Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940), the author of internationally renowned works The Master and Margarita, The White Guard and Heart of a Dog, was one of the most prominent Russian writers of the 20th century. Moscow was the central city in his life and career. He lived here for 18 years, from the age of 30 until the end of his life; this was also where he wrote his major works. Bulgakov captured Moscow effortlessly in his works, describing many locations with pure authenticity. Today, the writer’s fans come to Moscow to see the ‘haunted flat’, which is now home to the Mikhail Bulgakov Memorial Museum, relax in Patriarch’s Ponds and see the house whose basement once served as the Master’s dwelling.
Born in Kiev, Mikhail Bulgakov came to Moscow in September 1921. ‘I arrived in Moscow at the end of 1921 without money or belongings and stayed there forever,’ the writer recalled. He wore a flimsy woolen coat throughout the winter season. ‘Wool, wool. Oh, goddamn sackcloth! There are no words to describe how cold I was. Cold and on the run, always…’ Bulgakov’s relatives arranged a dwelling for him and his wife Tatyana Lappa in a student dormitory (18 Malaya Pirogovskaya St, now a public building).
Bulgakov started looking for a job straight away. He had abandoned his medical education in 1919, so now he combed through Moscow publishers in search of a reporting job, or similar. He was hired as a secretary by the Literature Department of the Glavpolitprosvet (Main Political and Education Committee) of the People’s Commissariat of Education (6/1 Sretensky Blvd, now a residential house). He was charged with keeping minutes of meetings, creating slogans, and preparing collections of classical writers’ works for publication. However, he only worked for a few months in this magnificent former lodging house of Russia Insurance Company. This job was followed by a period of working for a number of newspapers and journals. When Bulgakov recalled this period, he would say: ‘It was a long period of torment in Moscow; to sustain my existence, I had to work as a reporter and feuilletonist for newspapers, and I came to hate those jobs, deprived of any distinction.’
10 BOLSHAYA SADOVAYA ST (THE 302-BIS HOUSE, OR THE ‘HAUNTED FLAT’)
Bulgakov’s sister and her husband left for Kiev in October 1921, allowing the Bulgakovs have their former room at the now famous address: 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya St (Russian: Bol’shaya Sadovaya ulitsa or Большая Садовая улица) (or 302-bis, as the house is referred to in The Master and Margarita). It was not easy to obtain authorisation to live in apartment No.50, and the writer appealed to Nadezhda Krupskaya out of despair. Back then, Lenin’s spouse was in charge of the Glavpolitprosvet, where Bulgakov worked as a desk clerk. The housing issue was resolved successfully with her approval.
‘An abominable room of an abominable house’—that’s how Bulgakov would always refer to this dwelling, which he had gone to such trouble to secure. While rejoicing with all his heart at having shelter, the writer was truly shocked by the others living in the building. His neighbours in other rooms of the communal flat included a wife-beating baker, a son-beating brawler widow, a family of heavy drinkers, and suchlike. The prostitute Dusya was the most harmless of all, as she didn’t beat anyone or run out into the common hall yelling. However, in the evening she was visited by clients, who would often confuse her door with the Bulgakovs’.
This house was built in 1902–1903 by Ilya Pigit, the owner of the tobacco company Ducat. When it was built, however, it was a very difference place to what we now see. The solid building with its impressive bay windows and balcony mouldings was designed in the modernist style, which was very popular back then. Pigit only leased the flats in his house to affluent intelligentsia: only doctors, lawyers and artists inhabited the building before the 1917 Revolution. However, revolutionaries squeezed Pigit’s inhabitants out of the house and replaced them with workers. Bulgakov described in detail the horror of having such neighbours in his short stories 13, the Elpit-Rabcommune Building and Moonshine Lake. It is hardly a coincidence that he settled Woland and his retinue in this hated flat, which appeared as No.50 in The Master and Margarita.
Yet, Bulgakov wrote a lot in this room, despite his living conditions and the fact that his fingers were stiff from cold – it was so cold that his wife continuously had to bring him hot water to warm them up. Sitting by the window overlooking the courtyard, the writer worked on Diaboliad, A Country Doctor’s Notebook, Morphine and The Fatal Eggs. Finally, it was there that he developed the concept of The White Guard, one of his most famous works. This novel was about his native Kiev, champagne curtains, and the turbulent years of the Civil War. Bulgakov lived in the ‘haunted flat’ from 1921 to 1924.
The flat was handed over in a critical condition to the Mikhail Bulgakov Foundation in 1994, in order to establish a museum dedicated to the writer. The original doors and door knobs, the oval window in the wall, and even the window latches which Bulgakov must have touched have been preserved to this day. There is a shelf Bulgakov himself purchased above the desk in his room. The desk itself is not the one the writer used, but this is also an important piece of furniture – it was brought from Bulgakov’s uncle Mikhail Pokrovsky’s apartment at 24 Prechistenka St, where Bulgakov had been a frequent guest. His authentic belongings are kept in the neighbouring room, whose permanent exhibition is devoted to the writer’s last permanent address in Moscow in Nashchokinsky Lane.
IN THE LANES OF PRECHISTENKA
Bulgakov moved from Bolshaya Sadovaya Street to the Prechistenka (Russian: Пречистенка) District in November 1924, for which was he was extremely thankful. Most of his life was connected with Prechistenka. He lived in Chisty Lane and then in Maly Levshinsky Lane, spending about 12 to 18 months in each of these locations. ‘The beauty of our dwelling was that all our friends lived nearby. We only had to cross the street and walk along a parallel lane to get to the Lyamins. Serezha Topleninov, a charming and convivial person, a jack of all trades, who played the guitar and knew lots of ancient romances, lived in Mansurovsky Lane, which was even closer to us. The Moritses lived in Pomerantsev Lane, and Vladimir Nikolaevich Dolgorukov lived in our Maly Levshinsky Lane,’ Bulgakov’s second wife Lyubov Belozerskaya recalled.
Bulgakov described his friends’ houses and flats in his literary works. Philologist Lyamin’s house at 12 Pozharsky Ln was featured in The Master and Margarita as House No.13, where Ivan Bezdomny ran into in pursuit of Woland, bumped into a young woman taking a bath, and grabbed an icon and a wedding candle. Sergey Yermolinsky and the Topleninov Brothers’ house at 9 Mansurovsky Ln became the prototype for the Master’s basement. ‘“Ah, that was a golden age!” whispered the narrator, his eyes shining. “A completely self-contained little flat and a hall with a sink and running water <…>. And there was always a blaze in my little stove!”’—that’s how Bulgakov described the Topleninovs’ apartment through the Master’s mouth. He would often come to the white-stone basement flat of this solid old-Moscow one-storey wooden house, stay there overnight, and go skiing on the River Moskva from here in winter with Sergey Yermolinsky. Bulgakov’s uncle, gynecologist Nikolai Pokrovsky, lived at the corner of Prechistenka Street and Chisty (Obukhov) Lane. This house became an archetype of Kalabukhov’s house in Heart of a Dog. The uncle himself obviously appeared in the novel as Professor Preobrazhensky, which he took offense to.
35A BOLSHAYA PIROGOVSKAYA ST
Only two out of Bulgakov’s four residential addresses in Moscow have survived. We have already mentioned one in Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. The other one is located at Bld.1, 35 Bolshaya Pirogovskaya St (Russian: Bol’shaya Pirogovskaya ulitsa or Большая Пироговская улица), where Bulgakov rented a two-bedroom ground-floor apartment in 1927. He spent seven years in this apartment, writing and burning down the first version of The Master and Margarita, creating his plays Flight and The Cabal of Hypocrites, and working on Molière. It was in this apartment No.6 that Bulgakov received a phone call from Stalin’s Secretariat following his numerous voluntary emigration requests and learned about his nomination to Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), a Greek gift from the Soviet leader. Later on, Bulgakov’s apartment served as a dispatching office of public utilities for a few decades. It was passed to the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum in 2016 to celebrate the writer’s 125th anniversary and is now going to become open to general public after some restoration works.
BULGAKOV’S LAST ADDRESS
The last Moscow location where Bulgakov lived is 3/5 Nashchokinsky Ln (Russian: Nashchokinskiy pereulok or Нащокинский переулок), the famous writers’ co-op, or ‘writers’ house’, which was demolished due to blasphemous laissez-faire in 1976. A lot of famous Soviet men of letters lived there, and the place was frequented by Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. Bulgakov moved there in 1934 and was happy like a child—he now had 47 square metres of his own. In his letter to Vikenty Veresaev, he says, ‘I am hoping to show you my new abode before long, as soon as I have settled in a bit more comfortably. An astonishing apartment-block, I swear! There are writers living above and below and behind and in front and alongside. I pray to God the building will prove indestructible. I am happy to have got out of that damp hole on Pirogovskaya Street. And what bliss, Vikenty Vikentyevich, not to have to travel on the trams! It’s true that it’s fairly chilly, there’s something not quite right with the toilet and water leaks on to the floor from the cistern, and there’ll probably be some other problems as well, but all the same I am happy. So long as the building keeps standing! Lord, if only spring would hurry up. What a long and exhausting winter it has been. I dream about opening the door onto the balcony. I am weary, so weary.’
A lot of activity is associated with this first proper flat of Mikhail Bulgakov in Moscow. This is where he wrote Theatrical Novel, worked on his plays and stage adaptations. This is from where he went to his work first in the MAT and later in Bolshoi Theatre. But most importantly, this is where work on the great novel The Master and Margarita was going on.
THE MOSCOW OF THE MASTER AND MARGARITA
The Master and Margarita is the most read book of Bulgakov. It took him 20 years to create it. Thousands of people come to Moscow these days to take a stroll around the Moscow of The Master and Margarita. As a rule, the route begins with the ‘haunted flat’, which is now home to the Bulgakov Museum, while the next entrance leads to Bulgakov’s House Museum Theatre (Russian: muzey-teatr ‘Bulgakovskiy dom’ or музей-театр «Булгаковский дом»). The route then goes to Patriarch’s Ponds, which are a 5–7-minute walk from 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya St.
Remember how, ‘At the sunset hour of one warm spring day two men were to be seen at Patriarch’s Ponds’? Patriarch’s Ponds (Russian: Patriarshie prudy or Патриаршие пруды) is a high-end district of Moscow nowadays. Famous actors and businessmen are quite likely to be seen there. It used to be the Goat Marsh some time ago. The patriarch who had his residence here in the 17th century ordered ponds to be dug to breed fish for the table of His Holiness. Only one pond has survived to this day, but the name has preserved the plural form.
Officially, the archives say there have never been any tram lines along the ponds. However, some researchers (e.g. Boris Myagkov in Bulgakov at Patriarch’s Ponds) find evidence there once were tram lines along Yermolaevsky Lane, turning to Malaya Bronnaya Street.
Griboyedov House is another landmark of the novel, the building hosting MASSOLIT headed by Berlioz and the restaurant that Fagot and Begemot set on fire at the end. In reality, this house at 25 Tverskoy Blvd once belonged to Alexander Herzen’s parents, and Herzen himself was born there. The building was later passed to Maxim Gorky Literature Institute, which it is still home to.
The next building, the famous Nirnsee House, also known as the House of Bachelors (10 Bolshoy Gnezdnikovsky Ln), refers us to the encounter of the Master and Margarita—in effect, that of Mikhail Bulgakov and his third and last wife Yelena Shilovskaya. Moscow’s first skyscraper was built for single men, that is why its flats have no kitchens, in particular. Bulgakov knew the building very well: Rossiya and Nakanune Publishing Houses, which he collaborated with, were situated there. As he once came to the Nirnsee House to visit a friend of his, he met Yelena Shilovskaya, his last love. ‘We were walking down a crooked boring lane silently – me on one side of the street, she on the other. And imagine that, there wasn’t a single soul in that lane.’
Bulgakov scholars managed to identify quite accurately the street addresses of nearly every building and location in Moscow described in the novel. However, there has been no unambiguous opinion on one building, Margarita’s house. Here is how Bulgakov describes it in the novel: ‘Margarita Nikolayevna and her husband lived alone in the whole of the top floor of a delightful house in a garden in one of the side streets near the Arbat.’ It is also known that the house was ‘gothic’. Anna Kekusheva’s Mansion (21 Ostozhenka St) is one of the most probable archetypes of Margarita’s house. The mansion built by famous architect Lev Kekushev for his wife in 1903 is located within walking distance from the Master’s basement.
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