Sergei Dovlatov Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Sergei Dovlatov was born to Donat Mechik, a theater director, and Nora Dovlatov, a proofreader. He attended the University of Leningrad for two years, dropped out, and was ultimately drafted into the Soviet army, where he served as a guard for high-security prison camps. This latter experience was the basis for Zona: Zapiski nadziratelia (1982; The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story, 1985), which purports to be the written documents of an inmate that have been smuggled out to the Western world. In 1963, Dovlatov married Elena Ritman, a union that produced two children, Katherine and Nicholas.

Dovlatov began to work as a journalist in 1965, initially in Leningrad, then in Tallinn, Estonia. During this period and until 1978, he was the subject of intense governmental harassment. Despite his position as a respected journalist, he was unable to obtain publication for his fictional works via official means. Undaunted, he began to publish in unauthorized and underground sources, including the Russian-language edition of Kontinent. He also involved himself in smuggling his manuscripts to the West because of his disappointment with the official censor. The authorities’ harassment of him culminated in a dismissal from the journalists’ union, an arrest, and finally a release, prompted by Western pressure and publicity. Dovlatov immigrated to the United States in 1979.

His first published work in the United States (and in English translation) was Nevidimaia kniga (1977-1978; The Invisible Book: Epilogue, 1979), a recounting of his journalistic struggles and attempts at publishing his fictive work. This recounting, however, is not a straightforward narration but rather an opportunity for the author to hold forth on topics that interest him—including his opinions on publishing, censorship, and the tribulations of a thwarted writer. Dovlatov followed The Invisible Book with several more “novels,” including The Compromise in 1981; The Zone, appearing in Russian in 1982 but published in English translation in 1985; and Ours: A Russian Family Album (also known as Nashi, or “the clan,” in some sources) in 1983.

Dovlatov died on August 24, 1990. The translation of his novel Chemodan had appeared earlier the same year and is entitled The Suitcase, an apt symbol for his traveling spirit and his artistic life.