Speech by Julia Charlton about tramways

27 October 2023


Building a tram is not buying a donkey.

Ilf and Petrov. 12 chairs.

Today I want to tell a fantastic story about how a routine means of transportation – an ordinary city tram – connected the socio-cultural space of Moscow and Hong Kong. And it inspired the creation of the Mikhail Bulgakov Society as an intellectual platform uniting people ready to discuss and develop the writer’s philosophical ideas.

To better understand why the tram became a metaphorical supporting character in the novel “The Master and Margarita,” I will start with a brief historical background on tram traffic in Moscow and Hong Kong. In 1901, Moscow received the first horse-drawn tram line, which connected the city center with the Presnya district. In 1908, the first electric tram line appeared, which ran from Krasnye Vorota to Bolotnaya Square. Over time, the tram network expanded, and by 1914 there were 14 lines in Moscow. In the 30s, and this is precisely the time of the events described in the novel, large-scale reconstructions were carried out, new circular routes were introduced, on one of which Misha Berlioz ended his life. The tram has become a popular and favorite means of transportation for Moscow residents, providing convenient movement around the city.

Almost simultaneously, in 1901, the history of tram traffic in Hong Kong begins. This year the city council decided to build a tram network. Construction began in 1903, and already in 1904 the tram system was put into operation. The first line stretches from Carnival Beach to Wan Chai, serving the city’s main shopping area. As in Moscow, trams quickly became popular in Hong Kong as they offered an inexpensive and convenient way to get around the city. Already in 1912, the first electric trams appeared.

Trams in Moscow and Hong Kong attract not only local residents, but also tourists with their historical significance and uniqueness. Thus, the tram, as a revolutionary means of transportation and a center of public interest, could not help but attract Bulgakov’s attention, and was used in the novel. The tram of the 30s was a unique symbol of modernity and mass culture. Therefore, the use of the tram as a weapon for Berlioz’s murder demonstrates the modernity and realism of the events into which the author immerses the reader. In a symbolic sense, through the image of a tram, Bulgakov expresses the eternal conflict between the collective and the individual. The tram is a collective means of transportation, personifying society or the masses, that is, M. Berlioz, as an enlightened thinker, falls under the wheels of collective rejection, which can destroy an individual, without paying attention to his significance and uniqueness. At the same time, cutting off the head with a tram wheel set is an act of symbolic punishment of an intellectual and an atheist, which clearly and convincingly shows the separation of the highest spiritual principle from the sinful worldly body as punishment for disbelief in the higher principle. The tram acts here as a guillotine – fate. It is through the tram, in which thousands of people travel every day, both in Moscow and in Hong Kong, that the pulsating currents of the collective unconscious, filled with meanings, myths and symbols, pass. Therefore, it is an ideal place for thinking about the physical fragility and spiritual strength of man, about the universal laws that govern people’s lives.

Bulgakov’s genius is not a local phenomenon, relating only to Russia; its influence extends to the cultural and semantic space of the entire earth, regardless of what nation, what cultural code his readers belong to. Bulgakov, with the magic wand of his talent, turned an ordinary tram from an ordinary material object into an energy symbol of the collective unconscious, common to the people living on our planet. And therefore, it is absolutely natural that when I was riding on a Hong Kong tram, a ghostly vision of a fat black cat with green eyes flashed in front of me for a moment, who paid the fare and took the passenger’s seat. This ghost cat caused an avalanche of thoughts – both in Moscow at the Patriarchal, and in Hong Kong, proof of the inscrutability of God’s ways can be spilled on the rails, and another denier of fate will go to meet the Apostle Paul. Therefore, it is very important for every person to think about the fact that there are no random victims and each of us chooses our own individual path. And when your head rolls along the pavement like a cabbage, it’s too late to regret anything. In both Moscow and Hong Kong, the same fundamental law of the Universe about human karma applies, according to which, if you boldly refute the obvious, be prepared to lose your head by slipping on the tram rails.

These abstract thoughts instantly took shape in the conviction that it was absolutely necessary, in honor of the triumph of Bulgakov’s ideas and in memory of his genius, to found a club in Hong Kong dedicated to him, where people could meet, discuss art, literature, philosophy, and share ideas and inspiration. And most importantly, become like-minded people.

And I did it. Bulgakov Society became a place where fantasy met reality.

Julia Charlton