On a hot spring afternoon in Moscow, as the sun was going down, the devil himself appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds—or so wrote Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita, my favorite Russian novel. Bulgakov completed his satirical novel, which sets the devil and his motley crew loose to sow chaos across Moscow, shortly before his death in 1940. For fear that Communist censors would deem it too subversive, the novel wasn’t published until 1966—which made it even more popular with Russians. As a foreign correspondent living in Moscow in the 1970s, I had difficulty finding the Patriarch’s Ponds—originally three fishponds, by now reduced to one. In 1918, the name was changed to Pioneers’ Ponds, to honor Communism’s kiddies in their red scarves. I took my own children skating on Pioneers’ Ponds for several winters before I realized its true identity. Only after Communism collapsed in Russia did the pond recover its name.
I long wanted to revisit Moscow’s landmarks under their historical names, stripped of their veneer of Bolshevik revisionism. For those of us who lived in the old Soviet Union, the revival of geographical names testifies to the rebirth of an authentic Russia no longer distorted by ideology. At the top of my list of places was Patriarch’s Ponds, near which Bulgakov lived in the early 1920s.
I returned to Moscow last year, not on Bulgakov’s hot spring afternoon but in the drab twilight of winter, when a leaden sky blotted out the sun. The apartment buildings around the pond had been renovated, one in freshly painted pastel-yellow and white. Yet the pond looked the same, bordered by a knee-high metal fence and tucked in a small park among slender trees and ornate old lampposts. Elderly men sat on the beige benches. Children romped on a playground at the park’s northern end. A boy muffled in an army greatcoat cantered a white horse around the paths. The adjacent street, no longer Pioneers’ Lane, had reverted to Patriarch’s Lane, of 17th-century origin.
Barely ten minutes by foot is Moscow’s downtown artery, again called Tverskaya Street, after the old city of Tver a hundred miles to the northwest. During my four years in Moscow, Tver was known as Kalinin, after Stalin’s nominal head of state, and Tverskaya Street had been Gorky Street, after Maxim Gorky, a Soviet writer who churned out the “socialist realism” favored by Stalin.
Other Moscow streets have taken back their old names. Arriving by train from St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) I gave the taxi driver the address where I once lived on Yermolaya Street. The puzzled driver overshot my destination; Yermolaya was now Great Coach Alley (Bolshoy Karetny Pereulok).
There have been more epic restorations. The elegant Kazan Cathedral off Red Square was demolished by Stalin and replaced with public toilets. The cathedral was rebuilt in 1993 and painted the colors of a strawberry sundae, under new onion domes re-created in gold and emerald.
Next door stands a replica of the 17th-century Resurrection Gate, which was torn down in 1931 to make Red Square more accessible for parades of banner-waving workers and battle tanks. Now, gilded double-headed eagles crowning the gate’s green towers evoke enough Tsarist tradition to set Lenin’s mummified corpse spinning in his tomb.
Beyond the far walls of the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Stalin also had blown up, has been resurrected as a mighty tower of white marble walls with plump golden domes. A modern elevator inside takes visitors to panoramic views of Moscow.
I didn’t expect to see the devil at Patriarch’s Ponds. Stalin and his heirs had done the devil’s dirty work, and the Russian people were busy cleaning it up.
CHRISTOPHER S. WREN spent four years as the New York Times bureau chief in Moscow. His latest book, about entering retirement, Walking to Vermont, was published in 2004.
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!