2016 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail Bulgakov which makes it a great time to read his seminal Moscow novel: The Master and Margarita. This (almost circular) walk takes you around some of the places associated with both the novel and Bulgakov’s life.
Our walk begins, just like the book at Patriarch’s Ponds (pictured at the top of the page): “At the hour of the hot spring sunset at Patriarch’s Ponds two citizens appeared.”
Bulgakov lived nearby and came regularly to the pond, which at the time was surrounded by the tramlines which play such a key role in the story. In 1929, he brought his third wife Elena Sergeyevna here and she recalled how he began to discuss the novel he was writing:
Just imagine, there are two literary men sitting on a bench just as we are, and from a neighbouring bench wearing a grey beret over one ear, with a cane under his arm, an amazing gentleman rises and addresses a courteous question to them”
This is now the home of the Bulgakov museum and the model for building 302 bis, where, in Master and Margarita, Woland takes up residence. Bulgakov himself lived here in 1921 with his first wife Tatyana Nikolaevna. Bulgakov wrote of it being a “fifth-floor nightmare…the room is terrible, the neighbours too.” At the time he worked as a journalist for the Railway Workers Union on their publication the Whistle (Gudok), but he also started to write his novel The White Guard while living here. Bulgakov later lived in a different apartment in the same block with his second wife, Lyubov Belozerskaya.
Continue along the Garden Ring and stop at the Theatre of Satire. In the 1920s, the Moscow Music Hall stood on this site which Bulgakov used as the basis for the Variety Theatre in Master and Margarita where Woland performed his show. Pause for a minute and picture the scene as Rimsky hears the audience exit onto this very busy street:
To the Financial Director’s extremely sharpened hearing there suddenly came the distinct trilling of the police…and then clearly audible cackling joined in with it too, and even some sort of whooping, the Financial Director immediately realised that something else scandalous and foul had happened in the street. And that…it had the closest connection with the disgusting performance put on by the black magician and his assistants. As soon as he glanced out of a window that looked out onto Sadovaya, his face twisted…In the bright light of the very powerful street lights he saw on the pavement below him a lady wearing just a violet-coloured camisole and knickers.”
Continue up the Garden Ring and turn right to walk down Tverskaya Ulitsa. Continue until you reach Pushkinskaya and the statue of Pushkin, Russia’s most celebrated author. The statue also features in Master and Margarita. On his return from the Mental Institute, the poet Ryukhin, who is travelling in a truck looks up and sees that they have come to a standstill:
held up in a column of other vehicles at the turn onto the boulevard, and that ever so close to him stood a metal man on a pedestal, his head slightly inclined, looking dispassionately at the boulevard. Some strange thoughts surged into the head of the sick poet: “There’s an example of real luckiness…” At this point Ryukhin stood up straight on the back of the truck and raised his hand, for some reason attacking the cast-iron man who was harming no-one.
Continue across the junction down Tverskaya Ulitsa which is the street where the Master first meets Margarita: “You know Tverskaya? Thousands of people were walking along Tverskaya, but I guarantee that she saw me alone.”
Turn right into the first side street which is Bolshoy Gnezdnikovsky Pereulok and stop outside number 10. The book describes how when Margarita and the Master met, they turned off Tverskaya down a winding street, and as Bolshoy Gnezdinkovsky is the only side street that isn’t straight, many people think this is the street that Bulgakov had in mind. There is a second reason why this street is relevant, number 10 was home to some of Bulgakov’s friends, the Moiseenkos, and it was here at a dinner party that Bulgakov met his third wife Elena Sergeyevna Shilovskaya. When Bulgakov met Elena in 1929, he had already started writing the Master and Margarita but at that point the story line did not include a heroine. It was only after the two met that Bulgakov created Margarita’s character. The building also previously housed the offices of the journal Nakanune (On the Eve) which Bulgakov wrote for, and it makes a fictional appearance in his stories Diaboliad and Forty Times Forty.
Retrace your steps to Pushkinskaya and turn left into Tverskoy Boulevard stopping at number 25. This is the building that most closely matches the description of Griboyedov, the headquarters of the literary association MASSOLIT in the novel. “The old cream-coloured two-storey house , was situated on the Boulevard Ring in the depths of a sorry-looking garden, separated from the pavement of the ring by fretted cast-iron railings.” In the 1920s and 30s this building, known as the Herzen House, was home to a number of writers including the author of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, and the poet Osip Mandelstam who described it as a “vile mansion”.
At the end of Tverskoy Boulevard, turn right into Bolshaya Nikitskaya and continue until you reach number 46. This building was previously a school where Bulgakov’s sister lived and worked. In 1924 it became a temporary home for Bulgakov and his wife Lyubov Belozerskaya whom he had recently married. The pair spent their first summer sleeping here in the staff room. In the 19th century the building was home to the Vasilchikovs who once employed the writer Gogol as tutor to their children.
Turn left down Skaryatinskiy Pereulok and then right along Povarskaya Ulitsa until you reach number 50. This 19th Century Mansion is part of the Central House of Writers which extends all the way through to Bolshaya Nikitskaya street. Earlier we stopped at the building that most closely matches that described by Bulgakov as Griboyedov the home of MASSOLIT, the writers organisation in the novel. But this is the real home of the Union of Writers, and this building is the restaurant. Readers of the novel will remember that the MASSOLIT restaurant features prominently at the start of the book, not only because it is where Ivan Nikolayevich was arrested, but because the restaurant was a big draw for members:
Long-time residents of Moscow remember the renowned Griboyedov! Never mind boiled portions of pikeperch!…What about the starlet, starlet in a silver saucepan, pieces of starlet interlaid with crayfish necks and fresh caviar? What about eggs en cocotte with champignon puree in little bowls? And did you like the little fillets of thrush? With truffles? The quail Genoese style? Nine roubles fifty! And the jazz band, and the polite service!
The House of Writers was a private establishment only open to members and their guests. In Soviet times the restaurant (like those of other Unions) did indeed offer a bountiful supply of great food and alcohol at good prices, even when those items were in scarce supply elsewhere. The Unions were powerful organisations in Soviet times. In her memoirs, the wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, Nadezhda, describes how they turned to the Writers Union for financial assistance, for help in finding work (which in their case was not forthcoming) and for support in their application for a residence permit. Unions also allocated apartments and homes to their members. In the Master and Margarita, the Board members of MASSOLIT argue about the allocation of homes in the fictional village of Perelygino, but there is a very real village of Peredelkino where favoured writers, including Boris Pasternak, were indeed given homes.
In the 19th century, the building next door at number 52 Povarskaya was the home of the court historiographer, Sollogub, and Tolstoy visited him here while writing War and Peace. If you walk in through the gates (as if you are going to one of the cafes situated in the outer buildings) you can get a better look at the house which is believed to be the model for the Rostov’s family home in War and Peace. In Bulgakov’s time the building was part of the Headquarters of the Union of Writers and it was here in 1940 that Bulgakov’s funeral was held.
Our walk ends here but there are a number of other buildings associated with the life and work of Bulgakov in the Prechistenka area of Moscow which you’ll shortly be able to read about in Part 2 of the walk.