The Master of Irony

Autumn of last year marked the 70th anniversary of Mikhail Bulgakov's final major edit of his most celebrated novel, "The Master and Margarita." Although often seen as a satirical critique of 1930s Soviet politics and society, the novel retains popularity today as a multilayered fantasy of immense scope and depth, covering themes from truth to the nature of good and evil, love and sensuality.

But despite the continued affection for the novel, perhaps the most popular literary portrayal of the capital, there remains no public statue of Bulgakov in Moscow, a city full of monuments to its cultural icons.

The only statue of Bulgakov in Moscow sits in the Bulgakov House Cultural-Education0 Center, a plaster work sculpted by Natalya Bazyuk in 2005. The center, which opened in 2004, is located in the house where the writer lived from 1921 to 1924 and which provides the setting for some parts of "The Master and Margarita."

"People love Bulgakov -- both Russians and foreigners," said Roman Yerykalov, the center's managing director. "There's something for everyone in his work. He said something new about love, God and justice, and what he said is still relevant."

The center is an original take on the typical dom muzei, or house-museum, formula used to celebrate the lives and work of many of Moscow's most famous literary sons and daughters. "We didn't want to create a museum of things," said Yerykalov. "We wanted it to be a living place."

Since most objects connected with Bulgakov are housed at the museum dedicated to him in his native Kiev, and his manuscripts are in the Russian State Library, the center instead attempts to evoke the atmosphere of the Moscow in which the writer lived and to be a creative monument to his work. "It's not a museum," Yerykalov said. "It's a cultural center."

James Marson /MT
Mikhail Bulgakov is beloved by Russians and foreigners.
On display is an eclectic mix of artifacts owned by Bulgakov, works of art inspired by his writings and contemporary objects from the 1920s Soviet Union. There is a leather portfolio he used for his work as well as a number of video screens showing objects and films connected with the writer. There is even a real black cat named Begemot after a character from "The Master and Margarita."

The center also houses a cafe and a performance area where weekly shows take place, including poetry readings and musical evenings. One inspiration for creating the center, Yerykalov said, was embarrassment at the lack of a monument to Bulgakov in Moscow.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov did make an attempt to right this situation in 2003 when he announced plans for a huge project at Patriarch's Ponds to be created by the Moscow sculptor Alexander Rukavishnikov.

Plans were made for works illustrating the novel, including a 12-meter-high stove, which symbolizes evil spirits in the novel, and a figure of Christ to be held centimeters above the water by 12 pillars, alongside a statue of Bulgakov sitting on a huge park bench.

Bulgakov's name is inextricably linked with the ponds: first, because he lived nearby in the house where the center is located; second, because the ponds form the backdrop for parts of his masterwork. The work begins with a meeting near the pond between the characters Mikhail Berlioz, Ivan Bezdomny and Woland, the devil in disguise.

Later in the work, Berlioz is run over and killed by a tram near the pond, as Woland predicted at their encounter. Curiously, there has never been a regular tram service or permanent tracks around the pond, although there was a temporary service track in the 1930s.

Patriarch's Ponds is that rarity in the center of Moscow -- a tranquil, green spot that seems miles away from the city's hustle and bustle. Until the 17th century, the area was known as Goat's Swamp and considered the home of evil spirits. Three ponds were built there in order to dry out the area, of which one now remains, having been cleaned up in the early 19th century.

The statues, however, were never erected. Local residents and religious leaders took particular umbrage at the enormous stove with its satanic connotations as well as the plans to cut down trees and reconstruct the area.

Yerykalov said it was a shame that the statues weren't built but remained philosophical. "Some people call Bulgakov a Satanist, but this is nonsense," he said. "Many people come to religion through this book."

And after all, with or without the physical representation of a statue, Bulgakov will not be forgotten any time soon -- as the Master says, "Manuscripts don't burn."


Cultural-Educational Center "Bulgakov House," 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa, M. Mayakovskaya, 775-9461, Admission is free. Open daily, 1 p.m.-11 p.m.