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 Sergey Dovlatov


Born:   3 September 1941
Deceased:   24 August 1990

Writer

      

Sergey Dovlatov (1941-1990) stands out in Russian literature as a most enigmatic man of letter, his works bordering between documentary evidence and play of fancy, between seeming simplicity and inconceivable magnetism, between risque humour and wisdom. His major audiences reside on two continents divided by the Pacific and the oceans of difference.

‘Unlike my friends, American writers, I’ve got not one, but three audiences. I am in a pole position. If I happen not to get on with my Russian publisher in the USA, I say, ok, perhaps I’ll be luckier with this book in English. If that doesn’t happen either, I’ve got Soviet reader on stand-by. Actually all emigrant writers hope that the Soviet readers will understand and appreciate them. It’s a serious test.’ – Sergey Dovlatov wrote.

He passed this test for certain. His freedom of thinking was like fresh air for many people in Soviet times and afterwards. Many phrases from his books have turned winged. Though he gained fame only after abandoning his homeland, he is beloved and widely read in Russia and other countries till date.

Sergey Donatovich Dovlatov (Mechik) was born on September 3, 1941, in the city of Ufa where his family was evacuated from Leningrad. His father, Donat Issakovich Mechik (1909-1995), was a stage director and his mother, Nora Sergeyvena Dovlatova (1908-1999), was a literature corrector. In 1944 the family got back to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). In 1959 Sergey entered the Philological Faculty (Finnish language department) of Leningrad State University but in two and a half years his studies were cut short by the army draft.

From 1962 to 1965 he served in convoy troops, guarding criminals in Komi Republic. This experience is vividly conveyed in his novel The Zone. Upon demobilization Dovlatov studied at the Faculty of Journalism, worked as a journalist in a factory newspaper (which he also used later in his ironical reminiscences) and started writing stories. At that time he was part of the Leningrad group of writers ‘Gorozhane’ (The Townsfolk) together with V. Maramzin, B. Vakhtinov, etc. He also worked as a secretary of Vera Panova, a well-known writer those days.

From 1972 he lived in Tallinn and worked as a correspondent of The Soviet Estonia newspaper. Then Dovlatov was a tour guide in Pushkin museum reserve Mikhailovskoye located near Pskov. That part of his life served as subject matter for his brilliant Zapovednik (The Reserve).

In 1976 Dovlatov returned to Leningrad, where he worked in the magazine Koster (Bonfire). He also wrote prose, but his numerous attempts to publish stories in Soviet magazines were all in vain. The printed matter of his first book was destroyed by the order of KGB.

From the late 1960s Dovlatov was published in samizdat, and in 1976 some of his stories were issued in the Western journals Continent and Time and We that brought about his expulsion from the Union of Journalists of the USSR. Fleeing from persecutions of authorities Dovlatov immigrated to Vienna in 1978 and then moved to New York, where he issued the daring liberal newspaper The New American. His prose books were published one after another: Nevidimaya Kniga (The Invisible Book, 1978), Noviy Americanets (The New American, 1980-1982), Solo na Undervude (Solo on an Underwood, 1980), Kompromis (The Compromise, 1981), Zona (The Zone, 1982), Zapovednik (The Reserve, 1983), Nashi (Ours: A Russian Family Album, 1983), etc.

 

 

By the mid 1980s he gained success with the public and was published in the prestigious The New Yorker journal.

‘Dear Sergey Dovlatov! I love you too, but you have broken my heart. I was born in this country and fearlessly served it during the war, but I still haven’t managed to sell a single story of mine to New Yorker journal. And now you come, and – bang! – your story is published at once… I expect much from you and your work. You’ve got talent which you are ready to give away to this mad country. We are happy you are here.’ – Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to Dovlatov reads.

Within twelve years of living in the States Dovlatov issued his twelve books, published in the USA and Europe. In the USSR he was known only by samizdat and the author’s program on radio Svoboda (Freedom). Later on his numerous collections of stories were published in Russia, including the Collected Works.

‘I want to live to see the days when our dishonoured fatherland turned into scarecrow of the world, is revived; and these will be the days of rebirth of our long-suffering literature.’ – Sergey Dovlatov wrote in his essay in 1982.

He died of heart failure on 24 August, 1990, in New York and was buried at Mount Hebron cemetery.
 

Vera Ivanova and Mikhail Manykin

 


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