Sympathy for the Devil

Josef Stalin, as historian Simon Montefiore wrote in a recent book, was a poet in his youth. Yury Andropov -- besides heading the KGB in the 1970s, briefly leading the Soviet Union in the 1980s and acting as Vladimir Putin's ultimate boss -- also wrote poetry. Putin may lack talent for versifying, but in Dutch his last name is spelled Poetin.

Maybe this is why artists in Russia so yearn for a special bond with autocratic rulers. Last October, director Nikita Mikhalkov produced a television program for Putin's 55th birthday. (It remains available on YouTube and should be watched for a good laugh.) Soon thereafter, Mikhalkov joined sculptor Zurab Tsereteli to sign an open letter to Putin pleading with him to stay in office for a third term.

Putin has been immortalized in some lovely paintings and sculpture. Some such art was on display last year in a show sponsored by United Russia and titled "Faith and Love." And then there was that film about a young Putin, "Kiss Me Off the Record." After a few decades of hiatus, the film taps into the rich tradition of hagiographical works about Stalin that used to come out regularly until the early 1950s.

Not all was hack writing. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote the play "Batum" about Stalin's early days in the Caucasus. An aside in Montefiore's biography of young Stalin mentions that Bulgakov even set out to do first-hand research, only to be called back on Stalin's orders.

In fact, Bulgakov's masterpiece, "Master and Margarita," one of the most beloved novels in Russia, is a work of unabashed Stalinist flattery worthy even of the sycophantic Mikhalkov dynasty -- only worse because it is brilliantly written and highly original. It also speaks volumes about the relationship between artists and power in Soviet culture.

This interpretation of the novel has been proposed by some critics. They see its two central characters, Master, the true writer, and Woland, the devil who rules the world, as a thinly veiled reference to Bulgakov and Stalin.

Official writers are portrayed as ignorant, illiterate and preoccupied with backbiting and the sharing of perks. They write awful tripe and serve the devil by committing various evil acts -- including hounding Master and his great novel. But they get no reward for their service. On the contrary, Woland's first act upon arriving in Moscow is to decapitate the chairman of the writers' organization.

The only true artist is Master, and the function of literature is to write the truth about the universal good. Master's great masterpiece is a work about Jesus. This is why Master is wary of the devil when they meet. Nevertheless, Woland accords a grudging respect to Master.

The story comes uncomfortably close to real life. Stalin, though promoting mediocrity in Soviet art, seemed to single out Bulgakov, one of the great writers of his time. Stalin loved the stage adaptation of Bulgakov's novel "The White Guard" and attended its performance several times. He even made personal calls to Bulgakov, and the writer reportedly hoped to be freed from widespread hounding by Soviet officials by Stalin's intervention, much as described in "Master and Margarita."

A few great writers miraculously survived Stalin's terror. Bulgakov's work was banned, but he was never arrested. The same was true of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova and a handful of others. Stalin's admirers in modern Russia see this as a huge merit. The murder of hundreds of others and the stultification of Russian culture somehow go unmentioned.

The tyrant's defense of artistic genius was an enduring Soviet myth. Andropov, in addition to writing verses, was a great fan of nonconformist theater director Yury Lyubimov, saving him from persecution. It seems that, as other Soviet aspects are revived in Russia, artists have returned to yearning for a sympathetic despot.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.