Paris – Kindness is Our Resistance to Evil

This seems particularly apt from Vasily Grossman today. His novel Life and Fate holds some very impartant lessons and observations about humanity, a timeless read. I have no words to express the sadness that I feel for what happened in Paris last night, how can we humans do this? So I will resort to the words of another, who struggled with the same questions 50 years ago.

“Today I can see the true power of evil. The heavens are empty. Man is alone on Earth. How can the flame of evil be put out? […] I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” – Vasily Grossman


Thank You Asya!

Today is International Women’s day and it is a great occasion to celebrate some fantastic women. There is one woman in the history of Russian literature that is hugely influential, yet for some reason often overlooked. She is mentioned in connection to some of the greatest publications of the 1950s and 60s, such as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, many of Grossman’s publications, Dombrovskii’s The Keeper of Antiquities, works of Viktor Nekrasov, Vasil’ Bykov, Vladimir Tendriakov, Fazil’ Iskander and many more… The woman I am talking about was a literary critic and the editor of the literary submissions in Novyi Mir (1958-71),-  Anna Berzer (1917-1994). Novyi Mir was a literary journal that published some of the most challenging works during Khrushchev’s Thaw period in the 1960s USSR.


I myself came across Anna (or Asya as she was affectionately called) when studying for my PhD. There was always some confusion surrounding my thesis, why did I choose two authors that are so different? Well, as it turns out they have more in common than it seems. One thing they have in common is their close relationship to Anna Berzer. After the publication of For a Just Cause she became very close to Grossman and has written an autobiographical narrative about his last days Farewell (Proshchanie). There, she describes her visits to his hospital bed and how she receives his final novel Everything Flows. She narrates all the details of what was happening in the editorial offices of Novyi mir  and what was said about Grossman at a time when his novel Life and Fate was under “arrest”. It is a unique document from the perspective of the person that was closest to Grossman towards the end of his life.

Equally, her impact on Dombrovskii was immense. It was in great part thanks to her that his novel The Keeper of Antiquities was published at all. She edited the novel into the great work of fiction that we know now. Her skills are impossible to overestimate as it is largely because of her that the novel has such an uncanny feel. It depicts the very feeling of the 1937 terror, yet it withholds it from the reader. This is exactly what she wanted to maintain – the suffocating fear of the terror. When the novel was published Dombrovskii dedicated it to her with the words: “To dear Anna Samoilovna, without whom this novel would certainly not have seen the light of day.With love and gratitude, Dombrovskii.” Even when his novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge was published abroad in 1978 (as it would have been forbidden in USSR), he also dedicated it to her: “The author dedicates this book to Anna Samoilovna Berzer with profound gratitude on behalf of himself and all others like him.”


And there were many more like him whom she helped. In an article dedicated to her Inna Borisova explains the tenacity of Anna Berzer. She had no fear, only stamina and determination. If she has received a work of truth then it is her duty to make sure the public hear it. Her commitment was both to the authors and to the world. She was an excellent literary critic and often pointed out that a work needs to be published at the right time. If Fathers and Sons was not published in the 1860s, she used to say, then it would have lost some of its impact. And so, the same can be said for many of the works of 1960s (many of which unfortunately had to wait until 1980s, when they lost some of their impact in wave of publications). This is why she had a sense of urgency and achieved such incredible publications.

Anna Berzer certainly fought for literature and is one of, to my mind, unsung heroes of her time. Bulgakov’s saying that “manuscripts don’t burn” infuriated her. She pointed out that this was said by the devil, and we should never become complacent. Anna Berzer’s role and approach to literature is truly inspiring. Her knowledge and editing skills have created the some of the greatest Russian novels of the 20th Century. To me she is a true hero and I hope we will speak more about her as time goes by.

Dombrovskii Stories III: How The Ape Came Back To Its Creator

If there is a sense of magic in Dombrovskii’s novels, then there is also a sense of magic in his life. In 1943, after several years of internment in a labour camp, Dombrovskii found himself nearly paralysed and in a hospital bed. There he started writing his novel The Ape Is Coming For Its Skull as a way of escaping his own weakness and anguish. Firstly, just lying on his back, and later sitting up. The novel wasn’t published until 1959, and this is why….

Iurii Dombrovskii lived in Moscow at the time and one day a small Jewish man turns up in his flat carrying a basket. He walks into the kitchen and asks: “Who is Dombrovskii here?” Dombrovskii answers: “Well, I am, why?” The man doesn’t believe him and demands to see his documents. The only documents that Dombrovskii has is his notice of release. The man studies it in detail and once satisfied passes him a bunch of papers from his basket. Dombrovskii is shocked – it is his novel The Ape Is Coming For Its Skull. 

The novel was confiscated from him during his arrest in 1949.

“You see, – the guest says, – I came to Moscow to see my boy. I kept the manuscript at home. I flicked through it and didn’t like it. But I thought, here I am going to Moscow, maybe I should take it to the writer, maybe he is pining for it.”

“Who are you? – Domsbovskii asked.”

“You see, I worked as an archivist for them. They started burning papers and I thought, why should a whole book be burned? I’ll go to see my boy and take it with me…”

Dombrovskii got very excited and did all the could to thank the man, who wasn’t interested in pleasantries was happy to leave.


This novel could have disappeared to the flames, but as Bulgakov’s Woland says: “Manuscripts do not burn”. The only way that manuscripts are saved are by the acts of individuals, those who not only consider the value of the work but also its value to the person who has written it. The novel was published in 1959 by “Sovetskii Pisatel'” in a revised form. This was an important step for Dombrovskii. The novel depicts the importance of the printed word, and we can be happy that Dombrovskii is not the only one who felt this way.

Music and Silence Part II

I have written about the opposition of music and silence before and have been thinking about this post for a while. I still am not sure about the relationship of silence and music here but would like to highlight it anyway. A while ago me and my friend Jo got rather excited about a new (to us) book being published called A Comedy in A Minor Key by Hans Kielson. Kielson wrote the novel in 1947 and it was translated into English in 2010. You can read more about Kielson in this informative Guardian article. The novel itself depicts the story of  a German Jew hiding from the Nazis in the home of a family in Holland. It depicts the mundane and dreary aspects of hiding – being confined to a small space from which you can never leave – a rather difficult prospect. As Philip Otterman says, “When the book is sad, it’s never so in a manipulative way.” And I would agree, it doesn’t seem manipulative, but at the same time, it is constantly sad. Partly, this sadness is expressed through silence in the novel. As I suggested in the last post on this subject, silence can be powerful and even loud in its way, pointing towards the unspeakable nature of a feeling or experience. In this novel I believe silence becomes the main character.

Speaking about the death of his parents in Auschwitz, Kielson suggests that there is a sadness that cannot be deleted. He connects his feelings about their death and his own survival to music: “Music is always written in a major and a minor key: they need each other to make the right sound. It’s the same with sadness and happiness.” Kielson allows for the existence of both, hence the comedy and the minor key, the laughter and the sadness. The novel has very warm, awkward and funny moments between the couple who are hiding Nico, yet it is steeped in unspoken sadness. This silence that permeates the novel has a profound way of testifying to events in history that were unspoken on so many levels.

I admire Kielson’s ability to invoke this silence and make it as present as a character. The novel focuses on the couple that harbour the fugitive, Wim and Marie, not on Nico. So even on a basic level he is hidden within the narrative. The whole plot of the novel is about trying to hide him, to not speak of him, not to speak to him (not too much), and to keep it all hidden, both within the house and in relation to neighbours and wider society. Wim and Marie don’t even know his true identity (for safety reasons). So, the reader doesn’t find much out about Nico either, he is hidden from us as well. A passage in the novel describes this silence and secrecy very well:

“A secret! It was not only that they had sheltered him – he himself, his person, his life, constituted the secret. It was as though a no man’s land lay all around him, alien and impenetrable. It was impossible to bridge the gap. Even while he was alive, everything she heard him say, everything she saw – his voice, his movements – was like something seen from the opposite bank of a river while mist hung over the water and masked any clear view. It almost melted away into the impersonal, colourless swirls of fog.”

So here it is, the minor key. The higher note of caring for a fugitive mixed with silence and secrecy. Both exist and neither triumphs. I suppose it is a bit like history. These inspiring stories of brave people who helped hide Jewish fugitives are always connected to the sadness that this should ever have happened.

“Life and Fate” on TV or An Attempt at a Review

So… Last week I was in Tallinn and was able to follow the launch of the new TV series based on Grossman’s Life and Fate. I had heard previously that this was happening, and was worried already then. I love the book and it is a tough one to dramatise, just because of its size and the amount of characters, to mention just one obvious difficulty. It is that common thing of: “What did you think of the film?” “Oh I prefer the book…” So I was wondering what would happen. One serious flaw of this review is that I haven’t finished watching the series yet, so can only comment up to the last few episodes.

As I spent the last four years writing my PhD on the novel and know it pretty well by now, everyone says that it is natural that I won’t like the film because, inevitably, it won’t be like the novel. I am too biased to have an honest opinion of it. I will admit that the book is precious to me and any rendering of it is always something that I anticipate with some dread. However, I was equally ready to find a good film of the book so that I could share its treasures with people more easily (rather than suggesting they read the 700 page epic or forcing them to listen me reading passages from the book, not the best experience). But, as you can tell, I was disappointed with the series. Why?

I concede that some revision is necessary to bring a book to the screen, but some of the rewriting of the events and the dialogue removed the series too far from the book. It seems that the writer/director fuses For a Just Cause with Life and Fate, which I think is not a bad idea, but the way that it is done has re-arranged the events quite substantially. (I am talking here of Tolya, who is DEAD in Life and Fate, but has a very different role in the film – I’m trying to not give too much away here if you should want to see it.)

Also, I know that the book is about the battle of Stalingrad, but it seems to me that the filmmakers focused exclusively on war and battles. What makes Grossman’s novel amazing (and his wartime articles), is the fact that he goes beyond the war and depicts people, personalities and relationships. He sees the man in war, his fears, his hopes, his vulnerabilities. In the film, it is the fighting itself that takes center stage. There is blood, explosions, dirt and a great amount of vodka. In order to make a moment meaningful the director just puts some loud violin over it and we’re supposed to feel touched. Of course, it is a film and Grossman’s words need to be represented audiovisually, but the subtlety of human relations is lost in the film. I suppose this could be proof of the power of words, that perhaps they can touch us more than imagery. But it also makes me wonder whether it is an attempt at pacifying the messages in the novel, removing the very reasons for which it was arrested in 1961. Is that really freedom for the novel in the 21st Century Russia?

Another very typical problem with dramatisations is the choice of actors for characters. Often we get disappointed because they never look like what we imagine them to be like. Or the actors replace our personal idea of the character completely, who can think of Mr. Darcy without imagining Colin Firth? I can’t, and to be honest, I don’t want to. As expected, I do not agree with some of the choices of actors for this film. But one thing I really liked was the choice of Sergey Makovetsky as Shtrum. This is because he looks remarkably like Grossman, and considering Shtrum was based on Grossman, this was a good choice indeed. It points to the relationship between the author and the novel, without making an obvious statement.

Shtrum and Marya Ivanovna in the film

Grossman at Stalingrad


Krymov I felt didn’t look like what I imagined him in the book (especially because he reminded me of a serious and slightly slimmer version of Dara O’Briain), but I wasn’t too disappointed with that, it is to be expected.



I always imagined Krymov to be dark haired and severe looking, a bit more like the director’s choice for Novikov, played by Evgenii Dyatlov.


This was perhaps the choice that I was least pleased with. To me, Novikov is a bit of a softer character than the man above, but that is my impression. Otherwise, the choices of women was generally very good. Zhenya, played by Polina Agureeva, and Lyudmila, played by Lika Nifontova, were both good choices I think, and good actresses.





Overall, I got bored watching the film, which just seems unbelievable considering how much I love the book. I was touched by the scene of Lyudmila at Tolya’s grave, but otherwise felt that I never came close to the characters. I just couldn’t feel that I understood or cared for them. There is also a narrator in the film, reading passages from the novel, but even his voice sounds dull and tired. Considering he is narrating war, one can understand that the voice has to be sombre to an extent, but what makes Grossman’s novel so amazing is the light that permeates the whole narrative. In the end human spirit, freedom, love and an inner light, all survive and that is the ultimate message. This seems to me to be missing from the film completely. I may change my mind as I finish watching it, but having seen as far as Film 4 Episode 2 and having only four episodes left, I have little hope….

P.S. So far, there is no depiction of camps and thus Ikonnikov’s discussions of Good and Evil, so there you go.

Discovery in Translation

I am not a translator but I have found myself translating in the past few months and I shall tell you what it has revealed to me. As many other PhD students, I have found it necessary to sometimes translate untranslated pieces of work and sometimes adjust the existing translations to highlight the point in the original language. I do harbour a dream of translating Iurii Dombrovskii’s work, but before embarking on such a task there is a book that is a lot closer to my heart.

In the 1970s my great-grandmother, whom I was very close to in mind and spirit, wrote a book about her experiences of deportation. This book is the pride of my family as it reveals its rich (both in terms of money and life experience) history and shows that at least one of us is talented in some way. The fact that I am fluent in English and part of British academia has spurred my family on to suggest that I should translate it, as it surely will become a bestseller.  After many reassuring yeses, I have finally committed to the task, but not for the hope of any glory, as some of my family imagine it would bring, but out of a latent curiosity.

My 101-year-old great-grandmother died two years ago, but she continues to inspire me every day. Translation has become a way to come closer to her and my family’s past. I have read the book before, and one would think that reading is enough to gain knowledge. Yet, to put that knowledge to practice, to really commit to what she is telling in that book I have to listen to her voice in the way that I have never done before. I suppose this is where the true work of the translator comes in. At the point where you merge with the author and imagine sitting next to them as they are writing their piece, trying to understand the feeling and the idea that the author wanted to convey.

One of the great discoveries whilst translating, apart from the linguistic curiosities, has been uncovering the history and location of places depicted. I have used Google extensively for my first two chapters and learned about the locations of old estates, the relationships of ancient counts and princesses and even an astronomical achievement. The memoir depicts my great-grandmother’s deportation from Tallinn with her two young children and her mother in 1941. Her husband Zhenia is sent to a camp. This is a typical Russian/Soviet story. But it is through my great-grandmother’s memory that the distant past of the Hanski or Ganskii or Gansky family is opened up (this is another issue of translation, finding the right name!). In the dark rooms of dilapidated cottages, my great-grandmother’s mother remembers the opulent dinners and parties of the past, and so I and my great-grandmother – the narrator – follow her into this long lost time.

In terms of Google-yield, I have found my great-great-uncle Alexei Pavlovich Hanski/Gansky the most fruitful and interesting so far. This is what my great-grandma writes about him (in my translation):

“With trepidation I listen to the tragic story of mother’s favourite brother Alyosha, Alexei Pavlovich Gansky. He was a famous astronomer in his time and the winner of the Janssen Prize. Everyone loved him. Once, travelling on a train with a southern magnate, he managed to inspire him with stories of astronomy and impress him with his passion to such a degree that the man offered him an observatory in Simeiz as a gift. Uncle Alyosha gratefully accepted the offer and happily passed it on to the Pulkovo Observatory. It was equipped with technology and staff, and he was appointed its director. The grand opening day arrived. Guests were expected from Pulkovo and Petersburg. Friends and relatives gathered. It was scorching hot.  Not everyone has arrived yet, there is time before the great moment and Uncle Alyosha invites everyone for a swim. He didn’t come back. He swam out, got caught in the current and drowned. He was thirty seven. Mother treasured his photo and medals until the end of her life.”

This brief paragraph led me to discover the story of my great-great-great uncle Alyosha. He was indeed a very successful astronomer who took some amazing photos of the sun that enabled him to study sun spots and granulation. In 1904 he received the Janssen medal for his work. His photographs were of such good quality that they were even questioned as fakes. His research at Pulkovo and elsewhere led to an expansion of this area of science. I found some possible confirmation for the train story that my great-great-grandmother told about the gift of the observatory, but there is a definite confirmation that it was a gift: the astronomy enthusiast Nikolai Maltsov met Gansky in Crimea in 1908, when Gansky was looking for somewhere to build an observatory. After their meeting Maltsov contacted the director of the Pulkovo observatory, suggesting that he donate his own to them as a gift. During the opening ceremony, Uncle Alyosha drowned in the sea. In 1928 astronomers named a planet after Gansky, in 1970s a crator on the moon, there is also a glacier on Spitsbergen named after him, where he went for expeditions and a street in Simeiz. Not bad for a distant relative I think.

Great-gradmother’s story is thus completely true. It has the nature of a memory with the uncertainty of dates and meeting places, but that is what gives it its dreamy and almost unreal quality. This is part of the great work of translators to uncover what is beneath the words of their subjects. This also made me wonder, is there a difference between fiction and memoir? Is there a greater need for accuracy and historical knowledge when translating non-fiction compared to fiction? Does this put the translation in a moral position to support the truth?

As I return to translating my great-grandmother’s memoir brimming with the curiosity of what else I am about to uncover, I cannot help but be filled with awe and fascination for the work of translators, and the worlds that they uncover and recover every day.

[The photos are scanned from my great-grandmother’s album]

The Dombrovskii Stories Part II

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Dombrovskii was not only writing his great novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge but was also working on a film script based on some aspects of the novel with the director Theodor Vul’fovich. The film was released in 1978 under the title of Shestvie zolotykh zverei (The Procession of Gold Beasts), although it seems that neither Dombrovskii nor Vul’fovich were completely satisfied with the result as the script had to be re-written a number of times due to censorship and lost some of its creative flare. During the writing of the film the two men became close friends and Vul’fovich published a collection of notes where he depicts the various meetings that he had with Dombrovskii until his death in 1978. One such story illustrates very well the complexity of Dombrovskii’s character: his fusion of warmth and love with the darkest aspects of Soviet life.

Vul’fovich visited Dombrovskii on many occasions at his communal flat. It was always filled with lively conversations on various topics, often under the influence of vodka. However, there was something particularly peculiar about a short, sickly, compact old man, who only reached up to Dombrovskii’s shoulder and always listened in on their conversations. He was known as the Communal zit (kommunal’nyi prysh’) and Vul’fovich very effectively describes him as a “shard of the mustachioed empire”. This man was an ex-KGB worker, who was now in retirement, but couldn’t abandon his old habits. He sat by the door and not just listened, but engrossed himself in the conversations (as Vul’fovich describes it).

One afternoon Vul’fovich came to visit Dombrovskii for their usual chats about literature and culture. However, this time the two were whispering and the door to the room was closed. This was unusual as Dombrovskii frequently conducted his conversations in the open with a loud voice and an open door. The zit quietly opened the door and placed his chair inside the room. He sat down silently and stared with his clear and almost kind eyes at the two conversing. Vul’fovich was shocked and appalled by this blatant intrusion but Dombrovskii kept on talking as if nothing had happened. In the midst of conversation he pronounced, as if the zit was not there:

– Don’t be startled, he can sit there. He’s just had the flu and it damaged his hearing. He may not hear something properly and then end up misrepresenting it in one of his reports and you know, he’s a conscientious worker (Vul’fovich didn’t detect any irony in Dombrovskii’s voice). But, if he sits there, and then misrepresents (and he pointed at the zit), then that would be inexcusable. He doesn’t want tea. He’s not going to take part in the conversations and in general, he’s a very delicate stool pigeon. Do you know what? It’s even convenient – he’s our own!  He once informed on me and misrepresented – all because he couldn’t hear! He then apologised for the mistake and I forgave him – but it could’ve been five or six years in prison for me… He’s a disgusting, stupid type, but not the worst kind. He earns his pension: listens and informs, but not too often – his sight’s getting worse and his hands are shaking. It’s tough when he’s ill – he’ll press his ear against the wall and lie like that for hours. Only thing is he complains when the conversation gets too quiet, asks not to torture him like that, to speak loudly and clearly, without withholding anything.  And you know what else? He’s even started educating himself, and asks for book recommendations. Everything I suggest – he reads! Wish I got him earlier!

The zit stands up and leaves, finding the conversation under-stimulating.

Vul’fovich notes that Dombrovskii has put a little rug under the zit’s chair to protect the old man’s ill legs from the draft in the floorboards and from the door.

As the zit leaves the room Dombrovskii says:

–  Look, they didn’t even give him proper accommodation for his services to the state. He’s got to share his home with me, a man who spent the past twenty years in prisons and camps…

This is a simple but remarkable story about Dombrovskii’s relationship to both the people around him and his own circumstances. The peculiarity of his relationship to the zit, and even the existence of such a character, highlights the complexity of life during the Soviet times. Victims and perpetrators were not only closely co-existing, but were often in a complex relationship with each other. Who is the victim in the above story? This is part of the problem in narrating and understanding Soviet history and it cannot be boiled down to a simple dichotomy of good and evil. Somehow everyone is a victim of the state surveillance and domination, yet this doesn’t mean that people can’t remain human and understanding towards each other. This is something that is evident in not only Dombrovskii’s writing but also in his life and character.

The Dombrovskii Stories Part I

So, here is the first of a few Dombrovskii stories:

Whilst walking through the city on a may afternoon in the 1970s, Dombrovskii noticed a collection of paintings on a wall of a building; they represented the great Soviet leaders. He stopped, looked up at the painting of Stalin and said: “are we really going to worship him again?” A man next to him replied: “You must be one of those rehabilitated ones…?” Dombrovskii turned to the man and punched him straight in the face.  A policeman turned up instantly and took Dombrovskii into custody. Arriving at the police headquarters he asked Dombrovskii:

“Do you at least know who that was?”

“Of course I do, it was Molotov“.

The policeman ascertained whether Dombrovskii’s insult was deliberate and after receiving a positive answer explained that he had to be severely punished for it.

“I will have to fine you….3 roubles!” he exclaimed triumphantly.

Dombrovskii scratched the back of his head and explained that he’d spent all his money in the restaurant. The policeman, after some consideration, unexpectedly offered to pay Dombrovskii’s fine himself.

And he let the writer go.

For Russian speakers, this story is told in a very lovely documentary about Dombrovskii and his wife Klara:

Dombrovsky and the problem of biography

One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century is Iurii Dombrovskii (or Dombrovsky). There, I said it and I stand by it. The title of this blog is taken from his great novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge/Things and I have spent many hours, days, weeks, and now years enjoying this novel. However, I am currently writing a short biography on him and find this a very frustrating experience. One of the reasons for this is that there are still some inconsistencies and gaps in his biography. (Peter Doyle’s book is so far the best and only summary of Dombrovsky’s life in English.) But what is more frustrating, and I think is the reason for many of the inconsistencies, is that Dombrovsky was such an inspiring character that the factual side of his biography is overshadowed by the interest in him personally.

Many articles on Dombrovsky (especially in Russian) focus on his extraordinary intelligence, humour and power. His life was not an easy one: he was arrested four times, exiled, imprisoned in camps and threatened and assaulted. Yet, the people who met him, and remember him, all point out that he remained unbroken by his experiences. This is precisely what makes his novels so amazing; whilst they depict the very stifling and dangerous life during the Stalinist 1930s, they also challenge this atmosphere with light, love, laughter and above all, creativity. Reading about Dombrovsky for the past few years I have found that many people who write about him, write anecdotally and this has to do with his inspiring and interesting character. So I thought that I would launch a little series on the blog called “The Dombrovsky Stories”.

Before I launch into that, here is a VERY brief biography of Dombrovsky.

Iurii Dombrovskii (Yury/Iury Dombrovsky) was born in Moscow in 1909. His mother was a biology teacher and his father a barrister and lawyer. Already in his youth he became known for his rebellious behaviour and defiance of authority. His father died when he was only ten years old and four years later was replaced by an authoritarian father with whom Dombrosvky often clashed.

In 1926 Dombrovsky decided upon the career of a writer and attended literary courses in Moscow until he was arrested in 1932 and exiled to Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan at the time. This first arrest is perhaps a good indication of both Dombrovsky’s character and the nature of Soviet legal system at the time. He was arrested for drunkenly tearing down a few flags from a building, leaving them in his room, and then failing to inform the authorities that he was in possession of stolen goods. He was sentenced with “political hooliganism” and exiled to Alma-Ata.

Dombrovsky in 1959

In Alma-Ata Dombrovsy worked as a school teacher, a museum keeper and script-writer and translator. He was exiled to Alma-Ata for twenty-four years, was arrested a further three times and spent around eleven years in prison and in camps. As soon as he managed to get any stability in his life he was again arrested. Although exile from Moscow was a punishment for Dombrovsky, he fell deeply in love with Alma-Ata and its history. Reading his two major novels, The Keeper of Antiquities and The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, one gets a clear sense of how much Dombrovsky admired the area. Both novels are based on his experiences in Alma-Ata and depict his arrest and interrogations. During this period Dombrovsky also wrote The Ape is Coming for its Skull, a novel about a Nazi invasion of a peaceful Western European town.

Between 1949 and 1955 Dombrovsky was incarcerated in a hard labour camp (Taishet Ozerlag). Upon his release he moved back to Moscow and received full rehabilitation in 1956. He continued translating Kazakh literature, writing articles on Russian and World literature, and focusing on his own writing. In 1961 he started writing his major novel The Keeper of Antiquities, which depicts the 1937 terror and is based on the time that Dombrovsky spent working in the Central Kazakhstan museum in the beautiful Zenkov Cathedral (more on that later). The book was finally published in 1964 in Novyi mir and was a great success with readers, however, it was treated to a silence by the critics as the anti-Stalinist sentiments of the Khrushchev era were no longer officially supported.

Despite the quiet response to The Keeper of Anantiquities, Dombrovsky received an advance for the sequel to the novel. (This is mainly due to the fact that his novel was greatly admired by the editorial committee at Novyi mir (with Aleksander Tvardovsky in charge), who would support his publications in private even if they couldn’t do so public.) Dombrovsky kept writing the sequel in secret for eleven years with no realistic hope of publishing it.

During this time Dombrovsky lived in a communal flat in Moscow and was under the watchful eye of the authorties. In 1969, after years of writing letters and hesitating, he married Klara Turumova. She was thirty years his junior and Dombrovsky was worried that she should commit herself to an ex-camp inmate with bad health and little income. However, their romance grew into a lifelong committment and love for each other. Today, she continues to promote Dombrovsky’s works and in 2010 she published Dombrovsky’s novel The Birth of a Mouse, which was thought to have been lost.

Having finished his novel after eleven laborious years, and knowing that he could never publish what he saw as his most important work, Dombrovsky made arrangements to publish it abroad. In 1978 The Faculty of Useless Knowledge was published in Paris, and was a great success. This triumph (indirectly) cost Dombrovsky his life. Only a few days later he was assaulted and severely beaten up at the Central Writer’s Club. He died soon after from an internal haemorrhage.

Dombrovsky not only wrote three incredible novels, but also a great collection of articles on both famous and long forgotten artists and writers (Shakespeare was one of his main interests). His knowledge of history and literature was encyclopedic and suffused with his love for these subjects. He also wrote many poems in which he depicts his experience of the Gulag, something that he otherwise doesn’t mention much. I shall discuss many of his works in future posts.