Saturday, 18 June 2016

On the trail of Mikhail Bulgakov

Leaflet from Museum M A Bulgakov

On a recent trip to Moscow my wife and I visited Mikhail Bulgakov’s flat, located in a quiet courtyard at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya ulitsa, which has been turned into a museum to honour his achievements.  Like many others I became a fan of Bulgakov’s as a result of reading his classic novel The Master and Margarita, and I was keen to pay homage and see for myself places associated with the writer and his books.

Before we went up to the flat we called at a rival attraction just inside the courtyard entrance.  The grandly named Museum-Theatre Bulgakov House also contains a small Bulgakov museum which is free to enter.  Display cases exhibit photographs, documents and artefacts, plus a large collection of international editions of his books which demonstrate his enduring popularity.  The weirdest exhibit has to be a large model of a tram with the head of Berlioz, a character from the Master and Margarita who has an unfortunate encounter with some spilled sunflower oil and is decapitated when he falls across a rail.
Tram, Berlioz at bottom left

There is an old-fashioned ambience and it is am enjoyable venue for a cup of tea, though it is probably very crowded on theatre nights.  There seems to be a fascination with poor Berlioz because you can buy jars of various sizes each with a picture of a face in some liquid, mimicking a preserved head.  I was tempted to get one but didn’t think it would survive the journey, assuming it managed to negotiate airport security.  Outside the entrance is an attractive statue of Koroviev and Behemoth standing guard.  It was a pleasant visit, but little of the information provided was in English.
Koroviev and Behemoth in the courtyard

Bulgakov’s actual flat is at the top of a block without a lift, so a climb is necessary to reach it.  Once there, it is very different in tone to the Bulgakov House’s faded grandeur.  Apartment 50, the communal flat where he and his first wife lived from 1921-4, is now a fully-fledged curated museum (The Museum M. A. Bulgakov).  The flat becomes the temporary home of the devilish Woland and his retinue in The Master and Margarita, and amusingly the Bulgakov House Museum sign on the street corner by the courtyard entrance is numbered 302-bis, the fictional number Bulgakov gave to the block.
The sign for the Bulgakov House Museum, 302-bis

Recognised by the Moscow City Department of Culture, the museum is dedicated to expounding Bulgakov’s life.  While the stairwell leading to the flat is clean it is heavily graffitied with writing and paintings relating to and inspired by Bulgakov’s work.  These predate the establishment of the museum and have presumably been left intact for ‘atmosphere’, but they give the stairs a scruffy look.  Once at the top of the building it is a pleasure to find that the flat itself has been completely renovated and is welcoming and cheerful.
A sample of the graffiti

Unfortunately we again found that the non-Russian information was limited, yet I was happy simply to be able to examine the exhibits and soak up the atmosphere.  The staff were friendly and there was a lively feel that one does not associate with normally staid authors’ museums.  It was fairly busy, and a group was lectured, sadly in Russian, for a considerable time in the bric-a-brac filled kitchen.  Whereas the unofficial museum near the courtyard entrance has a static display, the flat has changing exhibitions.  There is quite a lot crammed in the limited space, though there is room for further acquisitions.  I thought the museum well worth the small entrance fee.
In the Bulgakov Museum, naturally in a suitable T-shirt

One could tell that the intent behind the enterprise is serious because the single information panel in English was headed with a quote by Michel Foucault, taken from his Les Mots et les Choses, the English-language title of which the curators have used as the label to describe their current efforts to bring order to the miscellaneous nature of the collection, identify gaps, and relate the holdings to Bulgakov’s life – ‘Words and things: Unveiling a Collection’.  It is to be hoped that this project will include translations of information, and so allow non-Russian speakers to learn more about this remarkable writer.

To complete our Bulgakov tribute we visited nearby Patriarch’s Ponds (actually a shady garden dominated by a single rectangular lake).  I like to think I sat on a bench in much the same spot Berlioz and Ponyrev were sitting when Woland appeared before them.  There were couples and families lounging around, and it felt a calm oasis in the busy city.  I was disappointed to learn that a tram line never ran close to here but it was pleasant to be in the place that that Bulgakov used to such great effect in the opening of his novel.  Unfortunately the grass had been reseeded and covered in plastic to protect it so we didn’t see it at its best.  We were there in the afternoon as well, on a sunny day, and to get the full Bulgakov effect we should have gone when dusk was falling, shadows lengthening, and the air full of the promise of night-time mystery.  Who knows, we might even have met Woland, come back to see how Moscow had altered in his absence.
Patriarch's Ponds, though only one remains

There are a number of fine museums in Moscow dedicated to authors, even if we did find that their limited opening hours meant it was hard to fit them all in when there was so much else to do.  We managed to visit the superb Art Nouveau Gorky house-museum, which deserves to be better known, and the Chekhov museum, which also contains a small theatre added to the original home.  Sadly, despite our best efforts, we could not get to either the Gogol or Dostoyevsky houses.  Perhaps next time we’ll manage it.  There is also a Bulgakov Museum in Kiev (his birthplace), so that has gone on my wish list as well.

Plaque commemorating Bulgakov in the street