In February 1917 riots had delivered a revolution. The czar abdicated, replaced by a liberal government, swept into power on a tide of popular support. Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, played a prominent role in that administration. Months afterward Lenin returned from exile, disembarking at St. Petersburg’s Finland Station. Within the year, what had begun as an idealistic, progressive uprising would end — like Iran’s, like Egypt’s — in totalitarianism. With Lenin arrived another 20th-century staple: a one-party system in which hacks and henchmen replaced the competent and qualified.
The terror began immediately. On seizing power the Bolsheviks made their first victims the intellectuals who had preceded them. In a scene that sounds to have been lifted from one of his son’s future novels, Nabokov’s father managed a narrow escape; he turned out to have been high on the Bolshevik list of deputies to be shot. From Russian shores that year began one of the great exoduses that would mark the century. Nabokov was never to mourn the immense wealth from which he had been separated, only the lost, liberal chapter of Russian history, obliterated by Soviet propaganda.
The family made their way across Europe to England. Nabokov had on his side the gift of privilege: As he liked to put it, he had been raised “a perfectly normal trilingual child.” At the same time, he had fled without the documents required for university admission. He would matriculate at Cambridge thanks to a borrowed (and no doubt opaque; it was in Cyrillic) transcript. On graduation he joined his family — and the greater part of the Russian emigration — in Berlin. There Nabokov met Vera Slonim, his future wife, who had made a harrowing St. Petersburg escape of her own, compounded by the fact that she was Jewish. In 1919 even Russian liberals were infected with anti-Semitism, the Jews having been credited — in their customary role amid populist unrest — with having turned the country upside-down. Slonim had traveled through Ukraine at a time of widespread pogroms. Also in Berlin, Nabokov would lose his father, assassinated at a political meeting by a right-wing fanatic. (The meeting topic was “America and the Restoration of Russia.”)
In the 1920s Berlin absorbed a Russian community so large that the city supported not only Russian grocers but Russian pawnshops, soccer teams and orchestras. Eighty-six Russian publishers set up shop there. To some it seemed the émigrés had taken over the town. There was no need to venture beyond the expatriate community, and Nabokov did not: He never learned more than a few words of German. (Fortunately Vera had led a perfectly normal quadrilingual childhood.) Theirs seemed in any event a provisional existence. Married in 1925, the couple expected to return as soon as the Bolsheviks fell; into the early 1930s, they still faced impatiently east.
In the meantime Nabokov wrote and wrote, in a void. [Continue reading…]