From early morning until late at night, excavators rumble along the dry floor of Patriarch's Ponds, laying the foundations for a monument to the Russian writer who injected the aura of the surrounding park into the imaginations of generations of readers.
Muscovites have long complained of the inconveniences of Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov's ambitious construction program -- sleepless nights illuminated by floodlights, sidewalks that disappear into swamps of gravel and mud.
They've alternately twittered and wrung their hands over the capital's new outsized statues and towering office blocks -- most capped by the little towers that have stamped the Luzhkov era onto the skyline.
But the plan to erect a huge monument to writer Mikhail Bulgakov in Patriarch's Ponds has provoked an outcry that has reverberated from the surrounding elite neighborhood to the halls of the federal government. This time, critics say, the mayor is going too far.
"There's a special atmosphere here, something completely separate from the rest of the city," said Kira Surikova, a writer and longtime resident of the neighborhood. "It's the world of old Moscow, which has been squeezed into the small dimensions of Patriarch's Ponds."
The pond, the last one remaining of three that stocked fish for the Russian Orthodox Church's hierarchy, is the centerpiece of a park that was created in 1813 for Russian officers who returned after defeating Napoleon. Every winter, it lured sledders and ice skaters. In springtime, its banks beckoned courting couples.
It was here, on one of the park's benches, that two writers encountered the devil in the opening scene of Bulgakov's 20th-century masterpiece "The Master and Margarita." Banned for decades in the Soviet Union, the irreverent novel became a cult classic.
In 1998, the city approved a plan to build a monument to Bulgakov. The uncontroversial part of the project was a statue of the writer, who was to be seated on a broken bench. But the plan also embraced seven other figures, including a 39-foot statue of a kerosene stove looming out of the pond.
"They're putting up a huge monument, and it will become a Mecca for cheap tourists," Surikova said.
Construction workers fenced off the pond in November, then began draining and recontouring it. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents grew increasingly alarmed over rumors about the plan, including construction of a multilevel parking garage under the pond and a casino.
However, the city's chief architect, Alexander Kuzmin, told the Izvestia newspaper last month that those were simply the ideas of individual investors that the media had blown out of proportion.
Neighbors circulated petitions against the project and held protests in the park, but the work continued. The monument is slated to be ready by May, according to the Gazeta newspaper.
Now, the Russian Culture Ministry has stepped in. Culture Minister Mikhail Y. Shvydkoi wrote Luzhkov in January and asked that work on the monument be suspended. Liberal legislator Vladimir Semyonov is pressing the lower house of parliament to appeal to President Vladimir V. Putin to stop the project.
For Shvydkoi and Semyonov, the controversy extends beyond Patriarch's Ponds. They say the federal government would be a better custodian of the capital's monuments, many of which already have fallen victim to the city's commercial developers.
What's more, the federal coffers could well use the revenues that the city reaps each year from such historical landmarks as the GUM department store, facing the Kremlin on Red Square, and the Gostinny Dvor mall.
In June, the federal government filed suit against Moscow to regain ownership of hundreds of landmark buildings that it contends the city illegally appropriated when the Culture Ministry could not afford their upkeep.
Originally, the list stood at about 1,000, but some of the buildings have been destroyed by fire or neglect, while others have been renovated to the point that they are no longer landmarks -- such as the 17th-century mansion that now houses the Culture Ministry's landmark management agency.
A gray mansard roof tops the yellow building, which still bears the name of the now-defunct bank that rented it from the city and made it over.
Inside, the marble floors, glassed-in tellers' windows and gray fabric-covered walls give no hint of the etchings that once graced the interior.
Preservationists say at least 66 Moscow landmarks have been destroyed or irreparably damaged over the last decade. They hope that if the federal government regains ownership of the landmarks, it will make good on its promises to use revenues from them for careful restoration.