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Russian emigres draws upon a very distinct Russian tradition of intellectuals in exile. Both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union had many exiles, both inside the empire and outside it. Many of those that left voluntarily early in their lives, including Vladimir Nabokov, Boris Pasternak, and Ayn Rand, reflected the sentiments of those that were later forced into political exile, which include Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn and Sakhalov. Some, like Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn, are considered among the best Russian writers in Russian history and are almost universally read at home. Others, like Rand, are still virtually unheard of outside their adopted countries. The idea of separation from Russia is ingrained in the Russian culture, as Dostoyevsky, Lenin and so many others were at one point in exile. In this work I will primarily address Nabokov's cohort of Russian emigres to Europe and America.
Nabokov was a native of Saint Petersburg, which at the time of his childhood dominated Russian culture as it had been the home of the Czar and represented not only the seat of the Russian government but also its connection to the commerce of the west. Nabokov, like Rand and other emigres who grew up in Piter during the aughts and teens, was a child of privilege who vacationed in the Crimea and in continental Europe; in many respects he was similar to the upper middle class that one finds today in Moscow. Nabokov grew up in a wealthy suburb of St. Petersburg; at that time, small villages like Vyra and Tsarsky Celo had regular rail service to the center of town. He was taught by private tutors and spoke several languages from a very early age. Nabokov's evocative imagination surfaced at an early age, and he later remembered his childhood with clarity as we can see from his autobiographical work, Speak, Memory: "The white one alone, that lanky albino among pencils, kept its original length, or at least did so until I discovered that, far from being a fraud leaving no mark on the page, it was the ideal implement since I could imagine whatever I wished while I scrawled." (Nabokov, 1951)
The circle that Nabokov traveled in was rather small and included the family of Ayn Rand, then Alissa Rosenbaum, who was also a member of an aristocratic Saint Petersburg family that vacationed in Crimea and was friends with Nabokov's sisters. According to Rand's biography, Nabokov's sister was a constitutional monarchist; Nabokov's father later joined the Duma of the provisional government. Although Rand was to become more of a pop-fiction novelist whereas Nabokov received more critical acclaim, her take on the fall of Saint Petersburg to the Bolshevists remains of interest to us in that it captures much of the indignation felt by many of the city's elites who later emigrated. Her novel, "We the Living" reads like a Petrograd-era "Gone with the Wind," opening with a Russian upper-middle class family returning from the Black Sea to find their estate parceled out to ugly peasants. A similar scene can be found in Dr. Zhivago where we see the protagonist return to his beautiful townhouse in central Moscow only to find that he must share it with a barrage of ugly peasants under the nose of the new communist government. However, Nabokov never witnessed the Revolution in Saint Petersburg. Between 1917 and 1919, however, he was witness to the skirmishes between white, red, and Ukrainian armies that battled for control of the region.
This society - that which came of age during the revolution and left Russia upon reaching adulthood, was often fluently bi or tri-lingual and had been raised looking to the west for sophistication. It was of this group that it was said that they would rather speak bad French than good Russian, and most of them took pride in owning imported luxury goods. Nabokov had an English governess from the time he was three years old; in Speak, Memory he notes that his first memories date to the 1903 when he was four. As the Russian aristocracy had always admired the French, it is unsurprising that much of the escaped nobility settled in Paris, although Nabokov eventually settled in Berlin after attending University in Paris and Berlin was considered the home of choice for Russians that had escaped communism. According to Asher Milbauer, when Nabokov wrote Mary, his first book, he "was praised for his remarkable ability to convey the mood of frustration then prevailing among thousands of exiled Russians who were roaming helplessly over Europe with Berlin as their headquarters." (Milbauer, 1985: 28)
By the time he published Mary, Nabokov had already written many poems and had published a book of poems with family money as a teenager at a loss. Mary is an interesting portrayal of Russia's best as having left the country and re-assembled into a chaotic Diaspora of newly-impoverished intellectuals set in a boardinghouse. The protagonist is Lev Glebovich Ganin, a former White Army soldier who loves poetry (as does Nabokov) and plays chess. Lev is bored with his new mistress, Lyudmila Rubanski, and feels stifled by the depressing boarding house he shares with a would-be poet who wishes to emigrate to France, Klara, a clerical worker, and Alfyorov, a mathematician who wishes to be re-united with his wife in Russia and is tormented by two homosexual dancers. The protagonist is beset with apathy having unsuccessfully tried to gain employment; whereas he had thought that any job would satisfy him, he meets with folly after discovering himself to be much to intelligent to commit himself to the daily torment of meaningless employment.
The attitude of the boardinghouse is one of quiet desperation; we are made aware of the idea that most of the Russians are very talented, capable individuals but are in many cases victims of themselves and in almost all respects are limited by the linguistic barrier between themselves and the outside world. One of the jobs that Ganin takes is that of an extra in a film, which takes on symbolic significance in that life is passing these extras by as the main characters are given most of the fame and attention. Ganin comments that they "knew nothing of the picture in which they were taking part" (Nabokov, 1925: 21) and laments the lot of the Russian immigrants as "those innocent exiles, old men and plain girls who were banished far to the rear simply to fill in the background." (Nabokov, 1925: 21)
In this context, Nabokov writes that it is necessary for the intellectual to gain some sort of hope that he may survive these ordeals by retaining his identity. Nabokov introduces here the concept of the 'other' or 'doppelganger,' a symbol that is to become prominent in his works. Ganin recognizes his twin in the crowd of Russian emigrants:
Because of that beard and his starched shirt he had always landed in the front row; in intervals he munched a sandwich and then, after the take, would put on a wretched old coat over his evening dress and return home to a distant part of Berlin, where he worked as a compositor in a printing plant." (Nabokov, 1925:21)
This man not only represents Ganin, but the lot of all anonymous Russian immigrants attempting to survive in European society. His other double that gives him reason for self-reflection is the image of himself on the screen. He is taken aback by how terrible he looks, and introspectively comments on the need to re-establish momentum in a life dominated with nostalgia.
When he returns to his home and speaks with Alfyorov, the latter describes Russia as 'accursed,' which strikes Ganin as no more than curious. Alfyorov's wife, Mary, Ganin discovers to be the Mary of his memory; his first love. This is a theme we see several times in Nabokov's work - in the "Return of Chorb," both the protagonist and a prostitute associate memories with a room that they share in a hotel; we get a sense of the subjectivity of simulacra. Ganin detests Alfyorov, and we get the sense that Mary represents Russia; as Russia is invoked in the recollection of various emigres, it often conflicts with the recollections of others that they encounter. This is an important concept, as it shows how the varying degrees of difference between Russian expatriates fails to reconcile itself with their memories of their .
More than anything, Mary is a story of Ganin's feeling of utter dejection. Chapter three is only two pages long, but offers a full account of the pain and emptiness that Ganin feels. It is poetic but morose, and reveals Nabokov's feeling of being a lonely stranger in '?
' world; the Russian word is appropriate in that it portrays the city that he lives in as being not only 'German' but also from the old Russian meaning 'Not us' or alien.
The duality of his memory of Mary alongside Alfyorov's Mary, or Mary alongside Lyudmilla, is characteristic of Nabokov in that he portrays…[continue]
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