17th May was International Museum Day. Apparently.
Mama didn’t know this in advance, but she should really have been looking out for it as this date triggers the Museum Night event across Europe. And Moscow is in Europe, right?
So what happens on Moscow Museum Night, or Ночь в Музее in Russian, is that Museums throw open their doors, or perhaps, leave them open would be a better phrase, until much much later than usual. And since these days museums regularly stay open until 9 or 10 in the evening at least once a week, this means midnight.
But that’s not all! It’s an opportunity for the museums to put on a bit of a show, so there are all sorts of events going on inside the museums on top of whatever is usually there. Concerts, danceshows, crafting, fashion parades and theatrical performances.
And in Moscow, if you usually have to pay for entrance, on this night they are free!
Quite why Mama and Papa decided that they and my Stoic Big Brother should try to visit as many of Moscow’s museums as they could on foot between the hours of 7pm and 12, I do not know, as this isn’t an integral part of the programming. But somewhere between sauntering from one location towards their next choice of cultural experience they came across another, and an idea was born.
In total they managed four museums and an art gallery. Mama spent much of the next day lying down with her feet up and a wet cloth over her eyes declaring that next weekend we would find the most low brow thing for kids in the capital and do that.
So where did they go?
Well, they started off at Mikhail Bulgakov’s flat, famous not just because he once had a room in a communal apartment there and abandoned his wife in a second apartment in the same block, but because it’s the building the Devil, Woland, lived in when he came to Moscow in the book Master and Margarita.
Who was Mikhail Bulgakov? You probably aren’t asking this, the man is famous, but Mama is going to tell you anyway. Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Bulgakov’s first career was as a doctor. He worked on the front line in world war one, then in a provincial backwater, then back in Kyiv and later was co-opted by whichever army was passing through his region in the civil war following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Not a pleasant experience by any means. He ended up abandoning medicine forever in favour of becoming a writer in Moscow.
In this new endevour he was somewhat successful, as one of his early plays, the White Guard, dealing with the fortunes and misfortunes of an anti-Bolshevik family in Kyiv during the civil war, was a huge box office hit. It was also hugely popular with Stalin, for reasons which nobody seems to quite understand. Despite Bulgakov adding scenes such as the youngest son’s move towards the communists towards the end of the play in a bid to get it past the censors, it was blasted by reviewers for being entirely too sympathetic towards the bourgeois main characters. Nevertheless, Stalin saw it more than 15 times.
Unfortunately, Mikhail’s literary ouvre continued to be… complex and so many of his later projects were either also panned by critics or outright banned. He was in regular employment behind the scenes at theatres thanks to Stalin’s patronage, but he wasn’t able to get any of his own works published after 1930 or thereabouts. Master and Margarita was only made public in 1966, twenty six years after his death, for example, despite him having begun it in the late 20s.
It was an immediate hit at that point, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, and since then Bulgakov’s reputation as one of the finest writers of the 20th century has grown. Master and Margarita is often quoted as Russians’ top pick for greatest work of literature of all time, in fact. Yes, over War and Peace, over Crime and Punishment.
If you are given to enjoying grotesque magical realism with oblique digs at contemporary society, you will like it too. It’s certainly one of Mama’s favoutite books. Go read it (again, if necessary). And when you have finished that, please enjoy a five minute speculation as to quite how Heart of a Dog (a man’s heart is transplanted into a dog, with unpredictable consequences) and Ivan Vasilievich (Ivan the Terrible and a 20th century petty criminal become switched, with predicable consequences) both very popular Soviet era movies, are also examples of biting social commentary. You think the analogy in Animal Farm is clever, you haven’t come across Bulgakov.
Anyway. As it turns out Bulgakov’s former block of flats boasts not just one Bulgakov Museum but two apparently competing ones, both of which were enthusiastically participating in Moscow Museum Night. Oddly, the more authentic one, flat 50, the one with Bulgakov’s actual room and satanic connection, was the one without the really long queue to get in. As my Papa is someone who says that he didn’t avoid queuing in the dying days of the Soviet Union only to start now, that’s the one the family went to.
There is a lot of Master and Margarita related graffiti in the stairwell.
The Moscow authorities spent most of the 80s fighting a losing battle against it, and after they gave up at the end of the decade it has flourished, only once succumbing to some anti satanic nut job who set out to destroy it and some of the holdings of one of the museums.
Well, the devil does have all of the best lines in the book, and Jesus comes across as a decidedly unmagical sort of person. That might be irritating, even if you didn’t have some kind of axe to grind as a former neighbour of the Bulgakov Museum(s).
Once you get inside, the flat itself is more of an art installation than a straightforward retelling of the life of Bulgakov and his books. My Stoic Big Brother particularly enjoyed the room where you could push buttons and light up windows to little dioramas representing many of the people who also lived in the building over the years. Because as well as being Bulgakov AND the devil’s dwelling place, it’s an interesting building in and of itself. Which may have been why Bulgakov interwove it into his stories in the first place, of course.
More likely, though, it was because he absolutely hated the place.
It was built pre-revolution as a luxury apartment block in the Art Nouveau style, which architecturally speaking has echos all over this area of Moscow, and was originally occupied by luminaries of the artistic establishment. Post revolution, it became one of the first communes, and although it still retained a bohemian tone, Bulgakov was not a fan, particularly as the plumbing was difficult.
Mama, who didn’t have to live there, liked the kitchen.
But there were also items of furniture and nicknacks and even Bulgakov’s own typewriter. Admittedly sourced from, mainly, other places Bulgakov had lived, or his relatives. And there were tours (in Russian). And on this Moscow Museum Night, the whole place was cheerfully busy. Mama and the gang had a very satisfying poke round and then they left and went back to the courtyard.
Where there was a cat drawing competition.
For those who do not know the novel Master and Margarita, a black cat is one of the most memorable characters in Woland’s retinue. He’s also called Begemot, which is the Russian word for ‘behemoth’ but is also the word for ‘hippopotamus’ in Russian. Master and Margarita, Mama is assured by every Russian she has had a conversation about it with, loses a lot in the translation. Certainly her copy had extensive footnotes for practically every line trying to explain either the word play or quite why mention of a seemingly innocuous household object was a profound satirical dig. And you can see why, given that Mama has just spent 100 words on why a cat’s name is funny.
Literary criticism aside, the cat drawing competition having a connection to the animal world, my Stoic Brig Brother got involved, and naturally he won.
It turned out the prize was to jump the queue for the other Bulgakov Museum.
Now, this Bulgakov Museum is an unofficial one. It was started first in a different part of the building to the one Bulgakov lived in because flat 50 itself was at that time unavailable. They do have a fair number of small items belonging to the great writer or his relatives, and some enthusiastic cos-playing guides who run an excursion (in Russian) around them. But it was originally a small theatre for Bulgakov’s banned plays, which have now relocated (loudly) to the basement. What is left mostly seems to be a cafe and souvenir shop, and a lot of Bulgakov-themed event planning (in Russian).
Although, oddly, when you have finished the tour of that Bulgakov Museum, they take you for a climb round the back stairs of the building to the other Bulgakov Museum. So perhaps the rivalry is not that fierce.
Still, to be honest, Mama thinks that if you are ever in Moscow and trying to choose which of the two museums you should go and look at, as a non-Russian speaker, you should go straight for the other one. Especially if there is any kind of queue. This may be because she was a bit Bulgakov-ed out by the end of it all though, and now, dear reader, as a result so probably are you. You are welcome, and your mileage may vary. The unofficial museum definitely has a better statue outside.
And what did the family do after the Bulgakov Museum(s)? Well, that is a story for another day.
Address: 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya street, Moscow, 125047.
Opening: Bulgakov’s former flat is open Tuesday to Sunday 12 noon to 7pm, but CLOSED on Mondays. The other one seems to be more built around events.
Admission: Flat 50 is 150 roubles for adults and 50 roubles for schoolchildren.
Getting there: The Bulgakov Museum (both of them) is just round the corner from Mayakovskaya metro station (green line).
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