Last night, I finally hit the halfway mark in the first full-length classic I have attempted to read in the original, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita! (Well, I actually attempted The Brothers Karamazov last summer, but that turned out to be way above my level at the time.)
I first became enamored with the book back in 2010 when we read it in my literature class in Nizhniy Novgorod. It grabbed me from the first page with it’s deliciously creepy opening scene in 1930s Moscow where an eccentric “intourist” named Woland argues with two atheists against their claim that Jesus never existed, then predicts that one will die by getting his head cut off, which happens not an hour later when he slips on sunflower seed oil and falls in front of a tramvai.
It soon becomes clear that this foreign visitor is none other than Satan, who has come to Moscow with an eclectic entourage, including a talking black cat and a tall, skinny man in a checkered suit and a broken pince nez, to drastically change the lives of the city’s intelligentsia. This story-line is successfully braided with the tale of a brilliant writer, “the Master,” and his lover Margarita, and the Master’s novel itself, which imagines the last days of a Jesus-based character Yeshua Ha-Notzri and his hearing before Pontius Pilate.
Although this book is extremely entertaining from a surface-level reading, it becomes even more intriguing when you delve into the layers of philosophy and criticism of Stalinist Russia that make up the meat of the novel. It is no surprise then that The Master and Margarita wasn’t published in the U.S.S.R. until 25 years after Bulgakov wrote it, and even then, 12% of it was censored!
So while I won’t give any spoilers to the book (which I do recommend you read!), I will share a few reasons why I think that if The Master and Margarita had a sequel, it would be set in Elabuga. One of the reasons the novel stands alone is that Bulgakov found the sweet spot between fantasy and reality, (what literature nerds would call magical realism) to the point where the strange events that the Devil brings to Moscow seem chillingly feasible. I have found this little town in Tatarstan strangely mirrors the feel of the masterpiece. On one hand, as some have said, Elabuga is “the realest place on earth,” but at the same time, I often encounter little mysteries that make me feel like I’m in a fairy tale, sometimes wondering if Woland will step out from behind a tree and start talking to me.
Here are a few of my Elabuga experiences that have kept me on my toes:
Mystery #1: Woland’s distant cousin?
The novel opens up with the “intourist” Professor Woland, (Satan) predicting that Berlioz, head of a literature firm, will have his head cut off, and that his companion, Ivan, a poet who writes under the pseudonym Бездомный, or “homeless,” will find himself in a mental institution. While conversing, Woland gives the men his business card. I had a strange conversation in the lunchroom at my university with a guy I like to call “Woland’s distant cousin.”He even had gold crowns on his right teeth, like Woland. After finding out I was an American, he called me an “intourist,” the reference so common during Soviet times, then he used the word бездомный (homeless) in conversation. Finally, he started telling me about a Bulgarian Professor Lozanov, whom he had studied English under during the Soviet Union. The method was very intense, he said, for the first four months, you were allowed no visual aids or texts, you simply had to learn by hearing and remembering. The last five months of the the nine month program, however, you were given books. Then, he looked at me with a strange smile on his face and said,
“the thing is, it was so intense, that after that year under Lozanov, everyone in my group died except me.”
My eyes went wide, not sure if he was joking. He kept up his broad smile, his gold crowns shining, and said “yes, I’m the only survivor.” And then, to top things off, he handed me this business card:
This professor had basically covered chapter 1: gold crowns, business card, “intourist,” бездомный, and last but not least, death/mental overload.
Intrigued by this Lozanov fellow, I googled him and found almost everything this professor said about him to be true; his nationality, his methodology, the time period. The only thing I couldn’t find was information about a whole cohort of Soviets dying after a year with him. But as a Russian friend of mine said, “maybe it was secret information, and he accidentally spilled it.”
Mystery #2: The singing opera man
Around November, I started to hear this strange noise from inside my dorm room at random times. The sound would usually go on for periods of ten to twenty minutes straight, and sounded like a cross between an old-man singing opera and a ghostly moan. In November, everything in Elabuga seemed weird to me, and I think I just subconsciously accepted it as one of the quirks of my new surroundings. I didn’t tell anybody about it for over a month, and when I finally did, I realized how crazy I sounded. I mean, really? The ghost of an old man singing opera?
The sound continued, and around mid-December I had come up with a brilliant theory: it was the call to prayer from the mosque about 3/4 of a mile away from my dorm. After all, hadn’t I heard the call to prayer once in one of my classes, seeing how two of my girls closed their eyes and began to pray. An hour after that class, while walking home, I heard the opera voice not too far from the mosque.
But none of it really made any sense. I could still hear it loudly and clearly from the inside of my dorm room, a good 15 minute walk away from the mosque. One evening a friend came over who is also Muslim and she heard the sound. “What is that!?” she asked, scared.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I hear it every day.”
“If I were you, I would be scared to go to sleep at night!” She then assured me that it was most DEFINITELY not coming from the mosque. The next week, I heard it while I was outside of the dorm, the sound more resonant than I had ever heard it. I quickly grabbed my phone and began to record the sound, crunching through the snow, trying to find where it was coming from. I couldn’t tell if if was emanating from my dorm, or from another building that surrounds the mini-courtyard.
The audio file is as far as I’ve come in my little investigation. No Russians I have asked have any idea where the noise could be coming from, and they seem to be just as intrigued as me.
And finally: The Devil’s Tower
This place makes me want to write books.
So it’s not exactly a “mystery,” per se, but it’s a really mysterious place, and with The Master and Margarita‘s obsession with the use of any form of the word чёрт, or “devil,” the Devil’s Tower would fit right into the narrative.
This sign tells us that the area surrounding the Devil’s Tower was inhabited in the “Early Iron Age” (7th-8th centuries), and that at the end of the 10th century the Bulgars built a military fortress. The tower with white-stoned citadels is the only remnant of the Volga Bulgars during the pre-Mongolian period. Archaeological and architectural research has found a building on this site that is the remains of a fortress-mosque, built no later than the 12th century.
The view from the Devil’s Tower is a breathtaking panorama of wintry Elabuga life: against the backdrop of forest green and white, today I saw the tiny figure of a man ice-fishing in the Toima River, a man and babushka strolling down the slippery street far below, and beyond, the colorful churches and buildings of Kazanskaya Street. So in spite of all the strangeness and mysteries and unpredictability of this town, well, probably because of them, I’m really starting to feel a connection to this place. Whereas last semester, I was just trying to keep my head above water, now I have time to think and reflect and actually enjoy this town that is so very Russian, yet has a personality all it’s own.