The Basement of the Master

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A front hall with a sink in it

In the hospital of doctor Stravinsky, the master tells Ivan that, after he won a hundred thousand roubles with a state bond,  he gave up his room on Мясницкаяулица [Myasnitskaya ulitsa] or Butchers’ street - «Ohh, that accursed hole!», he growled - to rent two rooms in the basement of a little house in the garden near the Arbat. He was quite proud of his sink.

Some older buildings in Moscow did not have tap water. No wonder the master was proud of his sink - he mentioned it with special  pride. The reason of this pride is that in the communal apartments of Bulgakov’s time sinks were only available in the shared spaces of the kitchen and the bathroom. So, other than most people, the master could use his sink in private.

During the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP) private persons were allowed to build and possess small houses. In 1927, Bulgakov rented a couple of rooms from such owner, called застройщик [zastroyschik] or builder. But that’s not the basement he describes in The Master and Margarita.

Mansurovsky pereulok no. 9

The house described by Bulgakov was build around 1830. It belonged to the brothers Sergey Sergeevich Topleninov and Vladimir Sergeevich Topleninov and is situated in Mansurovsky pereulok 9. Sergey, the younger brother, was stage designer and make-up artist at the Moscow Art Theatre MKhAT. Vladimir was an actor at various theatre companies. When Sergey got married he moved out and a part of the house was rented to the playwright and scriptwriter Sergey Alexandrovich Yermolinsky (1900-1984) and his wife Maria Artemievna Tchimishkyan (1904-?).

From 1916 Bulgakov was there often. He worked there on The Master and Margarita and he read parts of it to his friends. Yevgenia Vladimirnova Vlasova, Vladimir Topleninov’s wife, remembers how he was writing by candlelight with the sound of the crackling fire in the background. Sergey Yermolinsky remembered that, when Bulgakov visited them, they heard Vladimir Topleninov knocking with his broomstick on his ceiling to invite them for having a drink in his basement.

Bulgakov must have been rather happy there. It was the time in which he met Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya (1893-1970). Sergey Yermolinsky talked about an improvised café and «friends, friends, friends…» So it may not surprise that Bulgakov makes themaster having his happy days with his lover here. But Bulgakov’s second wife Lyubov Evgenievna Belozerskaya (1895-1987) didn’t trust Yermolinsky. She called him a man with two faces, and said that Bulgakov therefor used him as the prototype for Aloisy Mogarych in The Master and Margarita.

Actually, there was a porcelain sink in the front hall of the Topleninov house, and there really was, «only four steps away, near the fence, lilacs, a linden and a maple». The house was built in 1834 and it is a miracle that it still exists. Today, it is completely ruined and doesn't look as a house where you want to live.

Bulgakov's second wife,Lyubov Evgenievna Belozerskaya (1895-1987), is convinced that the prototype of the master's basement was the apartment of Pavel Sergeyevitch Popov (1892-1964) in Plotnikov pereulok 10. This one is indeed closer to the Arbat, but it's a six-storey building that hardly can be called a «small house in a garden».

Both Popov as Sergei Topleninov were arrested in the '30's.

The master was betrayed by Aloisi Mogarych, a journalist who was hoping to grab the master's basement. The housing situation in Moscow was very precarious, and led to unfairness, corruption and thus betrayal too.

Click here to read more about the housing policy in the Soviet Union

Metro: Парк культуры - (Park Kulturi)

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