Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081
Of the Soviet writers who emigrated to the United States between the late 1970’s and end of the 1980’s, Sergei Donatovich Dovlatov (DAWV-lah-tawv) probably had the most significant influence on the American reading public. Several of his books have been translated into English, but, even more important, eight of his stories appeared in The New Yorker. His descriptions of life in the Soviet Union were free of vindictiveness, expressing instead a sad humor that is reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852).
Dovlatov was born in the Ural city of Ufa, to which his family had been evacuated at the onset of World War II. His Jewish father, Donat Isaakovich Mechik, was a theater director and drama teacher; his Armenian mother, Nora Sergeevich, had been an actress. After the divorce and remarriage of his mother, the young boy took the name of his Russian stepfather. His family background provided Dovlatov with an early exposure to the arts and with a sense of being simultaneously Russian, Jewish, and Armenian.
Dovlatov finished high school in Leningrad in 1958. After working for a year, he entered Leningrad State University, where he studied philology. In 1960 he married Asia Pekurovskaia, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1962. In that same year he was dismissed from the university for uncooperativeness. He was immediately drafted into the army and assigned, doubtless because of his imposing physical size, to a military unit in Komi, in the far north, guarding strict-regime labor camps for habitual criminals.
In 1963 Dovlatov married Elena Ritman, with whom he had two children. Discharged from the army in 1965, Dovlatov studied journalism at Leningrad University, but he soon withdrew to work full-time as a reporter. He made a name for himself in that field, but his outspokenness and heavy drinking kept him in trouble. He was also active in a circle of young writers and wrote short stories, but these were invariably rejected. The well-known writer Vera Panova admired his work, however, and gave him her support.
In 1972 Dovlatov moved to Tallinn, where he was hired as a reporter by the chief Estonian newspaper. In 1975 an Estonian publisher agreed to publish a collection of his stories. Unfortunately, copies of his manuscripts were found during a police search of a friend’s apartment. With that, publication was blocked and he was fired from his job. Returning to Leningrad, he obtained a temporary position on the staff of the relatively prestigious magazine Koster. Because publishers continued to reject his stories and books, he not only distributed them in samizdat form in the Soviet Union but also published them abroad in such émigré journals as Kontinent and Vremia i my; some were even broadcast back to the Soviet Union by Radio Liberty. After the publication in the United States of The Invisible Book, a collection of ironic and humorous fragments concerning his situation in the Soviet Union but disguised as a novel, Dovlatov was imprisoned for nine days in 1978 and freed only on the condition that he emigrate.
The Dovlatov family left the Soviet Union in August, 1978, and arrived in New York in 1979. They settled in Queens, and Dovlatov immediately found employment writing scripts for Radio Liberty. In 1980 he became the founding editor of a weekly émigré newspaper, Novyi amerikanets (the new American), to which for two years he devoted all his spare time, without remuneration. He was forced to end the publication in 1982, in part because many considered his editorials far too liberal, and in part because of actions taken by those running the largest émigré daily, who feared the competition. In 1983 Dovlatov published a selection of his editorials under the title Marsh odinokikh (the march of the lonely). These writings reveal that the aim of his newspaper had been to try to teach the meaning of democracy to other Russian émigrés.
In 1980 he had published Solo na Undervude (solo on an Underwood), a continuation of The Invisible Book that is even more fragmented and aphoristic. The Compromise appeared a year later. It is a collection of stories offering the true facts behind a number of human-interest sketches that Dovlatov had published as a reporter in Estonia in the 1970’s. The sketches are often hilarious in their treatment of the absurd reality of Soviet life. Because there is a narrator for each story, the collection could be regarded as a novel, especially as it is chronologically arranged. Several of these stories were published in The New Yorker; the entire collection appeared in English in 1983.
One of Dovlatov’s most interesting novels, The Zone, based on his experiences as a labor-camp guard, appeared in Russian in 1982 and in English in 1985. The work represents an opposing view to that presented in the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for it shows that guards and prisoners are equally human and suffer equally on that account.
In 1983 Dovlatov published Ours, a collection of portraits of members of his extended family in the Soviet Union, and Zapovednik (forest preserve), a novella based on his experiences as a guide in a national park in 1977. This was followed by the novella Remeslo (profession), which is about his life as a professional writer, The Suitcase, a collection of stories, and Predstavlenie (performance), a collection of three long stories.
One of Dovlatov’s most important works was published in 1986: A Foreign Woman, a short novel about a young Russian émigré, the daughter of parents occupying privileged positions in the Communist Party. The girl adjusts rather easily to a life of near poverty in Queens and eventually marries a Puerto Rican man—to the consternation of her émigré neighbors. It was Dovlatov’s first novel about émigré life, and it achieved wide recognition for its humor, compassion, and satirical wit. As with all Dovlatov’s writings, it attains remarkable colloquial fidelity, employing a laconic manner reminiscent of Isaac Babel (1894-1940). What is constant in this novel, and in the author’s life and work generally, is a sense of brotherhood, the possibility that human beings (even if political enemies) can learn to like one another at least somewhat. During the time of glasnost, before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, Soviet editors recognized this characteristic in Dovlatov and invited him once again to submit his work in his homeland, guaranteeing publication in advance. In this way Dovlatov became an important agent for reconciliation between the superpowers during a crucial period of transition.
Dovlatov died of a heart attack in Brooklyn in 1990. His collected works were published in Russia in four volumes in 1992.