Dov-Ber (Doivber) Levin was born in 1904 in the town of Lyady in the Mogilev Province (in present-day Vitebsk Oblast, bordering on Smolensk Oblast). This town holds a special place in the minds of Jewish natives of the region, because of its connection with the name of Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Hasidic Chabad movement. This historical fact was to have a major impact on Levin's subsequent literary career.
As a child, Doivber attended a cheder. He was a voracious reader, mastering Russian on his own.
Levin received his secondary education at a Russian school. After completing it in 1921, Boris (who had by that time Russified his name) moved to Petrograd and became a student at Petrograd University. A year later, he switched to the Theater Department of the State Institute of the History of the Arts, from which he graduated in 1928.
For two years, from 1926 to 1928, Boris Levin was a member of the OBERIU collective in Leningrad. This was an influential group of writers who openly rejected traditional artistic forms and endorsed the grotesque. Boris was the only prose writer in this group, while all of its other members wrote both prose and poetry. He was the one who signed many of the manifestoes issued by OBERIU, and he served as the group's ideologue. Levin also staged the play Elizaveta Bam by Daniil Kharms. Levin and Kharms were close friends.
In the early 1930s, the USSR began to undergo an ideological shift, and the OBERIU collective ceased to exist.
Levin, along with other ex-members of the group, began to write for children and youths. However, as there already was a writer named Boris Levin in Soviet literature, Levin decided to use his original Jewish name, Doivber, as a pseudonym.
Doivber Levin's book The Ten Train Cars (1931) became his literary magnum opus. It is based on the oral tales of the inmates of the Jewish orphanage in Leningrad. The book's protagonists are two friends, Mikhail Khlopushin and Boris Levin (who are obviously modeled on Kharms and Levin), who, seeking shelter from the rain, find themselves in a house inhabited by Jewish children who became orphaned during the Civil War. They tell the writers about their adventures and misfortunes, and about the Ukrainian pogroms. Such an orphanage did indeed exist in Leningrad, and one of its prominent features was a school, which was attended by both orphans and children who lived with their parents. However, the Jewish school was closed down in 1938, when Jewish education all over the country was liquidated. The school principal, Zinovy Kiselgof, an important scholar of Jewish folklore, was arrested. He was released shortly thereafter, during the so-called "Beria liberalization" that marked the end of the Great Purge and led to the release of some of the political prisoners. However, he died a year after his release.
In 1932, Doivber Levin published two books, The Free States of Slavichi and The Street of Cobblers. In both of them, a Jewish shtetl during the Civil War period serves as the setting for various adventures.
1934 saw the publication of Levin's book Likhovo, which was written for both adults and children. This was the last work in which Levin described his native Jewish town. In the second half of the 1930s, he wrote scripts for Soviet cinema, several of which were filmed.
In 1939-1940, Levin took part in the Soviet-Finnish Winter War.
A year later, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Levin was among the first to volunteer for military service. After completing a three-month combat training course, he was dispatched to the front as the commander of a machine-gun company.
From the memoirs of the author Arkady Mlodik:
"Not having been assigned a specific job, he had to carry out various orders by battalion and regimental commanders. This uncertainly further complicated his life, which was hard enough as it was. To mask our movements, we had to circle around in the forests over distances of 10-15 kilometers. We did not make dugouts, and slept on the snowy ground, which was covered with conifer branches. You can imagine the freezing cold, and yet we had no felt boots or fur coats. The food situation deteriorated. But the worst of it was that we began to exhibit symptoms of the loss of vitality, insensitivity to pain. We often witnessed such scenes: a man is sitting by a smoldering fire; he is still alive; his eyes are open – but his feet have been singed, and yet he feels nothing. I should point out that Boris Mikhailovich remained steadfast and held himself bravely throughout this time."1
Doivber Levin was killed in action on December 17, 1941, near the town Mga railway station in Leningrad Oblast.
We have the following account of Levin's death, by the same Arkady Mlodik:
"Levin ran up to me, rifle at the ready. He was terribly agitated. "How's it going there?" And several other worried questions. He then appeared to be in a hurry, and, calmly and solicitously replacing the hat that had fallen off on my head, he told me firmly and decisively: "Well… I'll be off then!" — "Where to?" — "The tanks have broken through!" — he replied, already running. I followed him with my eyes. He was running across a snowy field toward the railway tracks. They stretched some 300-400 meters away from me. A German tankette emerged out of the forest and slowly began to follow the tracks in the direction of Pogostye, constantly strafing the surrounding area with its machine guns. It would have been easy to silence this tankette with a shell, but our artillery had become bogged down somewhere. And Levin was running toward the armored vehicle. He stopped and fired. He started running again — and fell down. I saw him rise somewhat oddly, fire another shot, and fall. The tankette turned around. The Nazis were apparently waiting to see whether or not he would rise again. And Boris Mikhailovich did rise. He ran forward, staggering, and was able to fire once more… He never rose again".2
Doivber Levin's unpublished manuscripts and archive burned down during the Siege of Leningrad.
Virtually all of his works went out of print in the postwar Soviet period. Only in 2013 did Salamandra, an online publishing house, bring out a collection of Levin's prose titled The Free States of Slavichi. In 2016, the Jewish Knizhniki publishing house reissued his book The Ten Train Cars. In 2021, the publishing section of the Babel bookstore in Tel Aviv printed Doivber Levin's short story "The Flight of Herr Dummkopf."