Pilate and Pilatism in Recent Russian Literature

  • Margaret Ziolkowski


In recent decades, Russian writers have made effective use of Pontius Pilate, as a character, reference or allusion, in a wide variety of works published abroad and in the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly the best known is Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical fantasy Master i Margarita (The Master and Margarita), finally published in 1966–67, which altered forever Soviet literary appreciation of the sometimes enigmatic encounter between Jesus and Pilate. It would now require a deliberate obtuseness on the part of a Soviet author wishing to treat the figure of Pilate at any length to ignore Bulgakov’s portrayal of the psychological, social and political factors that enter into Pilate’s desire, but ultimate refusal to help Jesus escape execution. The cynical question ‘What is truth?’ has long been virtually synonymous with Pilate’s name. To this expression of amoral relativism, Bulgakov has added the provocative notion that ‘[cowardice] is the most terrible vice’ (735).


Death Sentence Military Tribunal Amoral Relativism Moral Compromise Russian Writer 
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  1. 1.
    Mikhail Bulgakov, Romany: Belaia gvardiia, Teatral’nyi roman, Master i Margarita (Leningrad, 1973). Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own. In his study of the Jerusalem chapters of The Master and Margarita, A. Zerkalov convincingly argues that these words represent the sole direct address to the reader by Bulgakov within the novel. See Evangelie Mikhaila Bulgakova (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1984), p. 156.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Andrew Barratt, Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to The Master and Margarita (Oxford, 1987). Brandon’s discussion of Pilate in the Book of Mark is found in The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 1968), pp. 79–106.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The term prefect is actually more accurate than procurator, but I have retained procurator because it is the term often employed by the Russian authors whom I discuss. Cf. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John, 2nd edn (Philadelphia, 1978), p. 533.Google Scholar
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    Vladimir Lakshin, ‘Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita’, tr. Carol A. Palmer, in Victor Erlich, ed., Twentieth-Century Russian Criticism (New Haven, Connecticut, 1975). Lakshin’s essay first appeared in Novyi mir, 1968, no. 6, pp. 284–311Google Scholar
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    Chingiz Aitmatov, Plakha (Moscow, 1987).Google Scholar
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    Comparisons between the Pilate/Jesus and Grishan/Avdii encounters have been made by both Soviet and Western scholars. See, for example, N. N. Shneidman, Soviet Literature in the 1980s: Decade of Transition (Toronto, 1989), p. 204; and Aleksandr Kosorukov, ‘Plakha — novyi mif ili novaia real’nost’?, Nash sovremennik, 1988, no. 8, p. 146. Ironically, Aitmatov himself denies having wished to create such an analogy. See Aitmatov, ‘Kak slovo nashe otzovetsia’, p. 236.Google Scholar
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    Andrei Siniavskii [Abram Terts], Sud idet, in his Fantasticheskie povesti (New York, 1967).Google Scholar
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    Iulii Daniel’ [Nikolai Arzhak], Govorit Moskva (Washington, 1962).Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    On Abramov, see Carl R. and Ellendea Proffer, ‘Introduction’ to Fyodor Abramov, Two Winters and Three Summers, trans. D. B. Powers and Doris C. Powers (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1984), p. vii. The Proffers raise the question: ‘Can a bad man — an executioner, at the very least, a Pilate — write a good novel?’ (viii). ‘Inkvisitory i pilaty’, an interview with Viktor Fainberg, appeared in Posev, 31 (1975), pp. 7–13.Google Scholar
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    Varlam Shalamov, ‘Prokurator Iudei’, in his Kolymskie rasskazy, 2nd edn (Paris, 1982).Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    A curious example of the use of this motif occurs in Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki (Moscow-Petushki, 1973), in which the alcoholic narrator twice compares himself to Pilate in the context of a drunken fantasy.Google Scholar
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    Chingiz Aitmatov and Kaltai Mukhamedzhanov, Voskhoshdenie na Fudziiamu (Moscow, 1973).Google Scholar
  13. 20.
    Anatolii Rybakov, Deti Arbata (Moscow, 1978).Google Scholar
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    Iurii Trifonov, Ischeznovenie, Druzhba narodov, 1987, no. 1.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Marianne Gourg, ‘Dombrovskij commentateur de la Légende du Grand Inquisiteur dans la Faculté de l’Iile’, Dostoevsky Studies 8 (1987), p. 168.Google Scholar
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    Iurii Dombrovskii, Fakul’tet nenuzhnykh veshchei (Paris, 1978).Google Scholar
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    Anna Akhmatova, for example, spoke of the rehabilitations of the late 1950s in the following way: ‘Two Russias will look each other in the eye — those who imprisoned, and those whom they imprisoned.’ See Lidiia Chukovskaia, ‘Iz knigi Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi’, in Pamiati A. Akhmatovoi (Paris, 1974), p. 188. More recently, Roy Medvedev declared in a roundtable discussion conducted by Moskovskie novosti: ‘Oie cannot consider the victims of repression only those who were in the camps or perished. In principle the victims of repression were the entire people’ (Moskovskie novosti, 12 February 1989, p. 9).Google Scholar

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© International Council for Soviet and East European Studies, and Sheelagh Duffin Graham 1992

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  • Margaret Ziolkowski

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