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Postcard from Moscow

Postcard from Moscow

Strictly Moscow

Paul Pickering, Bath Spa University

The sky in Moscow is a glowing pearly white, just before snow, but with a darker colour behind, a light Chagall captured in his canvases. He always painted on a dark blue background before letting loose his whimsy of blue horses and clowns. In the taxi from the airport, driven by a small, smiling man who looks exactly like Vladimir Putin, we pass smoke-black factory buildings and grey concrete apartment blocks to the new, squeaky clean and beggar-free centre, all gleaming stucco and designer shops, in what is still a warm and friendly city. It is here that the Australian producer and director Baz Luhrmann, best known for Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, will direct a film of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Faustian novel, The Master and Margarita.

In the cult comic novel, the devil, Woland, turns up in Moscow with a retinue that includes a man-sized black cat called Behemoth with a liking for pistols and vodka.  Following a foretold beheading and magic shows where women’s underwear disappears, the demonic gang kidnap the Master, a failed writer, and make his mistress Margarita do Woland’s bidding naked at his Walpurgis Night ball. Marianne Faithfull dropped this not-quite-Tolstoy novel into Mick Jagger’s lap in 1968 and it produced the song Sympathy for the Devil – “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste…”

Red Square with St Basil's
Red Square with St Basil’s.

Somewhat later than Jagger, an incredibly beautiful woman dropped the book into my lap when I was waiting for the Marrakech Express. I was hooked. The novel is why a surreal Faustian template seeped into my own work. It is why I am on the trip to Moscow, courtesy of GALA, the Global Academy of Liberal Arts, an international network of universities and colleges founded and managed by Bath Spa University. I am to present my PhD thesis, Sympathy For The Devil: Faust, History and Poetics in my novels, to an audience at the Bulgakov Museum, which is in the novelist’s old flat, number 50 at 10, Bol”shaya Sadovaya.

Bulgakov was writing in Stalin’s time of total censorship and this masterpiece was not published in his lifetime. One night, despairing, after too much vodka, Bulgakov wrote to Comrade Stalin, asking him to be his censor, regretting it deeply in the morning and hoping that the letter would get lost in the endless bureaucracy. It didn’t. Stalin agreed to be Bulgakov’s personal censor and the writer found himself in a pact with a man who represented raw power, far more dangerous than any devil. Stalin admired Bulgakov’s work so much that the subversive whirligig of a black comedy never saw the light of day. Stalin’s sympathy with the quality of the writing saved Bulgakov’s life.

Yet the Bulgakov flat is very much a place for Moscow’s youth. The nearby Patriarch’s Ponds, the opening setting for The Master and Margarita, a rectangular space of tranquil water, frequented by ducks and courting couples, is where Woland confidently predicts the beheading of a publisher, to the publisher and a poet, by a passing tram, after a discussion about the existence of Jesus. “Everyone loves the place. Everyone. It is because Bulgakov was a rebel,” says Masha, 21. These are rebellious times in Moscow with new protests planned by students for the spring.

You can see the love and the art and the inspiration in the graffiti on the back staircase up to the suite of rooms in the building, which is constructed around a courtyard, like those in the sixth arrondissement in Paris. Out of the darkness come figures, many of the boldly feminist Margarita but even more of the sinister black cat with green eyes, Behemoth. Every single square inch is covered in paint, interpreting the novel afresh with each step.


Inside the flat, which the devil, Woland, takes over in the novel, it is more like a club. Artistic young Masters and ethereal Margaritas glide from room to room. The rooms are kept exactly as they were in different stages of Bulgakov’s life. This is not a precious museum, I am allowed to sit in the master’s chair, and no one in the audience is much over twenty-five, which means in Moscow that they speak disturbingly fluent English.

Sitting in Mikhail Bulgakov's chair
In the Master’s chair. 

“We look to Europe,” says Svetlana, 24. “It is very hard to get published here if you are a serious writer. There is no money to support writers and no programmes to bring young writers on. The same is true in the cinema.” After I talk about rebellion in relation to Margarita’s Faustian pact to free her lover, we agree that in Bulgakov power runs alongside and often in opposition to artistic self-representation. Young Russians fear, like the censored Bulgakov, that no one will ever see their art. “We don’t want to be bears anymore, we are hummingbirds!” says Nika, 22.

I go on to the Alexander Gonorovski film school to give a talk on novel writing and fiction’s fascination with all things Russian evidenced by TV dramas like Killing Eve. Here it becomes even clearer that there is very little opportunity to find a publisher in Moscow, or get a script to the screen.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Back near my hotel, The Budapest, founded in 1876, and where Lenin gave a speech, I talk with a group of young students making a film: “It is not so much the political system or Putin,” one boy, Andrei, 21, shivering in a thin, black, very Left Bank raincoat, says: “The older generation cannot let go of the spiritual numbness of the Soviet days.”

A banker friend takes me to a Mongolian wedding on the “floating” bridge in Zaryadye Park that juts out halfway over the Moskva River. He runs at the fairly flimsy, transparent plastic at the end and stops. “What we need is a small trampoline! There is a joke that if you jump off this bridge and lose consciousness as you hit the freezing water, the next morning you will find you are back at your desk, doing just the same old job.” That is very like the ending of The Master and Margarita where the two lovers are consigned to a half-lit limbo even after the bargain has been paid at Satan’s Ball. “The arts here are about to go massive and explode,” adds the banker. What Moscow writers need is, as the devil initially promises, more chaos, less order and, of course, far more money. Baz Luhrmann’s film dances in at just the right moment.

Annunciation Cathedrel, Kremlin (1)
Annunciation Cathedral, Kremlin.

Dr Paul Pickering visited the GALA partner, RANEPA, in Moscow in November 2019, and was supported by Bath Spa University’s GALA Outreach Fund. His seventh novel, Elephant, which draws on his Russian trip, is out on 30 June 2021.

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