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FEATURE-Moscow literary site saved after residents protest
By Richard Balmforth
MOSCOW, April 1 (Reuters) - It's been a devil of a dispute.

But residents of an elegant Moscow district, immortalised in a classic Soviet novel in which Satan wreaks havoc in Josef Stalin's Russia, have won their campaign against city government plans to turn their neighbourhood upside down.

Inhabitants of Moscow's Patriarch's Ponds quarter -- scene of the opening pages of a cult masterpiece by Soviet satirist Mikhail Bulgakov -- have been up in arms over plans to erect a cluster of monuments to honour the author.

The plans envisaged not only a monument to Bulgakov, but a garish 12-metre (40 feet) -high construction in the shape of a paraffin stove, a key symbol of the surrealistic "Master and Margarita" -- all heavily promoted by Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's no-nonsense mayor with a taste for the monumental.

Accompanying the stove, was to have been a statue of Christ walking on water.

To the horror of residents in the quarter, set in a leafy backwater just off the city's inner ring road, bulldozers moved in last year and began digging up a pond where Muscovites and their families have ice-skated for more than a century.

Not that Muscovites oppose honouring Bulgakov. On the contrary.

Stylistically one of finest writers of Soviet times, his satires of life under Stalin were so sharp they were not published until long after his own, and the dictator's, death.

The black humour with which he depicted the bizarre nature of life under communism in the 1920s and 30s has given him a new cult following as Russia marks the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death.

In the opening pages of Bulgakov's novel, two communist party hack-writers suddenly confront a darkly-dressed stranger with a foreign accent in Patriarch's Ponds as they swap stories ridiculing the existence of God.

The stranger turns out to be the devil who swiftly arranges the death of one of them by having him knocked down by a tram that decapitates him.

From then on, the devil, known as Woland, and a dreadful band of henchman including a baleful, out-sized cat, terrorise sections of Moscow life with black magic tricks.

The heavily satirical work, in which the devil appears to be a portrayal of Stalin, took Bulgakov 12 years to write and was not published until long after his death in 1940 and that of the dictator 13 years later.


Bulgakov's popularity is not in doubt.

But residents were outraged at plans to destroy the tranquillity of a neighbourhood and the remaining pond, founded in the early 19th century in honour of victorious Tsarist forces and where writers Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov skated.

Erecting an enormous paraffin stove -- a popular kitchen appliance in early Soviet times which figures prominently in the book -- seemed for most residents a vulgar idea with which to honour one of Russia's most elegant writers.

Moscow officials said that in the face of the protests Luzhkov, a wealthy politico with sharp elbows who does not lose many arguments, had now backed down from the original plan.

Ideas for the massive stove-shaped construction and a statue of Christ walking on the surface of the pond have been scrapped.

Only a modest monument to Bulgakov himself, reclining on a broken-down bench and contemplating the pond, will remain from the original plans, they said.

"I am surprised and happy because the mayor openly admitted it was their (city planners) mistake," said Yevgeny Bunimovich, a municipal official who championed the residents' cause.

"Patriarch's Ponds is a Moscow myth created by Bulgakov. It has a very special, very fragile, atmosphere of old Moscow. You shouldn't touch this myth, this atmosphere," he said.

Residents were expecting the pond, which once stocked fish for the Russian Orthodox clergy, hence its name, would recover its tradition as a favoured recreational area for Muscovite families in winter.

Luzhkov, well-connected with Moscow big business, has overseen most of the rapid post-Soviet reconstruction in the capital and often been criticised by the intelligentsia for a fondness for "kitsch."

"The whole idea was very unfortunate. I do not believe the idea was so much to honour Bulgakov but to honour those who would like to make a lot of money," Yelena Zemskaya, a niece of Bulgakov, told Reuters.

She is one of several who saw the plan as a tasteless extravaganza aimed at pulling in foreign tourists.

Alexander Rukavishnikov, the artist hired by Luzhkov to produce the sculptors, has taken his sudden reversal of fortune badly.

"I'm off to Europe. They understand me better there," Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper quoted Rukavishnikov as saying. "Unfortunately, Muscovites are not so progressive. It's a pity that art is received like this in our country."


Though Bulgakov's surrealistic work appeals to the eccentric streak in Russians, he remained a puzzle until his death.

His works were unashamedly damning in their judgment of Soviet life.

"Heart of a Dog," a tragi-comedy written in 1925 but published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s is a novel about a mad scientist who transplants the genitalia and some other parts of a Soviet petty criminal into the body of a street dog to test his rejuvenation theories.

The result is that the pleasant little mongrel turns into a shocking hooligan with abominable habits and a strong Bolshevik streak who brings down all sorts of misfortune on his bourgeois master.

Intriguingly though, Bulgakov remained unmolested by Stalin at a time when to be a powerful writer with a critical eye was a dangerous way of life.

A voracious reader, Stalin is said to have particularly liked one of Bulgakov's plays "Beg" (Flight), going to see it at least 12 times. (Additional reporting by Sveta Graudt)

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