Characters Discussed

Sergei Dovlatov

Sergei Dovlatov (sehr-GAY dov-LAH-tov), the author not only of The Zone but also of a series of letters to its Russian émigré publisher, Igor Yefimov, reprinted at intervals throughout the novel. The letters act in part as a frame story but chiefly as a vehicle for direct comment by the author on the Soviet labor camp “archipelago” in which he served as an army guard from 1963 through 1965. His most important conclusion is that there is no fundamental difference between guards and prisoners (zeks).

Boris Alikhanov

Boris Alikhanov (ah-lih-KHA-nov), a labor camp guard for special punishment cells, the fictional counterpart to Dovlatov. Tough and strong, standing more than six feet tall, he attended college for three years and reads books. He is also part Jewish, but he does not advertise this fact. His friendships with a variety of guards and zeks, representing twenty Soviet nationalities, gradually teach him that even in the vast remoteness of a northern camp, life offers all that one needs to know about human existence. Alikhanov, the hard-drinking guard, suffers as much as do the prisoners. One night, horribly drunk on zek moonshine, he starts a big fight in the barracks and has to be tied up with telephone wire. In the morning, he is escorted (by his best friend) into...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

The Characters

Boris Alikhanov, as a stand-in for Dovlatov, is an interesting figure. His name, for one thing, is strange. It is described as “foreign,” and the character is regarded as foreign by all: zeks (prisoners), guards, officers, and civilian workers. “Even the guard dogs considered him foreign.” The name emphasizes a remarkable existential alienation that the author, perhaps somewhat romantically, assigns to himself. It should be noted, however, that Dovlatov himself, whose surname is only accidentally Russian, is a giant of a man who is half Jewish and half Armenian and is also looked upon as “foreign” wherever he goes in the Soviet Union—a country that counts in its population 130 different nationalities, practically all of which are represented in The Zone.

A random selection of surnames belonging to guards and zeks alike yields the following list: Pakhapil, Balodis, Tkhapsayev, Gafiatulin, Chichashvili, Shakhmametiev, Kemoklidze, Ovsepyan, Dzavashvili, Dastyan, Tskhovsebashvili, Prishchepa, Tvauri, Belota, Agoshin, Galimulin, Mamai, Chaly, Topchil, Beluga, Shumanya, Tsurikov, Agayev, Butirin. This clever mix of names, including Russian ones, dramatizes the role of the camp as a microcosm of the Soviet Union and Alikhanov-Dovlatov as a Soviet rather than only a Russian.

“Alikhanov” is a vaguely Asian or Caucasian name, not necessarily Jewish. Alikhanov is never identified as Jewish, but he clearly speaks for the author in his ironic response to the anti-Semitic remarks of one of the guards: “[Those kikes] are...

(The entire section is 637 words.)