Looking For Bulgakov
By Linda Lippner
I have to confess that I arrived in Moscow with very little knowledge of Russian literature beyond the usual and somewhat obligatory familiarity with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Gogol, or the Big Three of literature along with the Big One of poetry and short stories, Pushkin.
I was only familiar with 20th century Russian literature through a movie (Pasternak with his Lara and Dr. Zhivago), and the painful history of the gulag through literary fiction and fact by Solzhenitsyn.
I had to live in Moscow to learn about Mikhail Bulgakov. Just like the devil that arrived in Moscow to meet the Master and his Margarita, I discovered my (now!) absolutely favorite Russian writer in his favorite city of Moscow. After devouring all of Bulgakovís books that I could find in English, I set out to locate all the spots in Moscow that are described in his books. Patriarshy Dom Tours and their wonderfully erudite guide, Felix, gave me my first taste of walking the Bulgakov trail. The tour included Patriarshy Pond, Ostozhenka Street, and other great locations described in Bulgakovís stories, novels and plays. The mystery of why there are no trolley tracks along Patriarshy Pond Park; who cares when you can sit on a bench in the park and imagine you hear the trolley rumbling down the street; ready to chop off a literary criticís head when he mysteriously falls onto the non-existent tracks. Or walk along a street and look up at the windows of the apartment where Bulgakovís doctor conducted his infamous experiments in The Heart of the Dog to produce the ideal socialist/communist comrade out of a street mutt. And the greatest treat; visit Spaso House, the U.S. Ambassadorís residence where a Ball was held in the Ď30ís that inspired Bulgakov to write about the craziest gathering of ďspiritsĒ ever.
But my goal was to try to find the muse that inspired Bulgakov to write. What four walls had hosted his wonderfully fantastical writing? One night this summer I wanted to re-acquaint myself with the apartment where Bulgakov wrote many of his works. I had been there before but it had been a few years back. Being summer, I was out late and I got there after closing to visit the actual apartment Bulgakov had lived in. For years his apartment has been the focal point for his literary fans and anyone who has been to the apartment building has seen the entertaining fan club graffi ti in the hallways outside. But lo and behold! There is now a café open for business on a lower floor. Red velvet drapes, lots of mirrors for spirits to slip in and out of, and lots of memorabilia housed in the café-in-an-apartment. Not wanting a drink, I wandered about pausing to watch the videos of Bulgakovís works and examined the many photos and impossibly ďauthenticĒ personal items on display. His typewriter? His piano? Probably not, but imagination is not hurt by the right ambience and mood.
After hanging out in the ďBulgakovĒ café for a bit longer, I went down to the courtyard that is enclosed by the quietly eerie apartment building where Bulgakov once lived. A final touch got me laughing. Could the café or the apartment museum really have provided a black cat to hang out in the courtyard? Perhaps he is on union double wages because there he was; a very large black cat on late night duty as I stood in the courtyard looking up at the darkened windows of Bulgakovís apartment. I checked later with a friend who has offices in the building and his experience with the black cat was finding it perched on the open window of his high-floor office. No shy spirit, Bulgakovís Begemot that I saw that night was cat-sized, not man-sized, and he let me stroke his back, although he had a decidedly man-sized purr. Perhaps better not to try too hard to fi nd the real Bulgakov as much of the truth of his life was very painful. But a café and a black cat on a summer night Ė great literary entertainment!