Stalin and the City: Dombrovsky’s Alma-Ata Part I

“It was in 1933 that I first saw that curious city, so unlike any other city in the world, and I still remember how it amazed me.”

The best book ever written about Almaty
The best book written about Almaty

Almaty is a beautiful city, but one whose charms can be hard to convey to someone who hasn’t been there. These charms are different from other cities’. There are no architectural wonders like Rome, no noisy street life like Mumbai, nor the power and majesty of London.

Instead Almaty offers simpler pleasures. A stroll down Tulebaev street in the evening; hiking up to Kok Zhailau on the weekend with colleagues, chilling some beer by the waterfall and taking out the guitar; sitting with a sweetheart on a bench outside the opera. Since moving away I’ve worked on compiling accounts of the city from other writers. The amount of writing in English about Almaty is quite miniscule, mostly by travel writers passing through. But there is one book stands out above the rest for its portrayal of the city: The Keeper of the Antiquities by Yuri Dombrovsky.  He was a great Soviet-era writer. This work, set in 1930’s Alma-Ata, is both a beautiful account of the city as it was and a chilling account of the everyday climate during the Stalinist purges.


397_original“Yury 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.” (Source)

So while born and raised in Moscow, Dombrovsky was sent to Alma-Ata at the age of 23 (coincidentally the same age I moved there). Arriving as a young adult he developed both an outsider’s perspective and an insider’s deep knowledge of the city, its people, and its treasures. The latter was both literally and figuratively, as he worked in the Central State Museum, then housed in the majestic Cathedral in present-day Panfilov Park. He was arrested several times which was the subject of his next book, The Faculty of Useless Knowledge..

In The Keeper of the Antiquities, he begins with his arrival to Alma-Ata and a description of his first impressions. He paints a picture of the city as a garden, with the trees and plant life containing its essence. I would argue this fact remains true to this day, despite the air pollution and congestion.

IMG_1102Dombrovsky writes how he began working at the Central State Museum, housed in Andrey Zenkov’s beautiful cathedral, and this is the focal point of his experiences. It is then no coincidence that he also includes a long account of the architect Zenkov’s life and works. The man had a profound impact on Almaty and his legend continues to this day. Dombrovsky tries to piece together what he can about Zenkov and presents his life with a measure of admiration.

The plot is a largely autobiographical account of his time at the museum, and a conflict that develops with a Machiavellian librarian. Through this conflict he shows the human impact of the purges on the people and institutions of the city.

There will be two posts examining each of these facets of Dombrovsky’s Alma-Ata:

1. The nature of the city and the venomous climate of the purges in Alma-Ata
2. His account of the life of the influential architect Andrey Zenkov


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