Critical Context

Parts of The Zone were first written when the author was very young. Not publishable in the Soviet Union, Dovlatov’s account of prison life had to wait two decades for its first appearance in English, in the United States. Reviewers tended to be critical of the book for its formal problems, which possibly resulted from misdirected avant-gardism, while admiring it greatly for its unique point of view in the genre of prison literature: that of the guard rather than the prisoner. The Zone has an automatic polemical relationship with the works of Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevski. Dovlatov observes: “Solzhenitsyn describes political prison camps. I—criminal ones. Solzhenitsyn was a prisoner. I—a prison guard. According to Solzhenitsyn, camp is hell. Whereas I think that hell is in us ourselves.” There is further conflict with both Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevski in that Dovlatov is not religious. “More than that,” he avers, “I’m a nonbeliever. And I’m not even superstitious.” One senses animosity toward Solzhenitsyn, despite Dovlatov’s denials of it, but genuine respect for Dostoevski. The possible influence of Dostoevski on Dovlatov may be seen in this work in such characters as Kuptsov and in the “regular Noah’s ark” of prisoners so similar to Dostoevski’s Tartars, Circassians, and Mohammadans in Zapiski iz myortvogo domo (1861-1862; The House of the Dead, 1915). A further parallel between Dovlatov and Dostoevski is the Christmas theatricals that are staged by the prisoners in both The Zone and The House of the Dead. Dovlatov makes a concession to Dostoevski in choosing a religious holiday for his play to be performed, but he speaks irreverently from his own time by casting his zeks in the roles of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Feliks Dzerzhinski, and other Communist heroes.