A guard’s perspective: Dovlatov’s Zona

After a slightly longer blogging ‘vacation’ than I had intended, I used some of the Christmas break to catch up on the posts I missed. Like many others, I particularly enjoyed the Gulag Boss discussion. It motivated me to start re-reading one of the few other texts I know written from the perspective of a camp worker, rather than a prisoner: Sergei Dovlatov’s wonderful The Zone.

Dovlatov’s work relates to his time he served as prison camp guard as part of his military service in the early 1960s. It masterfully integrates extracts from his (allegedly) incomplete manuscript full of rich anecdotes from camp life, and correspondence with his editor about how such material should be treated.  As one such letter explains, Dovlatov’s life-story had been unremarkable one until he was thrust into the brutal world of the Gulag. He writes with his usual wry humour: ‘I had normal, ordinary abilities, a commonplace appearance that had a slight, phony Neopolitan shading, and commonplace expectations. All signs pointed to a typical Soviet biography. I belonged to an amiable national minority, was blessed with excellent health. From childhood on, I had had no morbid preoccupations.’

In the ‘zone’ he was to guard, however, he saw the ‘truth’:

‘For the first time, I understood what freedom is, and cruelty and violence […] 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.’ 1  

For Dovlatov, whether a person ended up as prison guard or prison inmate was largely arbitrary: ‘Love stories often end with prison. I just got my doors mixed up, and instead of ending up in the prisoners’ barracks, I landed in the army ones.’ As Mochulsky does in Gulag Boss, Dovlatov thus reminds us that many of those working in the camp had not volunteered for this role; for those, like Dovlatov, who were there as part of their military service this is particularly true.2 But his position is of course ultimately very different from Mochulsky’s. Unlike Mochulsky, he sees no ideological purpose to the camps, no meaningful distinction between guards and prisoners: instead, all he sees is ‘cruelty as senseless as poetry, violence as common as dampness.’ Perhaps most shocking for the reader familiar with memoirs from Stalin’s victims is that this violence is committed by inmates as often as by guards, and Dovlatov frequently fears for his life. 

Dovlatov does not condemn the prisoners; indeed, what their violence reveals to Dovlatov is the hopeless, dystopian nature of the world in which they all lived. Before he recieved a posting, an official in the regional war office had sought to persuade him against guard service: ‘Listen, young man, I am telling you as I would a friend – guard duty is hell!’ Dovlatov provides his own riposte, but  allows the official to instantly deflate it: ‘Then I answered that hell was we ourselves. Only we didn’t notice it. “And in my opinion,” the commissar said, “you’re trying to be a little too clever.”‘ 3

  1. Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story, transl. Anne Frydman (New York, 1985), p. 13
  2. Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky, Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir, trans. and ed. Deborah Kaple (New York, 2011)
  3. Dovlatov, The Zone, p. 124
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