of the five, was smuggled to the West and published there, provoking international controversy and winning great acclaim.

All five of these novels allude to the Book of Revelation in order to provide a symbolic interpretation of events in revolutionary Russia. Although they were writing in a period during which Marxist themes became increasingly dominant, all five novelists rely on symbols that suggest a Christian orientation. With the exception of Dostoevski, who expresses an orthodox Christianity, these writers are “Christian” in a cultural sense rather than in a spiritual sense. They use Christian symbols to express a personal interpretation of Russia’s national experience.

Each of these novels can be briefly summarized according to Bethea’s identification of their apocalyptic themes. In Dostoevski’s The Idiot, the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna struggles to choose between her two suitors. According to Bethea’s interpretation, Dostoevski’s heroine rejects a Christlike man to accept his rival, who symbolizes the Antichrist. This choice leads to the woman’s death. Bethea suggests that Dostoevski thinks that Russia will marry the Antichrist, defined as atheism and modern industrial society. Having rejected Christ, Russia will experience a revolutionary apocalypse that brings judgment and death.

In Bely’s Petersburg, the spirit of the dead czar Peter I, who ruled from 1682 to 1725, visits a young man to initiate a murder scheme. Bethea suggests that this story line alludes to an Eastern religious tradition according to which Peter revealed his role as the Antichrist by initiating secular Western policies. Bely’s novel takes place in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), which is the city of Peter and is haunted by his spirit. In his treatment of this setting, Bely echoes The Idiot, in which St. Petersburg symbolizes the ethos of the Antichrist active in modern capitalism. Bely uses Peter’s city as a backdrop for generational conflicts in which youthful conspirators rise up in murderous attacks against repressive father figures. In the midst of their struggles, the characters encounter mystical Christian symbols that point to a truth beyond the senseless intrigues of history.

Of the five novels considered by Bethea, the one written most closely after the Soviet Revolution of 1917 was Platonov’s Chevengui; the book which least resembles the others in the study. In Platonov’s novel, a man responds to his father’s suicide by going on a quest to discover the true utopian revolution. During his pilgrimage, he witnesses many ridiculous attempts at creating utopia. After some revolutionaries perpetrate an apocalyptic massacre, the hero returns to his village, where he drowns himself in the lake where his father had committed suicide. Bethea interprets Platonov as a disappointed utopian who concludes that there is no guiding intelligence to give meaning to history.

In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the historical figure Pontius Pilate supernaturally enters the twentieth century to announce divine judgment against Moscow, which is portrayed as the biblical Whore of Babylon. Bulgakov also presents a “historical” Jesus who forgives but does not judge, leaving the role of avenger to Pilate alone. In addition to using the historical Jesus as a character, Bulgakov also provides a twentieth century Christ figure, a writer known as the Master. Through the process of artistic creation, the Master is able to unwrite history. Twenty centuries after the historical crucifixion of Jesus, the Master unwrites history so that the crucifixion never happened. The Master’s action works backward in time to remake the past. Because Jesus was never killed, Pilate is liberated from his guilt in the crucifixion. At the end of Bulgakov’s novel, Jesus and Pilate walk together on the path to the eternal city.


(The entire section is 2023 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Choice. XXVI, July, 1989, p. 1845.