Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Zone

The Zone
Sergei Dovlatov
Soviet prison camp in the Komi republic in the 1960s + his home in New York City in the 1980s

SUMMARY: Dovlatov’s The Zone is a collection of sketches and anecdotes about life in a Soviet prison camp written in the 1960s, combined with reflective (but fictional) letters written from Dovlatov to his publisher in the 1980s. In the letters he addresses everything from the logistics of recovering his stories and the actual publishing of the text to retrospective musings of both his own life and personal journey and life in the camps. Meanwhile, the anecdotes and sketches presented in the book demonstrate the pain and absurdity of life in the gulag which trapped both guards and prisoners alike.

      Through his personal journey, Dovlatov comes to understand fundamental truths about humanity and the gulag. Though he is in a terrible place, he writes that life and human interaction nevertheless continue along the same scale and patterns. The ruthless rise of the bread-cutter to his position is the prison-camp equivalent of a party politician plotting their own rise to power. Any type of person or situation that exists beyond the prison has its own gulag counterpart, and the absurdity of bureaucracy that controlled so much of Soviet life is even more exaggerated in the gulag, a place where bureaucracy held absolute power.

ANALYSIS: The Zone is impactful not only because it holds first-hand views of life in the prison camp, but also because the structure of the narrative invites the audience to join Dovlatov on his journey of self-reflection and retrospective analysis. Many of the most powerful statements come from Dovlatov’s fictionalized letters to the publisher, while the original sketches and accounts serve as examples that illustrate the author’s personal and philosophical musings. The fact that Dovlatov is revisiting his writings about the gulag twenty years after his experience there allows for an unusually clear and self-reflective presentation of ideas. At the same time, the combination of narrative sketch and memoir blurs the line between fact and fiction, and forces the reader to guess which elements are personal experience, true events, or artistic license.

     The fact that Dovlatov is writing as a guard also creates a unique perspective. Although he and his fellow guards were drafted and therefore are almost as trapped as those who were actually incarcerated, Dovlatov’s position gives him a different view of the injustice of the camps than is usually presented in prison literature. Furthermore, the heroes of most prison camp narratives are political prisoners, but those
incarcerated at Dovlatov’s camps were convicted of criminal, not political offenses, thus broadening the scope of other prison narratives. The Zone also differs (quite intentionally) from the writings of Shalamov and other writers because Dovlatov does not want to write about prison, necessarily, but instead about life as a whole. The purpose of the work is not to rail against the abuses and injustices of the prison camps, but is instead to record what these extreme circumstances reveal as the fundamental truths of human life.


“We were very similar to each other and even interchangeable. Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term. I repeat - this is the main aspect of prison life. Everything else is peripheral. All of my stories are written about this.” (49)

“The world in which I found myself was horrifying. In that world, people fought with sharpened rasp files, ate dogs, covered their faces with tattoos and sodomized goats. In that world, people killed for a package of tea… The world was horrible. But life continued. What is more, life’s usual proportions stayed the same. The ratio of good and evil, grief and happiness, remained unchanged.” (14)

 “I say once again that I am interested in life and not in prison, and in people, not monsters. And I absolutely do not want to be known as the modern-day Virgil who leads Dante through Hell (however much I may love Shalamov). It's enough that I worked as a guide on the Pushkin estate.” (163)

“As is well known, the world is imperfect. The foundations of society rest on self-interest, fear and venality. The conflict between dream and reality has persisted through the millennia. Instead of the harmony desired on earth, chaos and disorder reign. What is more, we discover something similar within ourselves. We thirst for perfection, while vulgarity triumphs throughout.” (39)

BIOGRAPHY: Sergei Dovlatov was born in the eastern Russian city of Ufa in 1941. His mother, an actress, and father, a prominent theater director, had been active in the Leningrad arts scene but were evacuated to Ufa during World War II. The Dovlatov family later returned to Leningrad where Sergei enrolled in the Finnish department of Leningrad State University. However, he was forced to abandon his studies when he was drafted into the military in 1962 and served for three years as a guard at a criminal work camp in the Komi Republic (the inspiration for his novel The Zone). He later returned to Leningrad to study journalism and worked as a journalist in Leningrad and Tallinn, in addition to a stint as a tour guide at the State museum-reserve of Alexander Pushkin.

     Dovlatov attempted to publish his work in the Soviet Union but was unable to because he was considered a dissident author. He was published for the first time in 1976 by three American magazines, but was expelled from the union of journalists as a result. After increasing persecution from Soviet authorities, Dovlatov moved to New York in 1978 with his wife and daughter. There he was active in the soviet
ex-pat community, hosting the radio show Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) and co-publishing the liberal newspaper New American. He also published prolifically, writing twelve books in twelve years, and becoming the most popular Russian author of the era, both in the United States, internationally, and even in the Soviet Union where his books began to be published in 1989. He died of congestive heart failure in
1990 when he was only 48 years old.


Cohen, Roger. “Sergei Dovlatov, 48, Soviet Émigré Who Wrote About His Homeland.” New York Times, August 25, 1990.

“Prominent Russians: Sergei Dovlatov.” Russiapedia.

"Sergei Dovlatov.” Russia Info-Centre,

Wood, James. “Sergei Dovlatov and the Hearsay of Memory.” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014.


Galloway, David J. “Sergei Dovlatov’s Zona as Metatextual Memoir.” Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol. 50, 2008, pp. 325-340.
In this article, David Galloway argues that in order to understand The Zone’s place in literary history, readers should approach it as a metatextual memoir. Galloway defines The Zone as metatextual because its subject is fictional writing, it includes a self-conscious narrator throughout, the text exposes its own literary devices and organization, and the text advances its own literary theory, among several other criteria. By analyzing The Zone as a metatextual memoir, the reader is able to see how Dovlatov’s twisting of the narrative form creates a space for his unorthodox approach to prison literature.

Kolesov, Evgeny M., Liliya Nasrutdinova and Nadezhda Grishina. “New Autobiography  Phenomenon in S. Dovlatov’s Novel The Zone.” The Journal of Social Sciences Research, special issue vol. 1, 2018, pp. 117-120.
This article explores Dovlatov’s authorial relationship to The Zone. He initially distances himself from the main character (who is really himself) through both third-person narration and a different name, but the experiences of the author and the maincharacter become more and more connected as the novel progresses. This is demonstrated both by the transition to first person narration in the sketches (as opposed to third person narration of Boris Alikhanov) and the way that the letters explicitly echo the experiences of the characters in the sketches.

Young, Jekaterina. “The Zone” from Sergei Dovlatov and his Narrative Masks. Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 2009.
In this chapter of her book about Sergei Dovlatov and his works, Young discusses the “narrative masks” employed by Dovlatov in this work of fiction/memoir. Among the tactics analyzed are Dovlatov’s mixture of first and third person, especially when using the character Boris Alikhanov as a stand-in for the author. Dovlatov’s matter-of-fact tone and use of humor to underplay (and therefore make even more shocking) the horrors of the prison camp is also an important strategy of The Zone

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