Author: Alexander GRICH, Los Angeles, CA
About thirty years ago. A small yet cosy three-room apartment on the ground floor of a large twelve-storey house at Ivanovskoye District in Moscow between the Entuziastov Highway and the Moscow Ring Road (MKAD). Everything is unusual here… A narrow hallway decorated with badges and shelves full of Azerbaijani copper utensils takes you to a kitchen with a wonderful collection of wooden spoons. You can also see a set of traditional English jasperware (Wedgwood, Mason or maybe something else… Surely, the owner is more knowledgeable than I am) hanging on the walls. His strikingly beautiful collection of smoking pipes however fascinates and even causes mistrust of the first-time visitors suspiciously wondering how many years the owner needed to collect these items.
It may seem that you have suddenly found yourself in a museum. But this is a delusive impression. Museum halls generally have rare visitors silently strolling along the masterpieces and viewing them with admiration. Still, there is no point hoping for the pleasure of tranquillity in a company of few people in the Kolmanovskys apartment, albeit it is also packed with various items, masterpieces that is.
It is always crowded with Muscovites, Bakuvians (the owner is from Baku too), as well as the famous characters of that period, otyezzhants,or the emigrants who had moved from the USSR to the States, Israel, Germany, Australia...
It is astonishing to see such a wonderful family surrounded by this infinite flow of people. Savely Abramovich Kolmanovsky is an editor and screenwriter working for television and radio. His wife, Emma Abramovna Levina, is a competent engineer who had long worked for one of the defence ‘mailboxes’ (a popular nickname for classified enterprises and research institutes in the Soviet times). Their daughter, Lenochka, is a successful programmer working in Moscow. Nobody, including herself, could imagine that one day she would work in different US cities, return to Russia, and take part in the foundation of the legendary Yandex… For now, these are the events of the distant future. It is commonly known that we always follow the well-established rules in our relations with different people. That’s why when I call Yelena Savelyevna as Lenochka, I am far from emphasising the hob-a-nob character of our relations. Rather, it’s a stereotype that I have been using for decades.
Anyways... It’s three o’clock in the morning. Savely and I are carefully making our way to the kitchen. Today, I was in the neighbourhood and, knowing that I could visit the Kolmanovskys any time of the day without any advance notice, I peeked through the window and saw that Sava was still awake. But I didn’t know that he had overnight guests. How many of them did he have today? Three? Maybe five?
“Seven. So, we have the living room for you. Rauf and Lala are sleeping there too. Are you hungry?”
If I agreed, he’d definitely offer me something delicious with a shot of a strong greenish beverage. But I’m embarrassed... Instead, I asked Sava a question I had never asked before.
“Listen! Do not get offended, Sava, but for God’s sake, how can you live in such circumstances? It’s so cramped here!” A good question from a person who shows up in the middle of the night, isn’t it? But that’s the way it was. Unexpectedly, Sava replied without hesitation:
“As long as there is a room here (pointing to his chest), it’s not a problem.” Then he handed me a blanket and some sheets that he took from the closet.
His words sounded almost like a toast but not as a witty remark. It was a piece of information to understand the character of this home and Savely Kolmanovsky himself.
Sava once said: “You know, nine years after moving to Moscow, Emma and I counted that we had lived without guests for three years. But there always was someone who’d lived with us during the remaining six.” Well, looks like a simple calculation indeed: six years make 2,191 days. Considering that the Kolmanovskys are seldom visited by lonely souls, we can multiply this number by two. It turns out that a total of 4,500 men and women had lived in this family for 9 years. Wow! It surely makes sense to write down this number in words: four and a half thousand man-days!
So, here is the first and main trait of Savely’s character: his ability to make friends. Not only among the loved ones... He can always be helpful and bring joy. And he uses all these skills gently, invisibly, unobtrusively. He behaves naturally.
Sometimes you meet people that do you a small favour but do it so skilful that you feel almost forever grateful. There is another category of people however, that help you in crucial moments of your life but do it humbly, as if it wasn’t a big deal. Thanks God I have such friends too. And Sava is one of them.
It would be wrong to think that Sava Kolmanovsky was making friends without requesting anything in return. I call it ‘the Borodino bread syndrome’, which worked like this: Sava lived in Moscow, while his mother Fanya Emmanuilovna and elder brother Vitaly or Vika, who had quite a strong influence on Sava (we will talk about him later), lived in Baku. Once Sava asked me to do a small favour for him by taking a loaf of the Borodino bread baked in Moscow to his family in Baku. At that time, Borodino was not available in Baku. But I think for Sava it was important to know how his request was accepted and executed. At the same time, in the rare cases when Sava asked for something, he expected that his request would be treated in the same way he would. But the real life situations were different sometimes.
As I promised, let’s now talk about Vitaly Kolmanovsky or Vika for short, Savely’s elder brother. Alas, he’s not with us anymore... He was an outstanding person too. A polymath, a scientist, and a writer. Everyone loved him. His role in Sava’s life was exceptional. I was in Baku with Sava and Lenochka when we received the sad news about Vika’s death. He used to live in California and deceased in the same way as he lived – in peace and comfort. He just fell down by the metal gate leading to the patio of his house. My son Roman and I were invited to the writers congress in Baku, and the Kolmanovskys flew from Moscow to see us there. A telephone call from San Jose caught us unexpectedly during an evening party with our wonderful friends from Baku, Intigam and Fuad... The legendary poet Fikret Goja, a living classic of the genre and a person of exceptional moral virtues also joined us that evening.
It is hard to imagine news more striking for Sava Kolmanovsky than what he heard then... But he had the strength not to utter a word during the entire party. It was only when we left the party that Sava took me aside and explained the situation. Before that, nobody could see any tears or expression of pain on his face. I still wonder how he’d managed to control himself then...
It’s good that we were in Baku at that time! I think in this city, which Savely loves dearly, it was a little bit easier to bear the heavy loss of the brother...
What about Baku? It’s beautiful as always... This was true back in the days of our youth. This is true now.
Sava doesn’t like pathetic speeches but expresses his love for Baku almost poetically. Once, in the early years after his move to Moscow, I asked him how he lived there. “Well, the life is good,” answered Sava pensively. Then he shook his head and added: “But Baku is Baku and you know that well...”
Fortunately, Savely is able to visit Baku more frequently than before. He loves this land and people, and he is loved here too. The more he visits Baku, the richer his life stories become. I would call this genre as ‘oral poetry sketches’. You can portray the characters of his stories the moment you start listening to Kolmanovsky: a shopkeeper prudently taking out his copper plates to the street in the morning to make them look brighter under the sunshine, or a seller persistently tempting his potential client to buy something from him but changing his mind and inviting him inside for a cup of tea as soon as he realises that the client is tired: “No need to buy anything, just have some rest!” Or a woman baking chorek in an earthen tandoor...
“When I share my stories about Baku with my friends living in Moscow, in St. Petersburg, in Paris, in Venice or in Haifa, the answer is always the same: ‘This is impossible!’ And I have to explain them that if I could invent such stories myself, I would be a great writer and wouldn’t talk to ordinary mortals like you...” says Sava raising his index finger.
I also need to tell you about Sava’s relations with Fikret Goja. Usually, an acquaintance with the works of any great man of the pen takes place way before one can meet him in real life, if lucky. This is not true for Savely, who met Fikret Goja in person during one of his visits to Baku. His conversation with Fikret, as well as the poet’s somewhat paradoxical and unexpected judgements have completely fascinated Savely. Goja’s personality had so impressed him that he read practically all his works translated into Russian. Later Savely had a chance to listen to the poet’s own reading of his poems in Azerbaijani. They still maintain personal communication when Savely is in Baku.
Kolmanovsky always speaks greatly of Fikret. He considers him an outstanding successor of the great traditions of the Oriental poetry, “the Giant, the Thinker, the Classic...” Fikret Goja has almost everything: the love of Azerbaijani people, various awards and positions... Nevertheless, Savely Kolmanovsky’s appraisal deserves a special place in this honorary list of regalia. Indeed, Fikret once told me that he was deeply touched with Sava’s poetic congratulation on his birthday.
Savely writes poetry. He writes simply to make people happy, without attempting to look or sound professional at all. And it works! I have personally seen how enthusiastically the people were reading his poetic congratulations, which are always cheerful, witty, and elegant. By the way, Kolmanovsky can still approach an unknown woman in a cafe and, after getting the permission, read to her some of his adlibbed lines. It is fun to watch how the ladies, unaccustomed to poems and lost in the hype of hard working days, are blossoming after such a treatment... Several years ago, Kolmanovsky published a small book of poems. I am one of the lucky owners of this edition. He has recently published another book in Moscow.
I would like to finish this conversation about Sava simply by quoting his answers to some of my questions. I am glad that I have asked them in writing, for sometimes a person is understood better on paper than during a regular conversation. So, without further ado, please welcome Savely Kolmanovsky.
Tell us about your parents.
My father was from a large poor family. Soon after the establishment of the Soviet power, he enrolled in the class of Rostropovich Sr. at the Baku Conservatoire to study the viola. According to posters that I still keep at home, he began giving concerts when he was a third-year student of the conservatoire. After eight years of dating, he married my mother. Alas, the Soviet authorities have later expelled dad from the conservatoire since he was married to a woman from an upper-class family. The thing is her father was a pharmacist and owned the only drugstore in the area. That’s why he and all his relatives were announced as “foreign elements”.
Dad was one of the enthusiasts who founded the Theatre of Working Youth (TRAM) in 1928 in Baku, later known as the Youth Theatre. He had worked there for more than 40 years as the head of the Music Department and orchestral conductor before retiring because of poor health. To make extra money, he used to teach at music school and was a band member at the Operetta Theatre, Azerbaijan Film Studio, as well as the Jewish and Ukrainian theatres. He also used to copy musical notes for money.
By the way, dad’s passion and organisational skills have later helped his native theatre once again. In 1962, he became the founder and chairman of the housing cooperative of the Youth Theatre, the first one in Baku, which required more effort than the opening of the TRAM. Interestingly, although dad was the boss of the theatrical orchestra, my mother was definitely the ‘first violin’ at home.
Mom was an artist. She was entrusted the design of one of the exhibition stands at the VDNKh’s (Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy) Pavilion of Azerbaijan opened in Moscow in 1939. In the fifties, she was the first artist in Baku who applied the batik technique in silk painting.
But all of this is just a stack of pallid official data. The main thing is that my parents were clever and cheerful people. They had an interesting life and knew how to love and make friends. They were satisfied with what they had and were inured to hardships. As for us, their children... We owe everything to our parents, for they have raised and educated us, did everything they could and even more. I still remember a funny Bakuvian saying of that period: “Who are you ranting about?! Your mom and dad, who wined and dined you, saved your stinky *** from the evacuation and shoved you into the institute?!”
We were not in the evacuation but the rest of the story is true except that we weren’t ranting about our parents.
What are your lessons learnt from life?
To love books and to respect the knowledge;
To love and respect people;
To show respect to elders;
Never to hit a man when he is down;
To appreciate friendship;
To protect honour and dignity;
To make fun of boasters;
To put arrogant persons in place whenever possible;
To appreciate the opinion of another person but to have and defend your own one;
To understand that any opinion that does not match yours is not wrong. It’s simply different;
To keep one’s word;
Not to sacrifice one’s life for the ‘gleaming burning metal’;
To realise that humanity is divided in two halves only by one principle: good people and bad people. All the rest (race, height, nationality, language, colour, education, mentality, etc.) are important but not essential;
To share joy, not grief with the loved ones;
Not to suffer publicly;
To appreciate good humour and witty remarks;
To be ready for self-irony;
To be neither vengeful nor forgetful.
Not to leave a favour unanswered;
Not to be greedy;
To determine the level of one’s abilities, knowledge, mind, and skills in comparison with the highest models;
To be hospitable;
To rejoice in someone else’s success;
To forgive minor mistakes of the loved ones;
Never to do anything strange to local rules;
Not to humiliate anyone;
Not to envy anyone;
Not to follow the crowd;
To protect children and women.
Tell us about your profession
I’m a loafer, really. I’m not that lazy scumbag or cadger either. Rather, a high-level professional in doing nothing. When I had some time (free of idleness), which has usually lasted for sixteen hours instead of a regular eight-hour workday, I studied, practiced sports, worked as a mechanic and engineer, taught at the universities of Baku and Moscow, was a journalist, wrote scripts for the Central Television, worked for television channels Vesti and TNT, edited and published scientific literature. My workbook contains the names of many employers including the Baku Machinery Plant, a trolleybus park, the Akhundov Teachers Institute and the State Economy Institute, the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys, television studios, so on and so forth... Near-literary activities have always been my main source of income. By the way, a message of warning to my hypothetical followers: idleness is a complicated and difficult profession. It requires tremendous efforts but, alas, is not very profitable.
How can you describe yourself briefly?
Homo sapiens, I hope.
What’s your greatest achievement?
My daughter. (Yelena Kolmanovskaya, also known as Lenochka, is one of the founders of Yandex, the founder and sponsor of the literary portal Khoroshiy Text. Thanks to Lenochka, Savely is known with his honorary title ‘the Father of Yandex’ among his friends, AG)
I’ve never had even the small ones. Of course, not everything worked out or came true as planned. But I’m the only person to blame, as I had not thought enough or was lazy sometimes... So, no failures in my case.
What are you dreaming about?
The dreams are usually about something unrealisable but I am a realist and optimist. So, while I am capable physically and mentally, I do not dream, I just hope. In general, I would not like to survive my relatives.
* * *
This is the end of my small questionnaire, which was an attempt to wrap up my humble narrative about one of the great gifts that I and many other people are blessed with.
This blessing has a name: Savely Abramovich Kolmanovsky.