The beginning of The Keeper of Antiquities brings the narrator, a fairly autobiographical Dombrovsky, to Alma Ata for the first time. On his first walk into the city he finds himself face to face with a remarkable building. Almaty’s main cathedral, ‘huge, many domed…multi-colored with cunningly molded architraves’, was and is to this day the center of the city, and will also prove to be the center of the story about to unfold. The building is memorable to anyone who has visited Almaty, and he spends the rest of the chapter discussing its builder – Andrei Pavlovich Zenkov. It is clear he admires Zenkov for his skill and innovation, his attention to detail, and most of all, his impact on the city.
Zenkov was innovative and skilled in his architecture. In a city prone to earthquakes he designed new ways to protect structure. His work was vindicated in 1911 when a massive quake struck and his buildings were untouched. Even the cathedral’s glass remained in place,
“Zenkov had succeeded in constructing a building that was as tall and resilient as a poplar; what higher praise can there be? And the town survived. All the palaces, schools, shops and churches remained whole, exactly as we see them today.”
He further praises Zenkov for his attention to detail. No small piece of a building is left ungarnished,
“[he]…loved beautiful things, or rather not beautiful but decorative things…He could not bear a blank space and wherever possible he concealed it. He sent cornices shooting upwards and then brought them plunging down again; he bent and broke the straight lines of his roofs, adorned them with filigree work and as a final flourish he would place a great porch at the foot of the whole building like a pedestal, topping it with a cupola.”
Most of all he devotes so much space to Zenkov as a tribute to his great lasting impact on the city Dombrovsky loves. He helped transform it from a backwater into a place of its own.
“…all his buildings are immediately recognizable. You can tell them by the carved window-frames, the wrought iron, the doors, the roofs, the porches…The fact that this style did not become the style of the whole town was not Zenkov’s fault. In those days it was impossible for a town like Verny to aspire to any style at all…The town was so young, so virile and energetic that it could never submit to an ordered style.”
Dombrovsky’s prose glows when he talks about Zenkov’s buildings, especially the cathedral itself,
“Yet Alma-Ata is unimaginable without Zenkov’s buildings. ..all so irresistibly alive! If [they] had been removed…the present day Alma-Ata would be …completely different…deprived of its chief embellishment and natural center – Zenkov’s cathedral.
It is so huge and tall that it cannot be taken in at a single glance, so richly inventive that when you look at it closely you cannot tell which are its principal and which its secondary features….The barbaric ornamentation of that building perfectly expresses the spirit of the old town of Verny, as Zenkov built it: its youthfullness, its total lack of roots in the past, its naivete, its independence and finally its bold determination never to fall flat on its face.”
It’s no surprise then that he devotes the first chapter to a remarkable man. For more pics check out Vox Populi’s piece here.