Review: The Zone – A Prison Camp Guard’s Story by Sergei Dovlatov

“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.”
~Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story

Plot summary

“Written in Sergei Dovlatov’s unique voice and unmatched style, The Zone is a satirical novelization of Dovlatov’s time as a prison guard for the Soviet Army in the early 1960s.

CCCP. Photo: Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0)
CCCP. Photo: Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Snapshots of the prison are juxtaposed with the narrator’s letters to Igor Markovich of Hermitage Press in which he urges Igor to publish the very book we’re reading. As Igor receives portions of the prison camp manuscript, so too does the reader.

Arguably Dovlatov’s most significant work, The Zone illuminates the twisted absurdity of the life of a prison guard: ‘Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.’ Full of Dovlatov’s trademark dark humor and dry wit, The Zone’s narrator is an extension of his author, and the book fittingly begins with the following disclaimer: ‘The names, events, and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential. Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.’ What follows is a complex novel that captures two sides of Dovlatov: the writer and the man.” More on Goodreads

On Sergei Dovlatov

“Sergei Dovlatov was born in Ufa, Bashkiria (U.S.S.R.), in 1941. He dropped out of the University of Leningrad after two years and was drafted into the army, serving as a guard in high-security prison camps. In 1965 he began to work as a journalist, first in Leningrad and then in Tallinn, Estonia. After a period of intense harassment by the authorities, he emigrated to the United States in 1978. He lived in New York until his death in 1990.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Miniature state of a prison camp
  • Soviet satire
  • Absurd snapshots of reality

There is a certain fascination in war stories and prisons. This applies as long as one is distanced from actual wars and prisons. The “romantic” distance makes prison stories nostalgic. And thinking about systems no longer existing makes them even more interesting. The entire concept of the Soviet Union offers readers a unique perspective into a dystopic world – think about Chernobyl and the overgrown empty streets, buildings and abandoned dolls amidst litter. It is like a wet dream of any post-apocalyptic lit fan.

Chernobyl. Photo: Fi Dot (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Chernobyl. Photo: Fi Dot (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Many years ago, I saw a documentary on the renewed wildlife in the Chernobyl area. The setting in the abandoned area follows along post-apocalyptic lines. The humans are gone, the nature has taken over and new species have arrived on the scene. Chernobyl has turned into a zone in a similar world according to the imagination by the Strugatsky brothers in Roadside Picnic.

The melancholic beauty of the thriving wildlife in Chernobyl bears the pressure of a major environmental catastrophe. The animals – wolves, elk, deer, and even bisons – are unaware of the constant radiation. It is a silence after a big storm – on the surface, everything seems peaceful and quiet, but another storm is on the way, in the case of Chernobyl, the invisible radiating forces.

Check out the clip on Madventures, a Finnish travel documentary television series, visiting Chernobyl. Okay, this bit will conclude the ranting about radiation in Chernobyl 🙂 Also, there were reports e.g. by the BBC and Reuters on wild boars taking over evacuated towns in Fukushima in Japan as well, similar to Chernobyl.

You might wonder, what on earth does Dovlatov’s The Zone have to do with post-apocalyptic visions of current reality? Well, the answer is not that simple. On the surface, naturally, there is only a thin link between Chernobyl and Dovlatov’s prison camp. However, it is precisely the “silence” before the storm that makes The Zone so thrilling. The book narrates a realm that was thought to last forever or at least for a very long time but eventually did not.

In terms of prison camps à la Soviet style, also think about The Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov. There are similarities between the stories. In Dovlatov‘s The Zone, the line between an autobiography and fiction is very thin and Dovlatov purposefully does not reveal everything and leaves many things in the realm of imagination. The line between the prison inmates and the guards is rather thin as well.

It has been a few years since I read the book, but I honestly cannot recall whether Dovlatov mentions the whereabouts of the prison camp. So, the whole ordeal took place somewhere in the vast Soviet Union, I do not recall where.

‘Political work ought to be concrete’: this is one of the rousing Soviet mottos recalled in Sergei Dovlatov’s novel, The Zone. Ironically, it is also what is said about good writing, and can one think of a more concrete contemporary writer than Dovlatov?” (Wood 2014)

Chernobyl, Pripyat. Photo: Fi Dot (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Chernobyl, Pripyat. Photo: Fi Dot (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Reading Dovlatov is a joyous, thrilling, usually hilarious experience, in large part because he has such a talent for making stories so concrete: he collects vignettes, loud portraits, bitter jokes, comic tales, absurd episodes, black anecdotes, and then delights in bringing them out of the ether of hearsay or memory and giving them new life in print. He captures, and he frees: his work bursts with this captured, freed life. There is the prisoner Makeyev, in The Zone, who climbs onto the roof of the prison camp to watch the woman he has fallen in love with, a schoolteacher named Isolda Shchukina. He is unable to make out her features or even her age. He knows only that she wears two dresses, a green one and a brown one: ‘Early in the morning, Makeyev would crawl onto the roof of the barracks. After some time, there would be a thunderous announcement: ‘Brown!’ This meant that Isolda had gone out to visit the toilet facilities.’” (Wood 2014)

What I think Dovlatov is trying to say or at least hint at is the absurd nature of humans in strict societies or equally the absurd nature of systems in humans who endured harsh environments. We will never know.

If all this makes The Zone sound like a book of ideas rather than characters—well, yes. There are few if any characters in any identifiable sense; rather, a series of first-person narrators talk us through the chapters, all of them sharing a world-weary cynicism. Names recur from time to time, and the reader soon catches on that the blockhead Fidel mentioned in one section is the same Fidel who is narrating another. Little effort is made to differentiate these characters, though, and they all just blend into a faceless mass.” (Maine 2012)

Top 10 of Best Post WWII Soviet Lit according to Goodreads
  1. Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1940/1966)
  2. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
  3. Strugatsky brothers: Roadside Picnic (1972)
  4. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Cancer Ward (1968)
  5. Vasily Grossman: Life and Fate (1960)
  6. Venedikt Erofeev: Moscow to the End of the Line (1969)
  7. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle (1968)
  8. Strugatsky brothers: Monday Starts On Saturday (1965)
  9. Andrey Kurkov: Death and the Penguin (1996)
  10. Vasily Aksyonov: Generations of Winter (1993)

Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a great classic, so is Roadside Picnic by the grand old science fiction gurus, the Strugatsky brothers. I have never read a single Solzhenitsyn book, but I probably should. He seems to be popular among the readers. I have to get over my hesitation and skepticism.

Chernobyl, Pripyat. Photo: Fi Dot (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Chernobyl, Pripyat. Photo: Fi Dot (CC BY-SA 2.0)

More information
– Daria Aminova: 10 facts about Sergei Dovlatov you probably didn’t know, published in the Russia Beyond the Headlines on 3 September 2016, link retrieved on 7 March 2017
BBC NewsFukushima: Wild boars take over Japan’s evacuated towns, published on 9 March 2017, link retrieved on 10 March 2017 (Reuters and The Atlantic reporting on the news as well)
– Colin Fleming: The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story, published in Barnes & Noble Review on 28 March 2012, link retrieved on 7 March 2017
– Sarah Kaplan & Nick Kirkpatrick: In the eerie emptiness of Chernobyl’s abandoned towns, wildlife is flourishing, published in The Washington Post on 6 October 2015, link retrieved on 9 March 2017
– David Maine: A Window into a Singularly Dreary Past – ‘The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story’, published in PopMatters on 16 July 2012, link retrieved on 7 March 2017
– Roland Oliphant: Chernobyl animals thrive in exclusion zone without humans, published in The Telegraph on 5 October 2015, link retrieved on 9 March 2017
– James Wood: Sergei Dovlatov and the Hearsay of Memory, published in The New Yorker on 7 April 2014, link retrieved on 7 March 2017

“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.”
~Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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