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.