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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bulgakov's Moscow




Take a stroll through Mikhail Bulgakov's city on his birthday this weekend.


In the yard of a six-story building on the Garden Ring the walls are covered with graffiti. There's the usual assortment of girls' names and the obligatory "Nirvana." Then, scrawled in chalk on the dull, rust-brown metal door of entrance No. 6, the words "Take this door away, it's stopping us from living."


Tentacles of words spread out on either side of the door, dedications and quotations from the works of the building's most famous resident, Mikhail Bulgakov, who lived in apartment No. 50 between 1921 and 1924. Fans of Bulgakov's works have been trooping up to the sixth floor since the late 1960s, and the staircase is now heaving with graffiti and drawings of cats and beautiful women. There are sentiments ranging from the philosophical "To love and be loved is our happiness" or "I want to live!" to "Write more neatly!"


This Friday is the 107th anniversary of Bulgakov's birth and this year, as every year, literary admirers will meet on May 15 in the courtyard of 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa to celebrate the author's birthday and then proceed to wander a trail of sites that feature in Bulgakov's works.


Apartment No. 50 has always been the agreed-upon beginning of the trail, since it is here that the devil and his sinister but comical retinue pitch camp in Bulgakov's much-loved masterpiece "The Master and Margarita."


Standing bemused in front of entrance No. 6 a week ago were four schoolgirls. Oksana, Arpinea, Olya and Masha, all 16, said they had heard that people met up on Bulgakov's birthday "to talk about his works, hang out together."


"We've seen all the Bulgakov sites," added Arpinea.


"Last time we came here, we met a young man who took us round the Master and Margarita route. He showed us the Master's basement, Margarita's apartment and everything," she said.


Born in 1891, Bulgakov was known in his own lifetime as a satirist and dramatist, but achieved posthumous fame with the publication of "The Master and Margarita" in 1966-67.


Bulgakov had spent the last 12 years of his life working on the novel, and died in relative obscurity in 1940. When it appeared, "The Master and Margarita" was an instant success, although Brezhnev-era censorship still meant that it had to be published in partial form. People began to talk in quotes from the novel, and many phrases, such as the wonderfully nonsensical epithet "second-grade fresh," have all but become Russian idioms.


Although hardly needed, the novel was given a further boost in popularity by the Taganka Theater's celebrated production, which has been running since April 6, 1977, and Bulgakov continues to be hugely popular despite the deluge of previously banned literature that accompanied glasnost.


It was in the late 1960s that the pilgrimages to the house on Bolshaya Sadovaya began, along with visits to other Moscow locations featured prominently in the novel.


"The Master and Margarita" opens at the Patriarch's Ponds on a hot day in May, as the devil makes a timely interruption into a theological conversation. Today, people laze around on benches watching the radioactive-looking orange ducks swimming in the pond, and on the corner of Malaya Bronnaya Ulitsa and Maly Kozikhinsky Pereulok there is now a clich?-ridden Cafe Margarita.


Other well-known Bulgakovian sites include side streets off the Arbat, where Ivan chased after the devil and where Margarita lives. Seated on top of the Pashkov House, next to the Lenin Library, the devil, somewhat understating, utters the words "An interesting city, Moscow, don't you think?"


Many of the places featured in Bulgakov's fiction had some connection to his real life. It is known that the Patriarch's Ponds played an important role in Bulgakov's life since it was here that he used to loiter in the hope of bumping into his future wife, Yelena Sergeyevna, who lived in the two-story yellow house that still stands on the corner of Malaya Bronnaya and the Garden Ring.


There are also many obvious correlations between real people and fictional characters -- Bulgakov's wife being a prime example. Both she and Margarita left their well-off husbands for impoverished writers.


Playing a lesser role in the novel is the critic O. Latunsky, who panned one of the Master's plays. During her night flight over Moscow, Margarita, a witch for the evening, gives Latunsky's flat a thorough going-over with a hammer. A theater critic with the only slightly different name of Osaf Litovsky said fairly unpleasant things about two of Bulgakov's plays, but it is not known whether his apartment was given the same treatment.


While working as a journalist for the journal Gudok, Bulgakov was invited to a reception at the residence of the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Bullitt. A grand ball with jazz musicians and extravagantly dressed people from all nations was held in November 1933 at the house on Spasopeskovskaya Ploshchad, and it is widely held that it was this ball that served as the model for Satan's grand ball in "The Master and Margarita."


The vast carpeted staircase at the top of which Margarita is greeted by the guests is also said to be the one that leads up from the ground floor of the residence to this day.


One of the favored targets of Bulgakov's satire was the Soviet literary establishment, which is not spared in "The Master and Margarita." The building known as the Griboyedov House, where writers feast on fine food, is burned to a cinder by the devil's cohorts.


The Griboyedov House is probably a mixture of two real buildings -- the House of Journalists on Nikitsky Bulvar and the Institute of Contemporary Literature on Tverskoi Bulvar, which sadly no longer boasts the restaurant in which Behemoth, the devil's huge black cat, wreaked havoc.


Bulgakov lived and worked in Moscow from 1921 until his death, during which time, in addition to well-known Muscovite works such as "The Master and Margarita," "Heart of a Dog" and "Zoya's Apartment," he wrote a huge number of sketches and short stories based on his observations of the city.


But although Bulgakov knew Moscow inside out, it wouldn't be quite right to try to pin everything he wrote to a map of the city. And not simply because he changed addresses and names or put several places into one.


Bulgakov's Moscow has a great deal in common with the Moscow of the 1920s and 1930s, and even with the Moscow of today; but it is an entirely separate place. It is absurd, fantastic, comical and tragic in its own way, and Bulgakov's Moscow and ours can touch only for a brief moment through the thickness of the page.