Muscovites’ Love for a Classic Ends at the Park

MOSCOW, Feb. 5 – Russians love their writers, not least because they were the keepers and chroniclers of history when times got tough. So when the Moscow city government unveiled plans for a monument to Mikhail Bulgakov, one of this country’s most adored authors, it should have been a happy occasion.

It was not.

Plans for the monument, a 40-foot- high bronze stove and other statues, have caused an uproar in Moscow, particularly in the neighborhood where it is to be erected – the site of a small park and famous pond in the heart of Moscow that were the setting for the opening scene of Bulgakov’s cult classic, “The Master and Margarita.”

A small but growing group of residents has held protests, written letters and begged the stolid Moscow city government to scrap its plan. The Russian film director Nikita Mikhailkov and even the minister of culture, Mikhail Shvydkoi, have joined the protests. On Saturday, in the snow, against a backdrop of yellow backhoes, a crowd of about 300 residents rallied against changes to the park.

In Russia, struggles between ordinary citizens and “the power” – as Russians call it – rarely end in victories for the people. But the scuffle over the park very well might. In a radio interview on Tuesday evening, the sculptor, Aleksandr Rukavishnikov, said that he had decided not to erect the giant stove, and that Moscow’s chief architect was “90 percent in agreement.”

The residents remain suspicious. The city has already closed off the park for construction. They say the monument will ruin the quiet park, which has remained relatively unchanged since it was set aside as a public space in the early 1800’s. A granite walkway will be laid on the pond’s banks. The pond will shrink, and a corner will be heated to give the appearance that one of the statues is walking on water.

“It’s a live body and they are killing it,” said Tatyana Selikhova, who accuses city workers of throwing the pond’s carp to their death in waterless barrels and chopping into the roots of a 100-year-old linden tree while draining the pond.

“It’s as if a dirty man with mud on his boots walked into my house and said, `I’m going to live here from now on,’ ” she said.

The sculptor, Mr. Rukavishnikov, defended his creation at a news conference last month. People rarely see the beauty in modern art when it is created, he said, and only future generations will appreciate the monument. The news conference later degenerated into a shouting match pitting the artist and his defenders against residents who had sneaked into the room.

“It’s probably normal that it annoys people,” said Aleksandr Tanklevsky, head of Moscow’s cultural heritage department, at the news conference. “Van Gogh was not accepted at first either and now he’s worth millions.”

But residents said that it was the monument’s scale and the extent of the changes that they opposed. Moscow’s mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov, has a penchant for large projects, and since the early 1990’s the city has undergone a considerable face lift, with ritzy housing complexes, shopping centers and underground parking garages – much to some residents’ chagrin. A giant statue of Peter the Great standing in a ship that dominates a bend in the Moscow River is particularly despised.

Perhaps most maddening about the Bulgakov plan, said Natalia N. Chernitsova, another resident, are the references to “The Master and Margarita,” a novel that is loved by young and old for its lively and surrealist telling of life in Stalin’s Russia. The book was completed just before Bulgakov’s death in 1940, but held by Soviet censors until 1973. A revised, and some say more complete, version was published in 1989. In the monument, scheduled to be unveiled in May, the book’s hero and heroine will be sitting on a park bench, embracing.

“We all have our own ideas of what Master looks like,” Ms. Chernitsova said. Mr. Rukavishnikov has defended his idea, saying the statues faces will remain unseen, covered by their hair.

Still, some residents disapprove. “It will be Bulgakov-land,” said Ms. Selikhova, 47, who has lived in the area for 22 years.

Fears have spread that Bulgakov’s old stomping grounds would fall prey to the rabid commercialism. Residents spoke with furrowed brows about plans for an underground garage and new elite apartments.

Muscovites taught by decades of experience to be wary of official promises are not yet ready to believe Mayor Luzhkov, who after the demonstration promised to find a compromise with the area’s residents, who include some of Moscow’s most prominent business people and intellectuals.

“It was precisely the place in Moscow where the book begins, because of its calmness and its aura,” Ms. Selikhova said. “Even the Bolsheviks couldn’t ruin it. But Luzhkov is succeeding. He is killing the soul of Moscow right here in this place.”

She admitted that the artist might be right when he said that people would come to like the monument, but added: “That’s because they’ll have nothing to compare it to. I was told when I was young that Soviet children were the happiest in the world, and Americans were miserable. And I thought it was the God’s honest truth.”

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