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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bulgakov Unnerves Superstitious Muscovites

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Everything associated with the name of novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov tends to excite the common Russian fear of evil spirits. His famous novel "The Master and Margarita" is particularly steeped in superstition.

The idea of erecting a monument to honor Bulgakov had been in the air for a long time, and the general consensus was that it should be placed at Patriarch's Ponds. After all, "The Master and Margarita" opens in the shadows of the linden trees that line the square pond. Here, the critic Berlioz and the poet Ivan Bezdomny encounter Satan. Bulgakov himself lived not far from the pond and loved to stroll through the linden-lined alleys, where he once recounted the beginning of the novel in a whisper to his wife, Yelena.

Two years ago, the Moscow city government backed the idea of erecting a monument to Bulgakov at Patriarch's Ponds and selected a design submitted by well-known Moscow sculptor Alexander Rukavishnikov, who was also responsible for the marvelous monument to Vladimir Nabokov in Montreux, Switzerland. The mayor's office allocated 70 million rubles for the project.

Patriarch's Ponds already boasts a statue of the 19th-century fabulist Ivan Krylov, erected in the Soviet era when this landmark was officially called Pioneer Ponds in an attempt to eliminate the religious significance and spirit of this ancient spot. The dull-witted Soviet bureaucrats must have figured that Krylov wrote his sarcastic fables exclusively for the benefit of future young pioneers.

But the decision to place the Bulgakov monument here was correct. Tourists routinely come here to see where the opening of the novel takes place. The Moscow City Duma allocated 91 million more rubles for the project, bringing the total to 161 million, or some $5.7 million. The work got off to a good start, but suddenly everything came to a halt. Rukavishnikov's design included a bronze figure of Bulgakov sitting on a broken-down bench, Jesus Christ walking on the water of the pond, and a 12-meter-high version of Satan's Primus stove with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the novel.

At this point, people living around the pond rose up in protest. They had no problem with the figures of Bulgakov or Christ; they were up in arms about the Primus stove, which they viewed as a hymn to the devil, a monument to the Evil One, and even a parody of the eternal flame outside the Kremlin wall. A public committee was formed to fight the project, and the mayor's office was flooded with collective letters of protest. Rukavishnikov's design was hotly debated in the press, and it soon became clear that no one liked the Primus stove.

The sculptor flatly refused to alter his design, accusing Muscovites of being aesthetically tone-deaf. Construction was halted last summer, and Mayor Yury Luzhkov got personally involved.

In the end, Rukavishnikov agreed to reduce the height of the Primus stove by half. But the project had unleashed such a firestorm in the press that the city planning commission decided to relocate the monument to a new site on Sparrow Hills. From this spot near the Andreyevsky Monastery, there is a wonderful panoramic view of the city. It is also here that "The Master and Margarita" comes to a close. The Primus stove was eliminated from the project altogether, leaving only the figures of Bulgakov on the ramshackle bench and Christ, now striding on dry land rather than walking on the water.

Work began at the new site in July 2004, and the storm clouds quickly gathered when Archpriest Boris Danilenko, director of the Moscow Patriarchate's Synodal Library, came out against the project. "We are not opposed to Bulgakov and his famous novel," Danilenko told Interfax, "especially since many people have come to the faith through this text. But we mustn't mix genres. A cemetery was formerly located outside the Andreyevsky Monastery walls, a mass grave for Muscovites who died of plague in the Middle Ages. Cemeteries should remain cemeteries, and this ground should not be trampled. The notion of erecting a monument like this over a communal grave is very much in the spirit of Woland's escapades."

A prayer service for the dead was held on the site, and no fewer than 200 people attended. Parishioners appealed to President Vladimir Putin, demanding that the land not be defiled by the Bulgakov monument and that a funeral chapel be built on the site instead.

The president never responded to the appeal, but the Rukavishnikov project has nevertheless been put on hold once more. Another monument to the author, a modest plaster statue painted to resemble bronze, was set up last week in the stairway of his former apartment building, to the chagrin of residents.

Now, director Vladimir Bortko has decided to tweak the devil's nose and make a movie based on "The Master and Margarita." In other countries, a number of directors have already brought the novel to the screen. The Polish director Andrzej Wajda, for example, released his film "Pilate and Others" in 1972. But no one in Russia has pulled off this feat. Well-known directors such as Igor Talankin, Elem Klimov, Eldar Ryazanov and Vladimir Naumov spoke of their desire to make a movie based on the novel, but never did so. Naumov even told of how the ghost of Bulgakov's widow had come to him in a dream and said, "No one will make this picture."

The only Russian director to actually complete a movie of "The Master and Margarita" was Yury Kara, who wrapped up shooting in 1994. But Kara then fell out with his producers, the case went to court and the only edited copy of the film was stolen from his safe. As a result, no one has ever seen the film.

When he began work on "Vizit Dyavola," or "Visit From the Devil," based on "The Master and Margarita," Bortko encountered all sorts of unexpected problems. A number of actors who had committed to the project suddenly backed out, including Vladimir Mashkov, who was to play the role of the Master. Oleg Yankovsky, one of Andrei Tarkovsky's favorite actors, turned down the role of Woland, saying: "Actors shouldn't play the devil or the Lord God, but playing Jesus Christ is OK. He was a real man." A stuntwoman was badly injured during shooting, and the actor playing the role of Berlioz suffered two heart attacks in quick succession and backed out of the project.

Bortko doesn't see anything mysterious in all this, nor does he believe that these incidents were caused by a conspiracy of dark forces.

The director even laughed off an incident that occurred while he was scouting locations in Russia. At Patriarch's Ponds, a passerby told Bortko, "It's not going to work," and walked on. "I wasn't about to run after him and ask: 'You wouldn't happen to be the devil, would you?'"

But Bortko's anecdote left many journalists with a sinking feeling, and many now quietly expect the ambitious project -- 10 episodes totaling nearly eight hours in length -- to fold.

Russians are extremely superstitious. Moscow has always believed in evil spirits. Bulgakov did too, by the way.

Word is that Bortko is halfway done shooting his movie. Halfway. He still has a long way to go.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer in Moscow. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.