The novel alternates between two settings. The first is 1930s Moscow, which is visited by Satan in the guise of "Professor" Woland or Voland (Воланд), a mysterious gentleman "magician" of uncertain origin, who arrives with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed "ex-choirmaster" valet Koroviev (Fagotto) (Фагот, the name means "bassoon" in Russian among other languages, from the Italian word fagotto), a mischievous, gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth (Бегемот, a subversive Puss in Boots, the name referring at once to the Biblical monster and the Russian word for Hippopotamus), the fanged hitman Azazello (Азазелло, hinting of Azazel), the pale-faced Abadonna (Абадонна, a reference to Abaddon) with a death-inflicting stare, and the witch Hella (Гелла). The havoc wreaked by this group targets the literary elite, along with its trade union, MASSOLIT. MASSOLIT is a Soviet-style abbreviation for "Moscow Association of Writers", Московская ассоциация литераторов, but possibly interpretable as "Literature for the Masses"; one translation of the book also mentions that this could be a play on words in Russian, which could be translated into English as something like "LOTSALIT"), its privileged HQ Griboyedov's House, corrupt social-climbers and their women (wives and mistresses alike) – bureaucrats and profiteers – and, more generally, skeptical unbelievers in the human spirit.
The second setting is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, described by Woland talking to Berlioz and later echoed in the pages of the Master's novel. It concerns Pontius Pilate's trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Иешуа га-Ноцри, Jesus the Nazarene), his recognition of an affinity with and spiritual need for Yeshua, and his reluctant but resigned submission to Yeshua's execution.
Part one of the novel opens with a direct confrontation between the unbelieving head of the literary bureaucracy, Berlioz (Берлиоз), and an urbane foreign gentleman who defends belief and reveals his prophetic...
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