The Soviet School: The Education of Sergei Dovlatov

Growing up in the small corner allocated to him by his Soviet overlords, the writer Sergei Dovlatov was schooled in the economy of space. His prose was sparse and short, as if he feared it would take up too much of the five square meters which some Slavic mathematician had declared to be all a Soviet citizen would need. How did anyone ever write an epic? Boris Pasternak managed it, but then he had come of age in a Russia whose Tsar, presumably, had allowed a few extra metres to go around.

Dolvatov, by contrast, was born two days after the Germans bombed Leningrad in 1941. Pasternak could think back to a pastoral childhood of wide open fields. Dovlatov knew only his five square metres, which he carried with him from Ufa to Leningrad to, eventually, a neighborhood in Queens.

“If Hemingway is to be believed,” wrote Dovlatov. “Poverty is an invaluable school for a writer.”[1] Soviet Russia itself was equally valuable, at least for Dovlatov, who took from it everything he needed to know. His work is often advertised as fiction even though he was rabidly autobiographical, a conceit which the censors might have forgiven if not for his tone. He had a talent for satire and it did him in. Put another way: the Soviets couldn’t take a joke.

Rather than extol the virtues of the new Russia, Dovlatov wrote pleasant comedies that played out against a backdrop of poverty and not-so-quiet desperation. In one story, he is involved in the smuggling of crêpe socks only to find the Soviets have started producing cheaper ones themselves. “Who would have expected such a low blow like this from a socialist economy?” asks Rymer the smuggler.[2]

Elsewhere, Dovlatov writes of the Russian penchant for theft. “They swipe everything,” he tells us. “Tiles, gypsum, polyethylene, electric motors, bolts, screws, radio tubes, thread, glass…I’m talking about completely mysterious thefts without any rational goal. That can happen only in the Russian state.”[3]

Dovlatov dropped out of the University of Leningrad and joined the army, which was bad luck for the army but good fortune for us. In 1982, he published The Zone, his memoir about his time as a prison camp guard. Here is a view from the gulag you won’t find on a Soviet travel brochure. The wry inmates endure the same trials as the average hero of a Shakespearien farce. They want money, respect, love. The soldiers are no different. Indeed, it’s easy to confuse the prisoners and the guards and even Dovlatov isn’t sure which he is, a fact which becomes palpable when some convicts tie him up, to his everlasting shame.

You’ll find The Zone in the non-fiction section, but this is merely a publisher’s distinction. There’s a story of an inmate who falls in love with the schoolteacher he sees beyond the prison walls. This can’t be checked for accuracy any more than the tale of the crêpe socks. He says his mother was “an average actress, then a proofreader, and finally a pensioner.” He reports his father was asthmatic, neurotic, and had talents that “elicited even his parent’s doubts.”[4] What is true and what is the exaggeration? Dovlatov doesn’t want us to know. He’s been dead for years and I’m reading his work in translation; despite these obstacles, I can still see the amused twinkle in his eye.


 Dovlatov’s simple sentences create the illusion that they were the first thoughts to spring from the authors head. In fact, Dovlatov was a tireless craftsman. “Precision and brevity are the two foremost merits of prose,” he once said[5]. He was more concerned with the verb than the adjective and still somehow created characters who are memorably described; in Pushkin Hills, a character’s sole description is that she’s “a retired soldier’s dream”.[6] He also had a fascination with the ellipse, ending a remark with three little dots before shifting topics. It always suggests that both the narrator and his characters are trailing off into thought. Perhaps they are censoring themselves as they think of other things. As anyone in a dictatorship knows, there’s always more to a story than can safely be said.

Dovlatov was well known for treating alliteration like a curse: in the original Russian, no two words in a sentence ever start with the same letter. I’m not sure this would be possible in English; certainly, I haven’t found any translators who have tried. This alone seems to prove what Dovlatov’s hero tells his wife in Pushkin Hills.: “In a foreign tongue we lose eighty percent of our personality.” [7] His correspondence with his translators reveals other tidbits, like the fact that he repurposed phrases from Soviet dogma for comedic effect. In one letter, he explains to his translator that “cadre” is a bureaucratic name for a blue-collar worker, but that it was also slang for a nice girl[8]. He is obsessed with Russian culture. Much as Shakespeare drops allusions to Greco-Roman myth, Dovlatov peppers his text with plenty of references to Russian philosophers, poets, and saints. Shakespeare’s allusions are metaphors for his characters but Dovlatov is not so direct:


“In the southern chapel I saw the famous drawing by Bruni. Also in there glared Pushkin’s white death mask. Two enormous paintings reproduced the secret removal and funeral. Alexander Turgenev looked like a matron. A group of tourists entered. I went to the exit.” [9]


Here we have four cultural allusions which are never explained – Bruni, Pushkin’s death mask, Turgenev’s funeral, Turgenev himself. The most descriptive Dovlatov allows is the remark that Turgenev looks like a matron. He didn’t dare do more. In a world where the government controlled culture, having an opinion could be fatal. The tourists enter and it is safer to move on to other things.  

In a letter to fellow writer Liudmila Shtern, Dovlatov remarked that he wrote “very carefully and with great effort and in this last year under great pressure, because I have decided to break my style.”[10] One only needs a cursory look at Russian history to understand what that great pressure might have been. Stalin called the writer the engineer of the human soul, which might be a laudable sentiment if it hadn’t been spoken by an engineer of human suffering. Stalin believed state-controlled art could be the pathway to socialism. “The production of souls,” he said in 1932, “is more important than the production of tanks.”[11] By the mid 1920s, it was illegal to both publish privately and import foreign publications. Homes were searched, libraries confiscated. Generally speaking, anything written before 1917 didn’t exist.

The penalty for being the creator of illegal culture was everything from exile to execution. Despite the risk, Dovlatov became involved with the Gorozhane, a group of dissident writers who helped to illegally distribute the Samizdat, a folio of their forbidden work. This became Russia’s secret literature, smuggled from one dacha to the next until it found its way to the rest of the world. In Leningrad, where Dovlatov lived, the Samizdat was especially prevalent. “The local bosses were often more zealous in their conservatism than the central ones in Moscow,” writes Vyacheslav Donlinin. “These circumstances determined the origin and development of Leningrad’s Samizdat as a separate and independent cultural phenomenon.” [12]  

Dovlatov and the rest of the Gorozhane were revolutionaries who wielded typewriters instead of guns. Boris Pasternak succeeded better than most when he won the Nobel prize for Doctor Zhivago. The novel, which was critical of the Soviet version of history, couldn’t sneak its way past the Russian censors and Pasternak eventually gave it to an Italian publisher who spirited it into history. Upon its release, thanks in part to the efforts of the C.I.A, the book became an instant bestseller. In Russia, no one could read Pasternak; they were told they should hate him just the same.

Sixteen at the time of Doctor Zhivago’s release, Dovlatov would have been all too aware of the spectacle that ensued. The Soviets worked to destroy Pasternak’s reputation, eventually forcing him to renounce the Nobel in a speech which nobody believed. Dovlatov might have even known that Pasternak’s final draft of Doctor Zhivago was 433 closely typed pages wrapped in soft paper and twine.[13] A suitcase had been needed to smuggle it out of Russia. Perhaps this accounts for Dovlatov’s legendary brevity. A complete Dovlatov story could escape the country sewn into the lining of someone’s coat; when constructing his work, this may have always been his intent.


 “To my wife, who was right,” reads the dedication page of Pushkin Hills. Right about what? And which wife? Dovlatov had two but I suspect that Pushkin Hills is dedicated to the second. Yelena - Lena in his stories - overshadows his work. She is the object of his desire, his eternal critic, and the ghost that haunts him. Divorced in 1971, she preceded him to New York along with their daughter. Dovlatov followed in 1978 after becoming far too popular with the KGB. One of his friends had been arrested and the Soviets discovered Dovlatov’s stories in the man’s things. The work was destroyed. After ten days in prison, Dovlatov was invited to apply for an exit visa.  

Here’s how Dovlatov recounts the scene in his story The Colonel Says I Love You:

The KGB colonel at the office of immigration told me, politely and amiably, “You ought to think about emigration. Your wife has left. You should have thought about leaving long ago.”

            Just to be contrary, I said, “My wife and I are divorced. I thought when she left our marriage was all over.”

            “A divorce would be a mistake. We would like to see your family reunited.”[14]


Pasternak was given the same choice as Dovlatov, but he was stubborn and died at home. Dovlatov, on the other hand, came over with thousands of others and settled in Queens. “We have Russian stores, day-care centers, photography studios, and barber shops,” he wrote in A Foreign Woman. “There is a Russian travel agency. There are Russian lawyers, writers, doctors, and real estate agents. There are Russian gangsters, madmen, and prostitutes. There’s even a Russian blind musician.” [15]

Dovlatov’s last decade was one of fierce work. “He lived an immigrant’s life,” said Daniel Genis, “and worked hard for his bread. And then he ate too much of it, drank too much, smoked too much.”[16] He edited a paper for Russian émigrés and saw much of his work published in translation. He was published several times in the New Yorker, an accomplishment that earned the comic jealousy of Kurt Vonnegut; Vonnegut once sent Dovlatov a note to say the Russian had broken his heart. Safe in America, he could have written a long novel of Pasternakian length, but his novels stayed short and were usually split into even shorter stories. Did he suspect he didn’t have time for a longer work? Born into historical times, Dovlatov’s growth had mirrored that of the Soviet Union. By the time he came to New York, both he and the Soviet Union were grey around the ears. They died a year apart.


The Soviet Union is gone but Dovlatov remains, both because of his work and the efforts of the family the KGB wanted him to see. In 2013, they spearheaded a petition to have a street named after him. collecting over 18 000 signatures from around the world. A year later, the city accepted the proposal and Mayor Bill di Blasio signed legislation that honored sixty-three individuals, including Dolvatov, the comedian George Carlin and an EMT who died on 9/11.

Ever since, the corner of 63rd and 108th in Forest Hills, Queens has been known as Sergei Dovlatov Way. One imagines Dovlatov would have approved, though not because of his ego. After all, New York street signs are fairly small - just the right size to fit into those five square metres the writer lived in his entire life. ■

[1]   Dovlatov, Sergei. The Suitcase. Counterpoint, CA. 1990. Antonina W. Bouis, trans.  pp 73.

[2]   Ibid. pp 20.

[3]  Ibid. pp 23.

[4]  Ibid. pp 69.

[5]  Quoted in Young. Jekaterina. Sergei Dovlatov and his Narrative Masks. Northwestern University Press,

IL. 2009.  pp. 126.

[6]   Dovlatov, Sergei. Pushkin Hills. Translated by Katharine Dovlatov. Counterpoint, CA. 2013.

[7]  Ibid, pp 147.

[8]   Young, pp 49.

[9]   Puskin Hills, pp 38.

[10]  Quoted in Young, pp 30.

[11]  Stalin said this in a speech at the home of Maxim Gorky in October, 1932.

[12]  Donlinin, Vyacheslav È and ,Dmitry Ya. Severyukhin. “Samizdat: The Literary Self-Publishing Movement in Leningrad. 1950s – 1980s” in Enthymema, Volume XII, 2015.  pp 167.

[13]  Finn, Peter and Petra Couvée. The Zhivago Affair. Random House, New York. 2014. pp 12.

[14]  Dovlatov, Sergei. “The Colonel Says I Love You.” in The New Yorker. May 5 1986. Trans. Anne


[15]  Dovlatov, Sergei. A Foreign Woman. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. Grove Press, 1991. pp 3 – 4.

[16] Genis, Daniel. “Dovlatov’s Way” in The Paris Review. September 4, 2014.  Retrieved on July 22, 2016.