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"Master and Margarita" in modern-day Moscow

June 2, 2012 at 8:20 am
By Yasha and Sophia

      Although finished in 1940, Michael Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita remained unpublished in the USSR for over 25 years, and a completely uncensored edition was not released until 1973. Most of the action in the novel takes place in a small section of downtown Moscow, so after reading the book as part of our study of Russian culture and history, we set off to visit the places that probably influenced Bulgakov. 

      Similar to what we noticed when touring parts of Saint Petersburg associated with Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment, Bulgakov set many scenes in areas to which he had strong personal ties. For example, literary analysts consider the alley where “love jumped out [at the Master and Margarita] like a murderer out of nowhere " to be the same spot where Bulgakov and his third wife fell in love.  The communal apartment into which Ivan Bezdomniy storms during his initial chase of Satan was probably the residence of Bulgakov’s close friend Nikolai Lyamin. Bulgakov’s own apartment on Sadovaya Street became the model for the “Nekhoroshaya Kvartira” (the No-Good Apartment), where Satan and his retinue take up residence in Moscow.

      However, critics don't always agree on which places Bulgakov actually had in mind when writing, so part of our task was to try to form our own opinion based on textual clues. For instance, we visited two possibilities for the Master's house. Both have connections to Bulgakov’s life and fit the book’s description fairly well: a basement apartment with a window looking out onto "lilac bushes, a linden tree, and a maple." We opted for the place with the most appropriate flora (although much can change in 70 years). It was a similar story identifying Margarita's house, despite the fact that the narrator of the novel offers those wishing to find it: "let him ask me and I’ll give him the address and show him the way!” We personally favored the pink house.  It offered a more fitting setting for the scene in which Margarita sits in her windowsill, then flies out over her garden.

      In addition to being a scavenger hunt and helping us orient ourselves better in Moscow, seeing these places enabled us to consider the significance of setting in Bulgakov’s work. We think a connection may exist between a location’s elevation and the “power” expressed by the actions that take place there: the higher the elevation, the more authority associated with it. Master toils fruitlessly in a basement; meanwhile, in tall glass buildings, critics such as Latunsky foil the Master’s attempts to publish his work. The novel opens at the low, static Patriarch Ponds where the bombastic, arrogant editor Berlioz slips, falls onto the tram tracks, and loses his head, showing his actual inconsequence and the triviality of his ideas. The “Nekhoroshaya Kvartira” is located on the top story of an apartment building, and several scenes illustrating Satan’s incredible power occur there, such as Satan’s Grand Ball and his magical reuniting of the Master and Margarita. This trend continues when Matvei Levi confronts the Devil on a roof, when Satan watches Moscow burn from atop Sparrow Mountains, and finally, when Pontius Pilate ascends a beam of moonlight toward the moon, representing absolute height. 

      Another part of our study of this novel was watching a theatrical adaptation in the MHAT (a leading Moscow theater). Obviously, manipulating location in the same way as Bulgakov would be impossible given the confines of a stage, so it was interesting to see how the theater compensated.  Correlation between height and power were more-or-less lost, and often, different ideas were highlighted than those accented in the novel. For instance, when the Master burned his manuscript, the actor jerked pages straight from the breast pocket over his heart and threw them into the fire, a clear metaphor for burning his own heart and soul.

       The play also attempted to modernize parts of the plot, introducing, for example, movie cameras, modern clothes, and a very cool Moscow Metro. This was likely a gimmick to make the work more accessible to a wider commercialized audience. However, for many fans, the work needs no updating. Its central messages about devotion, courage, and the triumph of truth don't go out of fashion, and though it contains many allusions to Stalinist tyranny, it can easily be read as a response to tyranny of all times and places. On the writer's birthday, “Bulgakov Day,” we understood a bit better just how important and appreciated the book remains today, like when witnessing part of an all-day reading of the book outside the No-Good Apartment (around which there are two museums devoted to Bulgakov and this book—less than 100 meters apart). One of the museums has a small theater that put on a spectacular anniversary production of the novel. When the Devil replied to the Master with the famous line: "Manuscripts don't burn," the whole audience burst into applause.

For more on Master and Margarita, here are two helpful sites:


Another interesting NYT read about a recent film adaptation of the book: