3 September, Sergei Dovlatov, writer, journalist, former LGU’s student, would be 76 years old. At the University, he studied Finish, and after serving in the army he resumed his study and changed the course to journalism.
SPbU’s student in Journalism Anastasiia Fesenko has become the author of a unique research project on Dovlatov’s student years and studied the materials from the SPbU’s archives. We talked with the young researcher shortly before the festival “Day D” and knew why she had focused on Dovlatov’s student years and how the University influenced his works.
Why have you chosen Sergei Dovlatov for you research?
To a certain extent, it was a bit of a fluke: when I was a second-year student, I had to prepare a term paper on the history of journalism, and among the topics to choose from I picked the topic on Dovlatov as the most attracting for me. However, my term paper focused on ‘Journalism of 1970s in the Prose by Dovlatov’. His works, as they are a sort of a blend of bitter, sorrowful humour and ironic way how he saw the world and, primarily, himself, inspired me. Although the way how the-then world is depicted in his works is quite debated, all those events could happen at that time.
From that time on, I wanted to delve deeper into Dovlatov’s life and write about it in my graduation paper. My teachers at the University told me to study his student years, as little is said or written about them. It was rewarding job: it is a pleasure to be among the first to explore something.
The name of Sergei Dovlatov is deeply associated with St Petersburg. Was it the same with the University?
Definitely, St Petersburg can boast many Dovlatov-related places: it is a place where he lived and studied, made progress as a journalist, left for Tallinn to get his book published, and later moved abroad. Much is said and written about his life in Leningrad, Tallinn, and America, less about his student years. And the University influenced him a lot, as it was he who decided to enter the university and later continued his study, although he thought of the alternative ways to get a degree. The student years influenced a lot his future in newspaper journalism.
When and why did he enter LGU?
His student profile was opened on July 28, 1959. He applied to the University to study translation and Finnish language. Initially, he had planned to apply to the course in the Albanian language, nevertheless he changed his mind. However, the course is mentioned in some documents, in particular, the recommendation letters from VLKSM. Interestingly, in the application form, ‘Albanian’ is changed for ‘Finish’, and he attached a reference letter that he had studied to work as a pigment copyist prepared by Lenizdat .
What motivated Dovlatov to enter LGU, I reckon, is that the University was a centre for liberal thinking. Another reason is that his friends had been already studying there and he wanted to join them. It was at the University when he met new people who were his peers in writing and he continued to communicate with them after he was expelled from the Faculty of Philology. His closest friends were a writer Fedor Chirskov, a philologist Igor Smirnov, and a historian Iakov Gordin.
In 1965, after he had been demobilized, he resumed his study and applied to an evening course at the Faculty of Journalism. His application form stated that he had already been working as a journalist in the newspaper.
His student profile ended on May 27, 1968 when he, as a third-year student, was expelled from the Faculty of Journalism. So, he never gained a degree.
In other words, you can hardly tell that he was a bright student?
Generally speaking, not. To tell the truth, he was a truant. You can hardly tell about a truant that he is a bright student. However, he got good marks, and it tells that he had relatively extensive knowledge.
What is more important is that Dovlatov became a legend from the very first day at the University. He was admired even by the professors. He was an ambitious person, intelligent and delicate. At least, I got such an impression when I was preparing my thesis. I came to think that Dovlatov had to constantly fight social conventions, even subconsciously, “not to be just a face in the crowd”. There was something protesting inside him. And he had a dream. A dream to become a writer and to be published in Russia. It was his mission.
What was the role of the University in his life?
The University was a place where he could meet different people in his life: his friends, his first wife. It was a sort of the scenery. He told about the University: “Water and stone create a special, solemn atmosphere here. Here you could hardly be a lazy person, but I could”.
When he was studying at the University, he met Brodsky.
“About Sergei Dovlatov”
We had met in a flat on the fifth floor near the Finlyandsky railway station. The owner had been a student of the Faculty of Philology at LGU, now he was a professor at the same faculty in a town in Germany. The flat was a small one, but there were many alcoholic beverages. It was a winter in 1959 or 1960. Then we besieged the same fortress, with short hair and nice features, near Peski. Due to some peculiar reasons, I had to take off and went to Central Asia. Two months later, when I returned, the fortress turned out to be occupied.
The fortress was Asia Pekurovskaia, a student of the Faculty of Philology. She was Dovlatov’s first wife. In his memoires, he wrote that when they had met on the stairs at the University, Dovlatove had been going to have a test on German, but he had not been prepared. Pekurovskaya helped him, and he got a credit.
As we know, they had rather dramatic and conflict relationships, which could partially accounted for he was dropped out in 1962. In the archive notice to leave the University as a third-year student in Finnish studies, he wrote that “he was financially challenged and had to work”. Presumably, it was just a pretext.
Dovlatov never gained a degree. However, during the years at the University he made friends and was searching for his place in life. Journalism is a sort of a bridge into the world of writing.
Dovlatov was not an excellent student in Russian language and literature at school or University. How did he master his style?
Dovlatov is an example that proves the relative value of any marks. If you have “satisfactory” for Russian, it doesn’t mean that you are illiterate and don't have your own style. Dovlatov edited his texts himself when he worked in the newspaper and as a writer. His colleagues told that he had been particularly attentive to mistakes of any kind, he had been brought up in the family of the editors and proofreaders. Even if he gave his book as a present to someone, he corrected all the mistakes in the published book. His style is a result of hard work and commitment to the dream. At the army, he wrote poems and then sent them to his father to edit. Still he opted for prose and later laughed at the early poems.
He was in journalism before the University
On the influence on his works
He was not interested in study, rather in life
The University and the people who studied there and played truant with Dovlatov were part of the life he was interested in. The University is the place where he collected different stories, legends he used in his stories. Here is one of them:
“It was a lecture of the Professor Makogonenko. Sasha Fomushkin saw that Makogonenko took a tablet. He looked at Professor and said:
— Georgii Panteleimonovich, what happns if they don’t melt? They lie on the bottom of the stomach? A year, two, three, and they get bigger and bigger...
Professor got sick”.
How did the archive data help you?
Working at the University’s archive I could reveal what years Dovlatov spent at the University, as nothing is said in the memoirs. What I like most about the archives is objectiveness.
Archive is silent documents stipulating facts, and you can draw conclusions from the facts.
If you study a person, it is vital to rely on facts. Memoirs are personal and emotional. For example, I haven’t read a book by Asia Pekurovskaia, as it seems to be biased, and there is much contempt, and she wants to make him humiliated. Sometimes it makes you wonder whether what is written is true. In this respect, the books by Lev Lurie are the real pleasure. He is a historian and his approach is neutral. His books with Anna Kovalova is by no means personally biased: you can find recollections of those people who knew Dovlatov.
According to professors, your research is said to be unique. What is so unique about it?
Professors know best. But I don’t want to exaggerate. Still, I like my work. It is unique as it has a unique topic. Not much said or written about it. It is a good luck.
It is unique as I focus on two sides of Dovlatov’s life, which were in the shadow of his literally fame: how he studied and worked in newspapers. Although much is written about “Novy Amerikanets”, less, if any, about “Znamia Progressa”. And these are the texts which make Dovlatav as a writer. Some of the headlines are similar to his names of the stories. One of his publications in the “Znamia Progressa” is divided into several passages: The First Story, The Second Story. I immediately thought of his “compromises”. The plot “How my friend drank for his new coat” is a just a core of almost all his stories.
What produced the most memorable impression about his student’s life from the archive materials?
I was impressed by the story he wrote at the entrance test. It very moving to hold a piece of paper written by him.
The topic itself made me laugh: “Image of the superfluous man in the Russian literature”. A superfluous man is the character of all his stories, as is Dovlatov. And it made him go abroad. A twist of fame.