First screen adaptation of Bulgakov's cult novel on Russian TV

While all around the world Christians are celebrating 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 the past 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 Dec. 19 after a heavy advertising campaign on television and street 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, embodied by a mysterious foreign professor named Woland, mocks vehemently atheist Soviets for their unbelief, punishes greedy and corrupt officials and lures Margarita, a fine Moscow lady, into becoming a witch for the sake of saving 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 attend a ball hosted by Satan. The ball scene is said to have been inspired by a famous reception at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the 1930s.

The novel, which Bulgakov finished on his deathbed, was banned for 16 years until a government-edited version was first 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 the first encounter with the Bible, a book discredited by the atheist communist government.

So dear is the novel that numerous phrases from the text have entered the Russian lexicon. Among them is "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 centering on the devil was always surrounded by superstitions, including the widely held belief that it was cursed and could not be screened. While several foreign film adaptations of the novel were made in the 1970s and `80s, a Russian director's attempt to televise the book failed in the early 1990s because he is said to have quarreled with producers and the movie was never shown. Bortko himself acknowledged having problems selecting actors for his film, and reportedly the premiere was delayed by technical difficulties, reports the AP. N.U.

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