Sergei Dovlatov

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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 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...

(The entire section is 1,434 words.)