Sunday, 21 March 2010

Bulgakov’s Moscow & Margarita

The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov died 70 years ago this month. He was born and trained as a doctor in Kiev, but Moscow was his city. It serves as backdrop for his novels, material for his satires and a vibrant arena for his continuing legacy.
Bulgakov's first sight of Moscow was in September 1921 when he moved here, aged 30.

He arrived at what is now Kievsky Vokzal.

As he wrote later: "Till the day I die, I shall remember the bright lights of Bryansk Station and the two street lamps on Dorogomilovsky Bridge which showed the way to my native capital. For no matter what they say, Moscow is the mother, Moscow is the native city, and that was the first panorama".

One of Bulgakov's earliest works, the satirical, Frankensteinian "Heart of a Dog", was set in the Kropotkinskaya area on Prechistenka Ulitsa. Bulgakov went to meetings in the lion-gated Scholars' House at No. 16, when it was still the snappily-titled "Committee for Improving Scientists' Living Conditions".

In the early 1920s, Bulgakov lived on the fifth floor of an Art Nouveau apartment block at No. 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa. Flat No. 50, where Bulgakov and his first wife, Tasya, lived in what was then communal housing, became the prototype for the "no-good flat" which the Devil and his companions occupy in "The Master and Margarita".

Bulgakov's own experiences there were not pleasant. He wrote, "the room is terrible, the neighbours too..." The novel was not published until the 1966, when it became a bestseller. In the 1980s, graffiti began to appear in the stairwell leading up to the flat, including quotations from and illustrations of "The Master and Margarita". Fragments of these tributes have been allowed to peer through the fresh paint applied during the last remont.

The flat itself is now a museum, open 1 pm to 7 pm. Getting in can be problematic since the door (second on the left inside the courtyard) also leads to other flats and is generally locked. It costs 50 roubles to potter round the few rooms that the Bulgakovs and their neighbours lived in. The museum has recently added some more of the family's original furniture to the collection of doctor's instruments and documents. Despite evidence of meticulous research and restoration, the flat-museum remains without a sense of the writer's soul.

Less authentic, but far more characterful and more accessible in every sense, is the little two-room museum and café that comprise a cultural centre dedicated to Bulgakov. The bronze owl and galloping horses over the door and the dim-lit staircase leading to the red velvet salon conjure up a suitably diabolical atmosphere.

A huge pet cat, white dove and guitar-playing Cossack complete the scene. The centre also hosts performances and runs "tram" rides on a specially decorated bus, touring local sites.

"One spring, at the time of an unusually hot sunset, in Moscow at Patriarch's Ponds there appeared two citizens." The famous opening of "The Master and Margarita" is set just round the corner from Bulgakov's house, off Malaya Bronnaya Ulitsa.

A large rectangular pond lined with chestnut trees is the sole survivor of a chain of fishponds that once belonged to the Patriarch of the church. Bulgakov was a frequent visitor to this square, wooing his second and third wives, Lyubov Belozerskaya and Yelena Shilovskaya, on a bench by the water. In 1929, he took Shilovskaya to the pond and described his ideas for the novel to her.

Café Margarita, through a colourful door on the corner opposite the pond, takes the novel as inspiration for its décor inside and out. It was Moscow's first cooperative café and is still going strong with live music in the evenings and a business lunch that includes wine. The homemade cherry vareniki are especially good. Trams, like the one that decapitates Mikhail Berlioz in the story, no longer run along neighbouring Yermolaevsky Pereulok, but you can get a trolleybus along the garden ring.

The gardens on the other side of Bulgakov's house, near Mayakovskaya metro, best known as the home of the Starlite Diner, also feature in the Master and Margarita. The imaginary Variety Theatre, where the Devil causes all the women's fine clothes to disappear, was here, where the real life Satire Theatre is today. Even the public toilets in the far right corner find their way into the novel when the theatrical administrator, Varenukha, is attacked by demons.

There are grander locations in "The Master and Margarita", including the 18th-century Pashkov mansion.

"At sunset, high above the town, on the stone roof of one of the most beautiful buildings in Moscow ... stood two figures - Woland and Azazello. They were ... hidden from the vulgar gaze by a balustrade adorned with plaster flowers in plaster urns."

The penultimate chapter of "The Master and Margarita" is called "On Sparrow Hills". The Devil and his companions, mounted on three black horses, look down on Moscow from the famous viewpoint and see "the city spread out beyond the river, with the fragmented sun glittering in thousands of windows facing west, and the gingerbread towers of the Devichy Convent".
Bulgakov is buried in the shadow of these same "gingerbread towers" under a simple boulder-like grave. The stone was taken from the tomb of Bulgakov's literary hero and fellow-satirist, Nikolai Gogol, when Gogol was moved here from the Danilovsky Monastery. Bulgakov's tomb is close to Stanislavsky's and to other members of the Art Theatre, whose memorials are marked with the seagull emblem.
Bulgakov's love-hate relationship with Soviet theatre revolved around the theatre building in Kamergersky Pereulok. His plays were closed after only a few performances or banned altogether. Some of these experiences are described in his "Theatrical Novel", also known as "Black Snow". His theatrical legacy in modern Moscow, however, is alive and well. His play "The White Guard" is in the current repertoire of the Art Theatre and is also showing at the Mossovet Theatre in the Aquarium Gardens.

Bulgakov's late play "Moliere", subtitled "The Cabal of Hypocrites", described the parallel life of a playwright living in a dictatorship. After four years of rehearsals, it was closed down after only seven performances. Today, however, you can enjoy the play at four different venues across town, including the Satire and Maly theatres.

The production at the Gorky Arts' Theatre feels like a Dan Brown novel, with its hooded monks and sinister red lighting.

The Stanislavsky Theatre, on Tverskaya, has dramatised "The Heart of a Dog". They also have a staging of "The Master and Margarita", which has the cult aura of a 1980s "Rocky Horror Picture Show" screening, complete with semi-nudity, music and audience participation. Other places in town where you can catch Bulgakov's great diabolical novel include the Taganka Theatre's long-running spectacle.

Their physical adaptation of "The Master and Margarita", described as a "free composition", has been in the repertoire for more than 30 years.

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