Audio > Our Building: What Life Was Like > The engineer in the attic
expand/collapse this text box Summary
A tale about an engineer and the furniture he left behind.
expand/collapse this text box Basic Facts and Background
When: February 2, 1998

Where: A communal apartment in the central entryway of a five-story apartment building in the high-status historical center of St. Petersburg. The apartment, home to 18 people, is at the back of the central courtyard (the architectural term is cour d'honneur, a formal three-sided courtyard that is a feature of European palaces and mansions beginning in the seventeenth century).

Who: G. A. Z—, born 1932; the interviewer is Ilya, an anthropologist doing field work in communal apartments.

The informant is bedridden; she is looked after by neighbors and a city aide. During the interview, the aide was in the room, cleaning; she also brought in the meal she had prepared in the kitchen.

The oldest tenant in the apartment, living there since 1932, G. A. Z—, was in active conflict with all the other tenants ("I'm lying in a state of boycott," as she put it). Unlike her memories of the past, which she could relate more or less calmly, everything that in any way touched her relationship with her neighbors today agitated her and made her stutter; it was very difficult for the interviewer to change the subject.

What: The story she tells involves the apartment's original tenant, his servant, and some furniture that he left behind.

Such stories of the distant past are difficult to judge: are the details true or fantastic? Did they unfold as the child perceived them and the elderly woman remembers them? Or was the reality more complex? Given the kinds of things that happened in the Great Purges of 1937, when hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested and sent to camps or executed, some even for utterly trivial "crimes" such as selling a trifle on the black market, the disappearance of the servant is not at all impossible. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine how the engineer remained in the attic, where there wasn't even a toilet, without incurring the annoyance of some neighbor-informant in the apartment below. As someone educated in pre-Soviet Russia, with his entire family abroad, he was in a class of people in particular danger in 1937.

Perhaps most important to consider is the way that this old woman's memory of people from the faraway past lingers in the stories she tells about the kommunalka today. The space, and even objects of furniture, are inhabited and animated by memories of events and people long gone.

Our virtual museum has only one photograph from this apartment ("Partial view of a kitchen") and no video materials.

expand/collapse this text box Translation of the Russian Transcript
GA: This engineer... Well, after 1917 he lived... We had... There's an attic above us. He lived in the attic. He had a bed, a table, a chair, and he had sheets strung up for curtains.

Ilya: So afterwards he lived in the attic?

GA: Yes. His family emigrated, but he stayed here.

Ilya: So after an apartment like that all he had left was that wretched attic?

GA: That's exactly where he was living, right above us he strung up curtains. He had a simple bed, a table, and a chair.

Ilya: And then what happened?

GA: Well, I'll tell you. So he had a servant named Lida, I'm sure of that, she lived here with us. Two rooms over. Lida lived two rooms over. She'd go and sell gold jewelry, she'd sell it. And she'd buy food for her master. But in 1937, in 1937, I was five then, and here I remember everything, I was always underfoot. She used to wear a robe with firebirds on it. A silk robe, and it had firebirds on it. And so she... her... Two men came in, they were tapping on the door, on the fireplace. They wanted to find where she had the gold, so they could take it from here. The security police, it must have been. They took her away, in 1937. And I never saw her again.

Ilya: What about the engineer? Did you ever hear anything more about him?

GA: I did. The engineer was given a room. He lived in our building. But I don't know where. He was so well-educated, I don't know what he was living on, how he managed. In our building. He lived here. He lived here. I don't know in which apartment, I never met him. Very educated. And so he died here. In our building is where he died. I don't know what his name was, I don't know a lot, but his things, these two things and this third one, they belonged to the engineer. This bookcase and the table behind the refrigerator, they are the engineer's. And then we have a cabinet, a cabinet, a cabinet, it's his cabinet. There's a cabinet next to the kitchen, a black one, dark. All sorts of things are kept in it. People think it's some kind of junk, they wanted to throw it into the garbage, but they put it here... it's a unique piece...

Ilya: Were a lot of good things thrown into the garbage?

GA: That I wouldn't know! I'm telling you what I remember, that these things are his things, and that cabinet over there. Then there are some more things, the neighbor took it to her dacha. They took it. They took a standing mirror, they took a bookcase. I think two things. Those S—s have two things at their dacha

Click the image to see a larger version, uncropped and annotated.
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