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By John Helmer, Moscow

This week, desperate for attention in New York’s overstocked literary market, a biographer of Vladimir Nabokov’s wife and of the witches of Salem, has reported the one-hundred year anniversary of the departure of the Nabokov family from Crimea in April 1919. “Amid frantic, last-minute negotiations, under a spray of machine-gun fire, Vladimir Nabokov fled Russia 100 years ago this week,” reported Stacy Schiff for the New York Times.   “His family had sought refuge from the Bolsheviks in the Crimean peninsula; those forces now made a vicious descent from the north.”

Schiff and her newspaper make a foot fault on that line. “At the time of the evacuation he [Vladimir] had spent 16 quiet months in the Crimea, the last speck of Russia in White hands. Already the Bolsheviks had murdered any number of harmless people.”

If Crimea was Russia then, if only a “speck” and no matter how “vicious” the Bolsheviks from the “north” turned out to be, how on earth could Crimea be otherwise now?

There is no doubt that Vladimir Nabokov considered Crimea to be Russian after the peninsula was transferred to Ukrainian administration in February 1954.  There is also no doubt that Nabokov, like Russians before and after him, selected Montreux, Switzerland, as his home in evocation of the Yalta of his early life (and as a tax haven for his later life).  

Nabokov not only mentions Crimea in ten pages of the “Speak, Memory” edition of his memoirs; he wrote his father sent the family on ahead of him to Crimea and then arrived himself on run from St. Petersburg with a knapsack full of caviar sandwiches cut and packed by his valet. He also created a composite out of the Crimean towns he had known in his 1936 story “Spring in Fialta”, where, later Russian literary detectives claim,  one of the doomed lovers represents Russia when she is fatally struck by a speeding  circus truck. According to the detectives, with the Romanov tsar restored to his throne “in Nabokov’s imaginary Russia, Crimea is the ideal place for the capital.”

This isn’t the stuff which Schiff, her newspaper, or the Gessen family oligopoly of New York Russian memoirs would tolerate if they had their wits about them.

Schiff’s centennial celebration misses Nabokov’s vindictive streak, and the blind obtuseness it gave his public views.  In the pages of his fiction, Nabokov could torment a blind man with the noise of the sexual infidelities of his wife; in the fiction market he tried to do the same to those he judged to be his literary rivals. Boris Pasternak, for instance.

Nabokov thought Pasternak a poseur and his “Dr Zhivago” novel a mediocrity, exactly as did the Soviet writers of the time, though Nabokov in Montreux did not admit peers in Moscow in that assessment. Schiff tries not to find Nabokov’s fault in this: “The Nabokovs knew a Soviet plot when they saw one: They were convinced the Communists had pretended to smuggle Pasternak’s novel out of the Soviet Union. Its American publication amounted to a cunning act of currency conversion. Nabokov forbade his publisher from mentioning him and Pasternak in the same breath. It was as if the Cold War played out weekly in America’s bookstores.  Edmund Wilson wrote off Nabokov’s denunciations as sour grapes. ‘He wants to be the only Russian writer in existence,’ he sniffed. A hint of envy would have been in order: ‘Zhivago’  strode past ‘Lolita’ on the best-seller list. That fall Pasternak won the Nobel Prize.”


Nicolas Nabokov (left) with Vladimir Nabokov (right). For the role of Nicolas Nabokov played in recruiting cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in Berlin in 1964, read this

Schiff avoids reporting the documentary proof that the Zhivago publication and Nobel Prize were CIA plots; for details, read this.  Schiff also avoids mentioning that Nabokov’s cousin Nicolas was one of the CIA’s agents running these propaganda operations at the time.  Vladimir Nabokov’s sour grapes were also a calculated lie for American readers.

Note: the lead picture is of Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera being interviewed by a reporter for French radio in Paris on October 24, 1959. The champagne was not from Crimea. Vladimir died in 1977; Vera in 1991.   

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