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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Life on Edge at Bulgakov's Place

Writer Alexei Didurov calls himself "a real underground man."

"I would be immoral if I were official," he said, explaining how he could never allow art to comply with a system that is "still run by men who are communists, at least by nature."

For 20 years now, he has organized a weekly show made up of poets, writers, musicians, singers, playwrights and comedians. They are Russians and foreigners, young and aged, raw and tested, who drift to Didurov, the guru with a guiding hand, authoritative judgement and almost toothless grin.

Though in the '90s the cabaret, as it is known, need not shy from government scrutiny, grievances against officialdom have hardly lessened. Whereas before Didurov and his brave men criticized an austere Soviet society, now they lampoon "the businessman in Versace / going to his dachi."

At times on the verge of becoming a traveling variety show, Didurov and his ever changing company have been pushed out of 17 different locals around Moscow over the years. His phone was at one time tapped.

"The authorities," he explained, "were afraid of our poems, songs, novels."

Apart from ideological difficulties, the cabaret, a nonfinancial venture, is always dependent on generous tenants. Their present home, which they moved into two Saturdays ago, is a fitting testament to creativity amid political restraint. It was in this same communal apartment that author Mikhail Bulgakov lived in the early 1920s.

The apartment of the politically unpopular satirist was procured from the government during perestroika by a group of Bulgakov enthusiasts. Every inch of the stairway leading up to the third floor is decorated in graffiti pertaining to the novelist. The drab interior, however, has peeling wallpaper, exposed ceilings and only a few pieces of worn furniture.

Since receiving his own set of keys, Didurov and "friends" have enlivened their new space by hanging paintings and drawings and importing other small charms, such as a glass jug for donations to the Bulgakov fund, with a sign that reads: "for Anyushka, to buy her oil," in reference to the episode that kickstarts the surreal plot of the novel "The Master and Margarita."

Every Saturday, randoms and regulars come to showcase their talents, or simply to seek a comfortable outlet for ideas. With Didurov acting as usher and emcee, performances take place in a small back room with wobbly foot-high benches surrounded by paintings of angels.

One hour can feature four separate guitar soloists or two poetry readings or a one-act play. The banter remains relaxed and jovial, with requests generally obliged and line slips by new performers readily forgiven.

During breaks for drinks and chats, Didurov frequently disappears into one of the spacious rooms off the long hallway, dispensing advice to the bold souls who have brought him their work.

On this particular Saturday, he sits at one end of a couch speaking to a fifteen-year-old girl who'd brought him her poems and prose on the advice of her mother's friends. The girl, all bangs and glasses and softly rounded cheeks, fidgets lightly with her hands and manages to maintain a polite, embarrassed smile throughout.

"You have talent," he says intently, "but you are still young and do not know much about life."

He eases into his "No pain, no gain" message, imploring her to keep writing.

Later, in the now sparsely furnished bedroom that Bulgakov shared with his first wife, Didurov brings in a chair and tells an eager leather-clad, pony-tailed teenager with a guitar to sit and play. This one doesn't make the cut but is invited to come again and counseled to keep working. The boy nods, almost bows.

Afterward, Didurov described how a newcomer must pass one of three "exams" in order to perform in his cabaret: The shortest route is if he admits someone himself. But if, after being refused by Didurov, "the candidate still believes he is a genius, and that I am an old man who knows nothing," then he must come to a cabaret, choose a performer whose opinion is trustworthy and perform for that person. If still rejected, then the stage is his for at least one performance, where the "cold applause of the audience is final."

Those few who pass the test join a community of artists rich in talent, but with one eye always turned to the past. Didurov created his cabaret after watching his artistic friends suffer in the censoring eye of the Soviet government.

"They decided to leave this life, some to other countries and some to the tomb," he says. "Creative man can live without many very important things, but never without the possibility to give to somebody their creativity.

"Because of that, I made this cabaret."

Didurov's Cabaret runs from 2 to 6 p.m. every Saturday. No charge. Bulgakov's apartment is located at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya, third door on the left in the yard. Metro: Mayakovskaya.