“Manuscripts don’t burn”

-Woland, Bulgakov's Master and Margarita


The above aphorism that became a rallying cry for the Russian literary community has a pithy quality to it, but the matter-of-factness with which the devil utters these words poses the quote to the reader as an undisputable universal truth.  With any other city as a setting or with any other literary tradition as a basis it is likely the divine register of this statement would have been inaudible, but when reading the experiential historical record lying dormant in the monuments and icons of Moscow this minor subtext carries an almost deafening roar.

“The Urban Imagination” invites you to explore the ways in which Moscow, despite developing through historical lurches and extended periods of iconoclasm, has retained any and all of the ideologies which were written into the cityscape.  From the reluctance to destroy the largest of the Lenin monuments to the two hundred new worship spaces planned by the Orthodox Church (an institution that outlived varying levels of Soviet hostility), one gets the sense that it is impossible to eradicate any of these monumental manuscripts from the face of Moscow. Following the paradigm of the urban palimpsest to its tonal limits, the triumphant pride of Victory Park coexists with the revival of an architectural style native to arguably Moscow’s bleakest and most readily disowned hours, the era of Stalin.  In an uncanny city where the mutually exclusive exist together, long-dead Cathedrals are resurrected from empty space, literature has borne equally well both romanticism and realism, and where the same sites will reappear across these exhibits on radically different subjects there is possibly no other city in our course that confronts the outside observer with such a unique over-expression of what we call the urban environment. 

However, out of the disparate also comes a paradoxical unity.  Perhaps Moscow’s buildings, books, and monuments- these chosen manuscripts- are eternal precisely because of an adhesive nostalgia for a particularly conflicted sort of history and by extension, cityscape.  In The Master and Margarita, one gets the sense that the cities of Jerusalem, Rome, and of course, Moscow blur together with texts of the Master and Bulgakov himself to the degree where the casual reader/visitor bears witness to a new synthetic form resisting traditional notions of authorship: urban composition.  With citizen as both author and text it is no surprise that Moscow looks as grand and uneven as its history.  In War and Peace’s account of the burning of Moscow during the Napoleonic Wars, Tolstoy’s rationale for the fire was that “Moscow had to burn down, just as any village, any factory, any house has to burn down which has been left by its owners.”  As time would show, even the city itself shares its monuments’ unique capacity for resurrection, rebuilding itself upon the return of its true authors.  “Manuscripts don’t burn,” and as Napoleon would likely attest in retrospect, neither does Moscow. Welcome to the great literary city.