Cold winds, queues, toothless beggars and drunks…. Yes, I’m back in London after a four day visit to Moscow, my first, tentative dip of the toe into the ocean that is Russia. The occasion was the Russian launch of Granta Magazine’s once-a-decade “Twenty Best Novelists under Forty” list. I was included in 1993. From the newly-minted 2013 list, Ross Raisin (the author of two fine novels: “God’s Own Country” and “Waterline”) accompanies me. Thus our inter-generational duo finds itself in Moscow.
The British Council has organised events. A literary lunch at an achingly hip restaurant features a ‘Flying Pig’ cooked for eight hours by super-chef Alexei Zimin. A panel on literary prizes at the Moscow Book Fair is enlivened by an attack on Vladimir Putin’s anti-homosexual legislation. Most ambitious of all is a discussion in the Pashkov House of the Russian State Library which, I can’t help notice as I’m driven past, is draped in fifteen meter high banners bearing my name.
How many people does the Pashkov house hold, I ask Alexandra Smirnova of the British Council? About three hundred comes the answer.
Later that night, Alexandra, Ross and I find ourselves in the Strelka Institute, an arts complex built in the former Red October chocolate factory on Bolotny Island. The crowd is young and hip; more wineglasses are brandished than beer-bottles. No-one appears to be downing shots of vodka. On the concourse below, a couple of members of LCD Soundsystem have turned up to spin records. Drinks in hand, Ross and I overlook the Moscow River and agree not to worry about three hundred empty chairs.
I have several Moscows in my head. One burns, courtesy of Napoleon in 1812; another features Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank. A third is an agglomeration of unexamined prejudices: grumpy officials, endless queues, terrible food and orgiastic bouts of forced vodka-drinking. But twenty-first century Moscow is smart, cosmopolitan, artsy and sunny. Under clear blue skies it’s also hot. For me, above all, it is the city of Bulgakov who lived here in a nine-room apartment with twenty-odd other people and a pig. He was convalescing after serving as a doctor (on the losing side) in the Civil War, an experience apparently so terrible that he never spoke of it again. Living in the crammed apartment (and sty) ran it a close second though, the new youthful custodian, Peter Mansilla Cruz, explains as he shows Ross, myself and my Russian editor, Alexander Guzman, around. Bulgakov’s books are here and the desk (previously owned by Gogol) which his third wife bought for him. For a long time the residents of the building fought a rear-guard action against visiting Bulgakov fans who came here in search of the artistic force that wrote “The Master and Margarita”. Graffiti, Peter explains, was the weapon of choice. The stairwell remains richly adorned.
I smell revolutionary-era kerosene in one of the tiny cooking stoves which the families living here used, examine a three litre home-made vodka bottle and try on a ridiculous helmet. The room in which the pig was kept is locked but the apartment is jammed with memorabilia. Outside, Moscow itself is a large-scale monument as various houses around the city claim to be the place where the Master first met Margarita, or Satan made his appearance. One location not in doubt is is where Moscow itself is surveyed at the end of the book and that vantage point is my own final locale: the Pashkov House.
Although considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Moscow, the Pashkov house is not ordinarily open to the public. Adjacent buildings hold the State Library collections (among which rest Bulgakov’s papers). A grand staircase leads to the main reception room, which might better be described as a ballroom. People begin to arrive. We wait.
In the event, we fill the three hundred seats. Another fifty people stand at the back. Ross, the Russian author Mikhail Elisarov and myself square up over ‘Literature, History and Mythology”. The event’s sponsor, Ahmad Tea, gives out samples and photographs us holding green teapots. People ask questions and afterwards among the books, I sign my first Kindle.
The next day is my last. The morning dawns as sunny as the others but in the car on the way to the airport the skies darken. Suddenly the light is green. A cloudburst batters the roof and we pass cars which have spun off the road. Bulgakov brought his novel towards its close with a vision of an advancing storm viewed from the roof of the Pashkov House. “This darkness which came from the west covered the vast city. Bridges and palaces disappeared. Everything vanished as if it had never existed in the world. One fiery thread ran across the whole sky. Then a thunderclap shook the city. It was repeated, and the storm began.”