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.

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.