Post-industrial Revolution: His body hit the ground so hard it began to hum

I've been reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

It has a pretty fascinating history. Bulgakov was a Russian writer working in the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote various plays and books that were refused publication or damned by Soviet critics - even his play glorifying Stalin's early revolutionary activity never made it past the censors.

The Master and Margarita is about Satan appearing in Moscow during a time of state imposed atheism. It weaves together this contemporary satire (skewering Soviet bureaucracy, hypocrisy and ideology) with a thoroughly researched - though historically speculative - tale of Pontius Pilate in the days before and after the execution of Jesus (called throughout the book by his correct title of Yeshua Ha-Nozri).

Bulgakov worked on the novel for twelve years, from 1928 right up until his death in 1940. At one point, he had to re-write the novel from memory. He had burned the first draft because he was so scared of being uncovered as an 'anti-revolutinary' by the authorities. A burned manuscript features in the storyline - one that haunts the character of 'The Master', and finally, sets him free. "Manuscripts don't burn" is a famous quotation from the novel.

No one dared publish it until 1966 - and even then it was heavily censored. The first full length version - assembled from the censored version along with secretly published notes and additions - was printed by a samizdat publishing house called Posev, and a complete version wasn't published until 1973.

One of Woland's (Woland is the name of the devil in the book - taken from Goethe's Faust) associates is a giant black cat called Behemoth. He is a central character, and pretty easy to describe in visual terms. Hence all the pictures of black cats on the various versions of the book.

It is a clever way of criticising the government - though not clever enough to have ever been published while he was alive. The Moscow storyline works as an allegory for the life of Jesus, and all the condemnation of a totalitarian society, where people are 'disappeared' on the whims of powerful men, is displaced to the time of Pontius Pilate.

It is interesting to read a book like this in Poland - one of the most devoutly religious countries in Europe. A country whose shift from Communism to Capitalist Democracy was underpinned by a Catholic trade union (Solidarność - see yesterday's post for more details), and whose politics is still now heavily influenced by the Catholic church.

Before World War II, Poland was pretty diverse with big Jewish, Protestant and Orthodox communities, as well as the majority Catholic population. After the Holocaust and the flight and expulsion of the German and Ukrainian populations, Poland became almost totally ethnically and religiously homogeneous. 88.4% of the population belonged to the Catholic church in 2007.

In The Master and Margarita religious ideas are subversive and signify free thought, much in the same way that Solidarność's Catholicism was once seen as a unifying force against the Communist government in Poland.

Solidarność flaunted religion like a weapon. Here is Lech Wałęsa signing an agreement with the government using a giant Pope pen.

But now, instead of being a force for freedom, the Catholic church stifles debate in Poland. It strongly influences the main parties' social policies, and - as I'm finding out from people in Gdańsk - engages in its own form of censorship when people don't accord it enough respect.

In The Master and Margarita the ideological atheism of Soviet Russia is confronted with the undeniable, physical presence of the Devil (and therefore, the existence of God). In contemporary Poland reading this book takes on a new, strange, dimension. The ideological domination of the church in everyday life and political decision making is undeniable, and appears to be a corrupting element, but the history of democracy in Poland is tied up with Catholicism, and most people in the country are Catholic.

The question is how I can start to unpick it and understand its influence without reducing it to the simplistic religion=bad form of so much left wing thought.