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When Sergei Dovlatov, finally having run afoul of Soviet censors one too many times, was encouraged (i.e. told he was going) to leave the Soviet Union in 1979, he never doubted his destination: New York. Of course, the large Russian community there, which his wife and daughter had settled into a few years previous, played a role in his decision. But so did the presence of an old friend. Joseph Brodsky, an established poet two years his senior who shared a similarly combative relationship with Soviet authorities, had been forced into exile in 1972, and had chosen New York as his final destination.
Brodsky was something of a literary older brother to Dovlatov. The two met in the winter of 1959, when Dovlatov was a student in the faculty of Finnish language at Leningrad State University, and Brodsky, who at various times had worked in morgues, geological expeditions, and naval boiler rooms, was beginning to find a prominent place on the Leningrad literary scene. Only a year later, he would meet his mentor, the famous poetess Anna Akhmatova, who helped him reach fame all over the country. The young student, though, was already impressed: “He pushed Hemingway out of the background and became my literary idol forever.”
Dovlatov’s new idol quickly found his fortunes reversing. In 1963, Brodsky’s poetry was officially denounced, and, on charges of social parasitism and with a diagnosis of sluggish schizophrenia, he was twice placed in mental institutions. Not yet twenty-four, he was put on trial, and, when he replied to one of the People’s Judges, on asking who had made him a poet, “No one. And who put me in the ranks of humanity?”, he was sentenced to five years hard labor in the Arkhangelsk Oblast of northwestern Russia. Meanwhile, his new friend had flunked out of LGU and was subsequently drafted into the Soviet Internal Troops, used a camp guard in between stints as a boxer.