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Leigh Turner

HMA Ukraine, Kyiv
Posted 24 January 2010 by Leigh Turner | Comments

A chilly Sunday in Kyiv: perfect for a visit to the Bulgakov Museum at 13 Andriyivsky Uzviz.  The novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is a symbol of many things, including the complex relationship between Russia and Ukraine.  Born in Kyiv in 1891 of Russian parents at a time when Ukraine was part of the Russian empire, he lived from 1906 to 1919 at No. 13 Andriyivsky Uzviz, an address immortalised in his novel The White Guard, first part-published in 1926 and set in Kyiv.  He moved to Moscow, where he did most of his writing, in Russian, in 1921.   Does that mean he's Russian, or Ukrainian?  You decide.

As it happens I'm hoping to see a production of The White Guard at the National Theatre in London in March, so am swotting up on Bulgakov.  The museum in Kyiv is pretty high-concept, with some of the contents painted white, to symbolise elements from Bulgakov's fiction (eg a greatcoat with a bottle of vodka wrapped in newspaper in the pocket, from The White Guard); and others actual objects or photographs from Bulgakov's life.  Some of the windows are covered in coloured plastic, so that the blaze of snow outside fills the interior with colour; elsewhere we're invited to peer into a mirror which, when the lights are extinguished, is transformed into another room, then a starlit sky (a reference to the closing words of The White Guard).  It's all suitably surreal for this master of magical realism.  Outside, there's a statue of the man on a bench, inviting you to be photographed alongside him.  You can also see the alley between No.13 and the next house, which features in the novel. 


Statue of Mikhail Bulgakov in Kyiv

My companion on the visit, who's just read The White Guard, points out to me that the turbulence in Kyiv during the revolutionary period in which the novel is set makes modern Ukraine seem a model of calm and orderliness.  It's certainly a reminder that although democracy can be messy, it has a track record of working better than most other systems.  This strikes me as a way Bulgakov can cheer you up.

Personally, I find Bulgakov pretty hard going, having failed to finish (understatement - Ed) The Master and Margarita in Russian back in 1994.  But some friends of mine in St Petersburg did me a favour when I was doing language training there in 2008 by encouraging me to watch the splendid 1988 film version of Bulgakov's story Heart of a Dog, or Собачье сердце.  It's cruel, funny and surreal.  So if you fancy a bit of Bulgakov and like movies with a touch of strangeness, check out Heart of a Dog for a second, albeit rather unsettling, way Bulgakov can cheer you up.  I've no doubt hardened Bulgakov fans can suggest many others.

Leigh Turner
24 January 2010

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