Soviet-era satire gets new life


Lampoon: A celebrated Russian novel is being turned into a TV miniseries, generating intense excitement in Moscow.

July 18, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The devil is back in Moscow, and he's got a lot of people rattled.

Film director Vladimir Bortko and his crew took to Moscow streets this month to begin filming a 10-part television miniseries, an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's celebrated Soviet-era novel, The Master and Margarita. And there was tension in the air - about doing Bulgakov's story justice.

"Of course, I'm very fearful," said Anna Kovalchik, the slim Ukrainian-born actress who plays Margarita, standing in period costume between takes. "Everybody knows that it is very spiritual and very serious. And in order not to spoil everything, I have had to work a lot on it. Otherwise, everything could go wrong."

Bulgakov describes the chaos triggered by the devil's sudden appearance in a Moscow park in the 1930s, woven into a contemporary love story and an account of the last days of Christ.

Bulgakov lampoons state-sponsored atheism, mocks the group-think of Soviet art and paints a hallucinogenic tableau of Moscow in the age of Stalin. People could spend a couple of decades in the gulag for reading such stuff, much less writing it. Understandably, Bulgakov didn't try to publish his masterpiece before his death from kidney disease in 1940, at the age of 47.

Somewhat mysteriously, authorities allowed a Moscow literary magazine to serialize the book in 1967, when Leonid Brezhnev was rolling back Khrushchev-era reforms. Authorities suppressed the work, but copies appeared on the black market. Finally, a stage adaptation packed Moscow's Taganka theater in 1977, during the height of Brezhnev's era of stagnation.

The book lost some of its allure with Russian readers in the 1980s and early 1990s, perhaps, as the Soviet legacy seemed to fade. But today, The Master and Margarita is making a comeback.

A Perm dance company closed its season with a Master and Margarita ballet last month. A theater troop in Voronezh performed a stage version to sold-out houses in January - and people begged to sit on the floor. Now Russian state television is underwriting Bortko's ambitious production, which will consist of 10, 52-minute episodes.

Coincidentally or not, Russia once again is grappling with questions of conscience vs. conformity and freedom vs. authoritarianism.

"Now is the year 2004, and now we are witnessing in society a sort of restoration of the Soviet way of thinking, the Soviet way of doing things, the Soviet way of ruling the country," said Sergei Strokan, a columnist and literary critic. "Now we are coming to the second discovery [of] Bulgakov. Now Bulgakov is again relevant to us."

Adapting The Master and Margarita for the stage and screen is considered a high-risk undertaking, on several levels.

Every educated Russian seems to know, love and have an opinion about the book. Bulgakov's apartment on Moscow's Garden Ring - which the devil seizes in the book - has been turned into a kind of shrine to the author and his most famous novel. There was, until recently, a Master and Margarita hair salon near Bulgakov's apartment - which doubled as a massage parlor.

When a Russian presidential candidate vanished and then resurfaced shortly before the March vote, Russians gleefully compared him to a character the devil whisks from Moscow to Yalta in the blink of an eye.

"In Russia, the book is terrifically popular," said Vladimir Svetozarov, the film's set designer, who has worked with Bortko on a number of film projects. "Anyone from the sales girl in a shop to [President Vladimir V.] Putin knows Bulgakov's novel."

In an interview with the Moscow News before he started filming, the towering, glowering Bortko mounted a pre-emptive strike against literary critics who seem sure to find fault with the production.

"The author wrote and gave us a book," he said. "And in so doing he counted not only on Bulgakov experts but on everyone who would care to read his novel. I think that I understand Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov correctly."

Neither does he underestimate his task. He told another interviewer that filming of the multilayered story will be as complicated as translating War and Peace for the screen.

By last week, Bortko had no time for interviews. There had already been delays caused by intermittent rain and curious crowds. A publicist somewhat nervously explained that the production only had enough money for six months' of work. If production stretches beyond that, he said, Bortko will have to scrounge up other financing.

The director stood grimly on Aleksandrovsky Sad, the park along the Kremlin's western wall, quietly orchestrating a crowd of actors in a funeral procession. A military band played somber music behind the Soviet truck carrying a crimson casket, supposedly containing the remains of a magazine editor beheaded by a tram.

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