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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Haunting Appeal of Fabled Pond

There is a place in the middle of Moscow where Aesop lives, Metallica rules, and the Devil has been known to pay a visit.

The park at Patriarch's Pond is one of the city's most delightful spots, made famous in the opening scene of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1930s novel "The Master and Margarita," in which the Devil appears to terrorize the city. Nowadays, in the evenings, fans of heavy metal music cluster in the southeast corner of the park, while in the northwest corner, children play among humorous bronze sculptures of Aesop's fables. Some say the park is falling apart, but it is clearly as popular as ever.

Located a block from bustling Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa, surrounded by stately late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, the park is an oasis in Moscow's chaotic center. The ugly pontoons that floated on the water for most of the summer -- they served as a stage during a Bulgakov festival that took place in July -- have been removed, so the pond is back to its normal, murky state.

"It is a place that is dear to all Muscovites," says Yakov Belitsky, a city historian. "Because it is a center of old Moscow."

The park at Patriarch's Pond has existed for nearly 400 years. In the early part of the 17th century, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church ordered that his residence be built on the site; at the time, the area was marshy, and there were three ponds.

By the early 19th century, the area had become a public park, and the other ponds were filled in to build housing for students and orphans. In the 1930s, Bulgakov immortalized it in his novel, and in 1932, Stalin changed its name to Pionersky Prud. But throughout the Soviet era, Muscovites called it Patriarch's Pond.

A series of playful sculptures by Dmitry Miglyansky depicting fables by Aesop and the Russian children's writer Ivan Krylov were erected in the late 1970s. Next to the sculptures is a sandbox for kids and tables where adults play cards.

Sometimes, things do get a touch rowdy. The Cafe Margarita, on the southeast corner of the park, is responsible for the conglomeration of heavy metal fans. The cafe has become a hangout for the young, hip and leather-clad; when it gets crowded and hot inside, patrons spill out into the leafy area across the street to smoke and drink.

Vyacheslav Alexandrov and his friends play preferans, a whist-like card game, every afternoon, rain or shine, in the park at Patriarch's Pond.

Alexandrov, 73, has been coming to the park every afternoon for 45 years. If he and his comrades had their way, he says, certain improvements would be made. Dogs would be banished, trees would be planted, new benches installed, and the pond would be cleaned. According to Alexandrov, a pump used to work in the northwest corner of the pond. "One man used to keep an eye on it, make sure it was working," he says. "Then a few years ago he died and no one took over from him."

The preferans players reminisce about how not long ago, this used to be a prime fishing spot. The city government would fill the pond with fish, they say, but when the Soviet Union fell apart, that practice was discontinued. Alexandrov says that in winter the frozen pond used to host national men's and women's hockey tournaments.

That time may have passed, says Alexandrov's friend Viktor, but the park is still the best place in Moscow to come and play preferans. In fact, he would never play anywhere else, regardless of the heavy metal and the occasional dog.

"No way," Viktor says. "This is our place."