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A Moscow Apartment House, Possessed by History

Czarist tycoons, revolutionary artists, and Soviet squatters all feature in Russian scholar Dmitry Oparin’s new book. by Vladimir Kozolov 5 April 2018

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Большая Садовая, 10. История московского дома, рассказанная его жителями, by Dmitry Oparin. Kuchkovo Pole, 2017. 320 pages. 



The subtitle of 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya, "A History of a Moscow Apartment Building, Told by Its Residents," is a bit of an understatement. The history of the building in question, just a couple of kilometers from the Kremlin, is closely interwoven with dramatic – and often tragic – events in Russia's history.


As a result, what might have been just a collection of stories about the building's residents turns into a larger, more powerful narrative that, in the hands of Russian academic Dmitry Oparin, goes far beyond merely telling the story of the building or those who lived there.


From Bourgeois to Bolshevik and Back Again


The Pigit building – named after its owner and one of the original residents, tobacco magnate Ilya Pigit – was designed by architect Edmund Yuditsky as an upmarket rental property and erected in 1904.


Over the subsequent decades, the building witnessed the prosperity of Moscow's capitalist milieu of the 1900s and 1910s, the upheaval of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution – which led to the expulsion of the original residents and creation of communal apartments – World War II bombings, the underground art scene of the 1970s, and an artistic commune in the 1980s and 1990s.


Oparin, an ethnologist and one of the founders of the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum located in the same building (named for the famed writer), has long studied the history of the Russian capital by way of its buildings. He structures the book chronologically in chapters devoted to residents of specific apartments during the pre-Revolutionary years, the early Soviet period up to 1941, and further eras.


Tenants Good, Bad, and Otherwise


At one time or another, 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya was home to a number of eminent Russians at various stages in their careers, to name the poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Esenin and the Bolshevik education commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky, among many others.


Of all those whose stories are told in the book, Bulgakov is by far the most famous. The author, who lived in the building from 1921 to 1924 and wrote his novel The White Guard and a few smaller works there, immortalized it in his best-known novel The Master and Margarita, as well as in his other writing.


View of the Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. Image via NVO/Wikimedia Commons.


In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov puts the Satanic character Woland in the same apartment no. 50 in which the author used to live, dubbing it "the Haunted Apartment." Incidentally, years later, it became a place of pilgrimage for Bulgakov's fans and was eventually turned into the author's first official museum in Russia.


However, Bulgakov's life in a communal apartment, alongside other residents with various social backgrounds, was far from a cakewalk, the reader learns from Oparin's book:


"Alongside Bulgakov and his wife, there were 16 other residents in apartment no. 50, including a pie seller, a bakery worker, a typesetter from a vocational school, a salesman, and a few unemployed people. All of them continuously quarreled, scuffled, and denounced each other, trying to squeeze out their neighbors."


Still, Oparin juxtaposes Bulgakov's experiences, the accuracy of which he doesn't doubt, with other residents' more positive accounts, especially those from the building’s more recent history.


"Just about all residents remember that they lived amicably in communal apartments, looking after neighbors' children, jointly organizing celebrations, and staging puppet shows," he writes.


A separate section deals with the building's strong connections with the visual arts. The Pigit building housed artists' studios, and the best-known artist who worked there was probably Piotr Konchalovsky. Several of his paintings reproduced in the book depict the surroundings of the Pigit building, helping immerse the reader into the atmosphere of 1920s and 1930s Moscow.


Meanwhile, the building's association with the art scene was not limited to just its official side.


In the late 1970s, Lyudmila Kuznetsova's ground floor apartment, no. 44, “emerged as a center of non-official, non-conformist art," reads the introduction to the section of the book centered on the building’s most recent period, between 1974 and 2017.


The apartment was the site of illegal exhibitions by unofficial artists at a time when government censorship wouldn't allow any other manifestations for art other than "socialist realism."


Oparin also turns his gaze to a different kind of avant-garde incursion into the life of the historic building when a number of underground musicians and artists moved into an empty apartment in the late 1980s to form the city's first artistic squat.


"The squat was not just a place to practice and live," musician and poet Vlad Kirsanov recalls. "It was some kind of a pool where creative flows converged. The attic was full of antique furniture. When a person moved in and had no possessions – and most people were poor at the time – they would be led to the attic to select some furniture."


The Story Continues


Oparin's book incorporates Dom Pigit (The Pigit building), a  novella written by one of its residents, Sofia Tade, in the late 1960s or early ’70s, which is published here for the first time.


Regardless of its literary quality, the tale, set in the period between 1917 and 1924, is valuable as a firsthand account of life and sentiment in the years following the Bolshevik revolution.


"Almost all big buildings in Moscow have been taken," reads one passage. "From the basements, from the outskirts, the proletariat is moving to comfortable apartments. […] The Pigit building has been taken over by the Mashistov printing plant. [Owner Ivan] Mashistov himself used to live in this building, and now his workers will be living here. 'He Who Was Nothing Shall Become Everything.' "


"Just like people, buildings have various kinds of fates," Tade writes in the epilogue to her novella. "One building is just there, and no one will say a good word about it. […] And another building is lucky because either someone famous lived in it, or it got described by a major author."


Indeed, the Pigit building had both: famous residents and immortalization by a major author, Bulgakov. But, as Oparin stresses, that kind of luck came alongside a steady stream of drama interspersed with calamity.

Vladimir Kozlov is an author and freelance journalist in Moscow.


This review was supported by the Fund for Central & East European Book Projects, Amsterdam.

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