In a Moscow neighborhood, kitsch vs. tradition

Mayor Yury Luzhkov's vision of an outsized literary theme park sends Muscovites to the barricades.

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One of Moscow's oldest neighborhoods is in turmoil over plans to transform a quiet, leafy square into a garish literary theme park to honor the area's most famous former denizen, the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov.

The controversy in the usually peaceful, upscale district of Patriarch's Ponds stems from a project by Mayor Yury Luzhkov, an enthusiastic art patron with a taste for kitsch.

The idea, approved by Mr. Luzhkov in secret last year, is to install 28 outsized sculptures representing characters from Mr. Bulgakov's masterpiece, "The Master and Margarita," around the small downtown park that is widely regarded as the nostalgic heart of Moscow.

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After the $4.5 million plan leaked to the media late last year, residents mounted street protests and a petition campaign. In one incident, a crowd tore down construction boarding that had been erected by city engineers in preparation for renovating the park.

"It is painful to see a group of Moscow intellectuals so upset that they are breaking fences," says Yevgeny Bunilovich, a deputy of the Moscow city council and local resident. "It means that Moscow officials are completely incapable of holding a proper dialogue with the people."

Last week, a TV talk show on the issue produced some of the angriest commentary heard over the airwaves in quite awhile. "Why don't they stick this monstrosity at Luzhkov's dacha, and save us from looking at it?" shouted one man in the audience. "They're turning our little island of eternity into a wild carnival," said a woman. "We just don't want it."

The square's tree-lined alleys and duck pond, surrounded by a labyrinth of narrow streets and exquisite 19th-century buildings, have been cherished by generations of Muscovites, who come to walk children and dogs in summer and skate on the frozen pond in winter. The area was immortalized in its 1920s incarnation in the pages of "Master and Margarita," and despite the remaking of Moscow by successive Soviet leaders, elderly residents say Patriarch's Ponds has changed little since Bulgakov's time.

In Bulgakov's surreal, anti-Stalinist satire, written from 1928-40, the Devil - named Woland - roamed these streets and courtyards, tempting people to bizarre fates. The novel's religious undertones and mystic symbolism so unnerved Soviet authorities that they banned it for decades. Only in the late 1960s did they begin allowing limited publication.

The novel's appeal has endured through the years. "This is a book about the soul of Moscow, and we love it dearly," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "For Muscovites, Patriarch's Ponds is an almost sacred place, and any plan to transform it was bound to be controversial."

Mayor Luzhkov's vision is to install a grand "sculpture garden" in the park, with a statue of Bulgakov's version of Jesus Christ walking upon the pond, and figures representing the Devil's coterie of evil spirits - including a mangy cat and a "shameless maid" wearing only an apron - suspended above its banks. A 40-foot-high sculpture of an old-fashioned "primus" kerosene stove, which figures in the novel, will house the pond's pumping station. Other statues of characters from the book will be scattered about the area.

"The biggest problem is the scale of these monuments," says Andrey Yefimov, a professor at Moscow's Institute of Architecture. "This is a small, human space, hemmed in by surrounding streets, and this concept doesn't fit. "

The mayor's autocratic decisionmaking has also angered many who believe local residents should have a say in any changes to the city's face. Natalia Grigorieva, head of the Moscow city planning board, says public pressure forced Luzhkov to scrap plans for an underground parking garage and commercial development near the park. But, she says, the sculpture garden will be completed by May. "The decision was made by the Moscow government; we just implement it," she says. "But we have gotten the message that people feel this project is too grandiose."

The artist hired to produce the sculptures, Alexander Rukavishnikov, is unfazed by the criticism. "Bulgakov is famous all over the world. Does that mean we have to ask everyone's opinion?" he says. "We consulted professionals about this, and listened to their opinions. All of this is a bit more complicated than an ordinary inhabitant might understand."

People on both sides of the issue say that they love one of Rukavishnikov's pieces: a life-sized statue of Bulgakov himself, sitting on a broken park bench and gazing thoughtfully at his beloved old neighborhood. The broken bench symbolizes the passage and hardships of time, the artist says.

This is not the first Luzhkov-sponsored artistic vision to draw fire. Public-opinion polls show that another of his pet projects, a hulking five-story tall bronze statue of Peter the Great erected on an island in the Moscow River in 1997, is the most popularly hated monument in Russia.

Many here scorn the set of bears, village idiots, and other figurines of Russian fairytale characters that Luzhkov ordered up to adorn Manege Square, just beneath the Kremlin's somber walls. "Moscow is a very eclectic city, and we love it that way," says Olga Zaretskaya, an expert in folk culture. "But some of these things are way over the limits of good taste, and just too much to bear."

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