Russian Language Blog

Reading: Master and Margarita – Chapter 1 Posted by on Jun 11, 2010 in Culture, History

By now you know that the novel starts off at «Патриаршии пруды» [Patriarch’s ponds], but why there, of all other spooky places in Moscow. While even Bulgakov-ologists don’t know exactly why, the choice appears to be highly symbolic. First of all, there’s the name itself. Don’t you think it’s interesting that Woland and his motley crew make their first appearance and perform the first act of “black magic” there?

In 17th century Patriarch Germogen chose a swampy goat pasture as a place to be developed for his new residence and under Patriarch Joachim three ponds were dug out and stocked with fish for the Patriarch’s table. In late 19th century two out of three ponds were filled in, but the plural «пруды» [ponds] remained in the name.

Since 18th century, after the swamp was finally drained and the area – prettified, it became a place for the rich and famous. Pushkin, Derzhavin, Gogol, both Lev and Alexey Tolstoy, Alexander Blok, Marina Tzvetayeva and many other Russian intellectuals, artists, writers, lived, worked or visited the area.

After the Revolution a new cast of characters made its entrance. Neither conventionally rich nor famous, these newcomers were from the new Soviet elite. The name no longer seemed to fit the State’s ideology and in 1924 «Патриаршии пруды» [Patriarch’s Ponds] were officially renamed into «Пионерские пруды» [Pioneers’ ponds]. The new name didn’t take.

Speaking of names, before the ponds were dug out, several small streams flowed out of the Goats’ Swamp – «Черторый», «Бубна» and «Кабанка» (all have been filled in or taken underground). If the name «Черторый» sounds a bit like «чёрт» it is with a good reason. The name of a stream was descriptive, based on the shapeless and uneven streambed, as if dug up by «чёрт» [devil] himself.

Into this place, full of echoes of Moscow’s (and Russia’s) past and voices of powers that be that became Moscow’s present, Bulgakov releases the first two victims of Woland – «Михаил Александрович Берлиоз» [Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz] and «Иван Николаевич Бездомный» [Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomniy, lit: Homeless].

Even though Berlioz (SPOILER ALERT) only appears in the novel for two chapters, dying a strange and gruesome death at the end of the chapter 3, he is one of the novel’s most important characters. Actually, the real man who was a (most likely) «прототип» [original]  Berlioz played a pivotal role in Bulgakov’s decision to write Master and Margarita. So I guess he deserves a few words here, right?

It looks like Berlioz was modeled largely after a very popular Soviet poet of the days, «Демьян Бедный» [Demyan Bedniy, lit: Poor]. As you may guess, this was not a real name, but a pseudonym of «Ефим Придворов» [Efim Pridvorov], an avid propagandist of Communism and anti-religious zealot who also viciously persecuted Bulgakov.

Berlioz inherited not only Bedniy’s looks:

«маленького роста, темноволос, упитан, лыс» [short, dark-haired, bald on top, paunchy], but also his encyclopedic knowledge – «редактор был человеком начитанным» [the editor was a well-read man], and his desire to prove that «Иисуса, как личности, вовсе не существовало на свете и что все рассказы о нем – простые выдумки, самый обыкновенный миф.» [Jesus, as an individual, had never existed on earth at all and that all the stories about him were mere fabrications, myths of the most standard kind.]

Compare to the closing lines of an actual anti-religious poem by Bedniy printed in Pravda in early 1925:

«Точное суждение о Новом Завете:

Иисуса Христа никогда не было на свете

Так что некому было умирать и воскресать,

Не о ком было Евангелие писать.»

[The final determination regarding the New Testament is

Jesus Chris did not exist

There was no one to die or to resurrect

No one to write Gospel about, in effect.]

Clearly, both novel’s Berlioz and the real-life Demyan Bedniy are «атеисты» [atheists]. Another way to say “atheist” in Russian is an old-fashioned and highly negative  «безбожник» [lit. godless person].

Consider a phrase «безбожно врать» [to lie like there’s no God].

Naturally, Demyan Bedniy was one of the most active writers for a newspaper called «Безбожник» [Atheist] published daily from 1922 to 1941 and that, at its peak, reached a circulation of 500,000 copies. (here’s an old copy, from April, 1923). Bulgakov was deeply incensed by content that was blasphemous and offensive to «верующие люди» [people of faith] as well as by the anti-religious zealots who ran the paper.

The Russian word for an anti-religious zealot is «богоборец» [lit. someone who fights with God, who is rising against God].  Bulgakov, referring to the newspaper staff in his diary in January 1925 as «неимоверная сволочь» [incredible bastards], first germinated the idea of uncovering those responsible for the anti-Christian policies of that period.

In December 1931 «Храм Христа Спасителя» [Cathedral of Christ the Savior], one of the most important and sacred religious shrines of Russian people, was dynamited to make way for the Palace of the Soviets (which was never built and, in time, converted into the world’s largest open air swimming pool). Bedniy didn’t miss a chance to write an ode for the occasion.

Bulgakov restarted his work on what became his «закатный роман» [sunset novel] in 1931, after burning his first manuscript in 1930 (hint: take a note of this little fact). He continued working on it until his death in 1940, polishing and re-writing the details.

P.S. I use Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor’s translation of The Master and Margarita (Random House edition) as a source for all English translations of the quotes in this and future posts.

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  1. Martti:

    Took some time getting through the 1st chapter, reading a stack of 3 languages books in parrallel plus the dictionaries…

  2. Throbert McGee:

    ОТЛИЧНО, молодец!

    This is absolutely wonderful, and fills in some knowledge-gaps for me as I’m working on my own blog in parallel to this. In particular, I didn’t know that Berlioz was based on a specific real-life individual (“Bednyi / Pridvorov”) — I thought he was perhaps a composite figure representing militantly atheist Soviet intellectuals in general.

    One thing that interests me: was Bulgakov himself a Christian, or was he a secular man who was simply offended by Soviet repression of religious belief?

    P.S. By the way, that gigantic swimming pool complex was still there (but I think permanantly closed) when I lived in Moscow 1993-94. But soon after that, of course, work began on the rebuilding of the Храм Христа Спасителя.

  3. Valerie Stivers-Isakova:

    Great post! That Patriarch’s Pond area is still so creepy. The world’s strangest juxtaposition of fancy boutiques and dirty junkies. The little yellow house is a glamourtrash restaurant…not bad food but a little too loud. I am glad to know of the history of the name. This is news to me.

  4. Richard Haller:

    I have four translations of Master and Margarita (including two copies of the Bergin and O’Conner and Peavar and Volonkhonsky translations; don’t ask me why because I have forgotten why) as well as the DVD version of the Russian mini-series, the graphic novel version, the Italian movie, the play version “The Devil Comes to Moscow”, and the Russian version that I hope to read some day though I am told it is difficult even for native speakers 😉

    Seems like I like this novel. Why four translations? Because they are all different takes on the original. My personal favorite is the Michael Glenny translation. Why? Because to me, it flows better.

    Another reason I have all this material is that I am a collector at heart. I collect Russian lacquer boxes and I have over 150, and while I swore off, I bid on another one on Ebay yesterday. 🙁 You know you’re a collector when you no longer have room to display your whole collection.

    BTW this blog is great! I read it in Yahoo.

  5. Richard Haller:

    P>S. I visited Patriarch Pond when I was in Moscow, but I didn’t make it to the flat where Bulgakov lived for a while and that is supposed to be the basis for the apartment in the novel where so much of the action takes place. 🙁

    I read recently that the stairwell has been spiffed up and most if not all of the messages left by devotees on the walls (not graftiti, please, messages). Drat! I hope they left the big black cat…

  6. sean roe:

    Privetik Yelena !

    great project here. Interesting to me that a lot of us jumped straight into the arrival of Voland & friends in the first chapter. When I first read M&M years back I did too and glossed over the Goethe Faust quotation ” tak kto j ti nakonets. Ya chast toi sili, shto vechno chochet zla i vechno sovershaet blago”….Now re-reading this seems more important to me….I wonder what good they cause?…and without spoiling it for those who have not read the novel completely there is one clear result to me…
    Also on second reading the relationship between velikiy inkvizitor in karamazov and the pilate/jesus chapters are much more obvious to me than on first reading….

    Finally I was very surprised to discover that a russian philosopher (Jakob Golosovker) wrote a novel in the 1920s called Zapis’ neistrebimaya which shows surprising similarities with M&M and perhaps less surprisingly Golosovker burnt his own manuscrit in 1937!….The remains were published in the 90s as Sozhzhyonniy Roman ,-D…Keep up the good work….Thnx Sean

  7. Svetlana:

    Еще одна фотография Патриарших прудов ночью:
    В Москве проводят экскурсии по булгаковским местам, в частности – местам, связанным с романом “Мастер и Маргарита”. Фотография как раз сделана на такой экскурсии.

  8. Jan Vanhellemont:

    Here’s a nice panoramic view on Patriarch’s Ponds:

  9. saint:

    I bet Bedniy would roll over in his grave if he could see what they replaced that swimming pool with, haha!

  10. Russian Translation:

    Hey! Thanks for a nice post, I really enjoyed this post. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commentators here! Keep writing.

  11. Natalie:

    Thank you for doing this: I’ve finally gotten around to starting the novel, and it’s very helpful! I’m trying my best to ‘level-up’ my Russian, so to speak, and hopefully this will help me do that.

    • yelena:

      @Natalie Natalie,

      we started this novel and then it sort of fizzled out (although I did read it quite a few times in both Russian and English). If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments on any posts by me (look for “Posted by Yelena” under the title). This way I see your comments and can respond to them.