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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.