Sergei Dovlatov

There’s a classic storyline that goes like this: a poor boy peeks through a chink in a wall on a nobleman’s estate. He sees the nobleman’s little boy riding a pony. From that moment on, his life is given over to one end—to get rich. He can no longer return to his former life. His existence is poisoned by having been initiated into a mystery.

I, too, looked through a chink. Only what I saw as not riches, but the truth.

I was shaken by the depth and variety of life. I saw how low a man could fall, and how high he was able to rise.

For the first time, I understood what freedom is, and cruelty and violence. I saw freedom behind bars, cruelty as senseless as poetry, violence as common as dampness.

I saw a man who had been completely reduced to an animal state. I saw what he could be gladdened by. And it seemed to me that my eyes opened.

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.

In that world, I saw men with a gruesome past, a repulsive present, and a tragic future.

I was friends with a man who had once upon a time pickled his wife and children in a barrel.

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.

The life had in it whatever you could name. Diligence, dignity, love, depravity, patriotism, wealth, poverty. These were lumpenproletariat and rich profiteers, careerists and profligates, conformists and rebels, functionaries and dissidents.

But the content of these concepts was radically changed. The usual hierarchy of values had been demolished. What had once seemed important receded into the background. Trivialities blocked the horizon.

A new scale of values for “the good things in life” arose. On this scale, people especially valued food, warmth, the chance to avoid work. The commonplace became precious. The precious—unreal.

A postcard from home precipitated an emotional upheaval. A bumblebee flying into the prisoners’ barracks could cause a sensation. A squabble with a guard was experienced as an intellectual triumph.

In maximum security I knew a man, a long-term recidivist, who dreamt of becoming a bread-cutter. This job carried with it enormous advantages. Once he got it, a zek could be likened to a Rothschild. The heels of bread were comparable to diamond deposits.

Fantastic efforts were required to land such a position. You had consciously to sell out, lie, climb over corpses. You had to bribe, blackmail, and use extortion—fight to win at all costs.

This kind of effort in the outside world would have opened the way to the sinecures of the Party, economic and bureaucratic leadership. The highest levels of government power are reached by the same means.

Once he became a bread-cuttter, the zek fell apart psychologically. The struggle for power had exhausted his inner strength. he was a gloomy, suspicious, lonely man. He reminded me of a Party boss, tortured by oppressive complexes.

One episode comes to mind. Some prisoners were digging a trench outside of Yosser. Among them was a burglar named Yenin.

It was getting on towards lunchtime. Yenin shovelled once last clod, reduced it to fine sand, then leant over the pile of dirt.

He was surrounded by zeks who had fallen silent.

He lifted a tiny thing out of the dirt and rubbed it on his sleeve for a long time. It was a shard of a cup, the size of a three-copek piece. It still had on it the fragment of a design—a girl in a blue dress. The only thing left intact was her little shoulder and blue sleeve.

You could see tears in the zek’s eyes. He pressed the glass to his lips and said quietly, “Seance!”

In prison-camp jargon, “seance” signified any experience of an erotic nature, and even beyond that, any instance of positive sensual emotion. A woman in the zone was “seance.” A pornographic photograph—“seance.” But a piece of fish in the slops was “seance,” too.

“Seance!” Yenin said.

And the zeks who surrounded him confirmed in unison, “Seance!”

The world in which I found myself was horrible. Nevertheless, I smiled no less frequently than I do now, and was not sad more often.

When there is time, I’ll tell you about all this in more detail.

The Zone, by Sergei Dovlatov (1982)
translation by Anne Frydman
New in the Counterpoint Press series of the works of Sergei Dovlatov

Read Barry Yourgrau on Dovlatov, The Paris Review Daily, January 2012


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