Born in Russia. A boy, a book, and The House of Artist

When I was eleven I fancied a boy. It was that innocent, first-time crush when the ultimate wish is to spend more time together, and a kiss on the lips. It never happened.

What did happen, however, was a love of a book thanks to that boy. His name was Andrei and he was a son of a famous painter. Andrei, as I, was a member of exclusive club of young painters at the also famous ‘House of Artist’ in Moscow. The House of Artist was renowned and still is for its amazing exhibitions and a nice restaurant and cafeteria, with grounds next to the House stretching to Moscow river, giving a beautiful view and a time spent in peace, culture and tranquility.

I got into the club thanks to my grand-dad. At some point, a Cossack who had been first sent to Ural because he had marched by foot from Germany after the war, and thus, couldn’t be traced among members of the Russian Army, was later sent to a political prison in Siberia, where he ended up sharing a cell with another famous painter. The painter taught my grand-dad how to paint, and on his return to Ural and then, ultimately, to his Cossack village in the South of Russia, together with my grand-mum and their sons, he became a teacher of art at a local school. One day, when, as usual, I was spending my summer with my grand-parents, during the long break from school in Moscow, he started to teach me how to draw, and these lessons landed me a place in the club in the House of Artist, a small group of ten children among hundreds who didn’t get a place.

It soon emerged that I wasn’t doing that well when my artistic expression had to be supervised at certain hours. I wasn’t that interested in learning further technique of painting or in spending an hour trying to figure out how to draw a still picture of some fruits at the back of the studio. I was eleven years old and was more interested in socializing. Another girl, Nastya, had the same ideas as me, and we would bring our tiny collections of barbie girls and spend all our breaks on playing.

There was also a boy, Andrei, who was very interesting. He wouldn’t play barbies but draw in that dismissive way of a rebel. If we had to do a still picture, he would draw a portrait of a teacher, and then it was time for a landscape, he would make a still picture of a tree.

Needless to say, he was a subject of admiration of all girls in our group, me including. Andrei had a liking of me, since he would always try to sit next to me and engage in some intellectual conversation. Even at that age I would catch myself thinking that here was an intellect way beyond childhood, and that Andrei was simply a genius.
One day, on the way home, when we traveled together for something like five underground stations until his stop, Andrei asked me whether I had already read ‘The Master and Margarita’. I hadn’t and for a good reason. ‘The Master and Margarita’, a masterpiece written by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was published only after his death, is a story of a Devil who visits the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, with a parallel story of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. It isn’t a book that one reads at the age of eleven. But because I admired Andrei and didn’t want to appear stupid, I answered that ‘yes, of course’, which provoked a zero reaction on Andrei’s face. I reckon he would have been much more surprised if I had answered the truth. I had never read any work by Bulgakov by that point.

“What did you think of Woland?” Andrei then asked me a question, sending me into frenzy of trying to guess who the hell Woland was. If you haven’t read the book yet, I strongly advice you to do it now (urgently so), as it is the best book ever of satire on the Soviet regime (and just the best book, in general) and has amazing insights into the character of the Devil. Professor Woland is the devil who seems to be so ‘impressed’ by the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, that he can’t stop making practical jokes on Moscow and its establishment. It is both funny and mesmerizing, especially that Bulgakov gives us a human insight into what had happened to Christ.

Not knowing what to answer, I asked Andrei’s opinion on Woland.“He seems quite an interesting character, someone very unusual,” Andrei gave a prompt answer of someone who had read the book and had thought about its message and meaning. Thankfully, we reached Andrei’s stop and he would never discover that I had lied. He stopped going to the club of young artists (probably he was bored due his rebellious nature) and I haven’t seen him since.

Andrei has remained in my life that mysterious boy who helped me to discover my most favorite book ever. Because the first thing I asked my mum once I was back home was to give me ‘The Master and Margarita’ to read. Even if surprised by such request, she didn’t say anything and just gave me the book. In our family the rule was that one could read anything as long as one would read. And in any case, we only had good books in the house.

I started to read the book that night, starting to laugh on the second page thanks to its humour and couldn’t stop for two days. ‘The Master and Margarita’ became my most treasured book which I reread every two or three years, discovering every time something new, thanks to a boy who was way too smart for his age.

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