From The Economist print edition
IMAGINARY conversations with dead people are risky materials for a book, as are authorial comparisons with geniuses. So Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and herself an émigré Russian intellectual, is doubly ambitious in her slim volume of autobiographical literary and political reflections on Vladimir Nabokov, believed by many to be the greatest Russian writer of the last century.
She is ambitious too in her panoramic and sometimes dizzying sweeps through two centuries of Russian culture and politics. The reader who opens the book and finds references (on a random two pages) to Tertz, Pushkin, the Mnemosyne, Koncheyev, Godunov-Cherdyntsev, Brodsky and the “bamboo bridge” between poetry and prose could be forgiven for feeling intimidated. If he happens then on the sentence, “I saw myself in many ways walking in Nabokov’s footsteps,” he might even sense a whiff of impudence.
But Ms Khrushcheva’s approach is both accessible and modest. A self-deprecating tone saves her from pretentiousness. And from her opening contention, that “Nabokov’s journey from obscure Russian émigré writer to the author of American and world literary classics is essential for understanding Russia’s past, its present and its future”, she wears her learning lightly. If you are not quite sure at the beginning of the book who Pushkin was and why he matters, you will know enough by the end to appreciate her finely drawn comparisons and contrasts between these two towering literary figures, and feel only mildly miffed by the publisher’s sloppy omission of an index, or any pictures of the places she so eloquently describes.
Ms Khrushcheva’s central point is that Nabokov bridges the gap between tsarist Russia (mystical, feudal and isolated) and the West far better than either the forced modernisation of communism, the chaotic shock capitalism of the 1990s or the authoritarian self-confidence of the Putin era. Nabokov, she says, presents the future of Russia for this century: a place that balances both the “indifference of democracy” and “heroes of kindness” such as perhaps his greatest character, Timofei Pnin (an émigré academic who is both besotted with America and at sea in it).
That reflects the two great dilemmas in Russian intellectual life: reconciling the horrors of the past with the potential of the present, and defining Russia’s relationship with the West. The first of these is hampered by scanty foundations: Russia’s rulers have shown an unpleasant taste for persecuting the brightest and best, sending them into exile, or simply having them murdered. That makes it all the harder to find a firm foundation for confident engagement with the West without surrendering the spiritual and emotional qualities of which Russians are justly proud.
Nabokov and his works, Ms Khrushcheva explains, taught her “Westernisation”: how to be an individual in a place that lacked a state ideology to provide form and meaning to life. “How to be a single ‘I’ instead of a member of the many ‘we’ in that vast undifferentiated traditional collective of the peasant commune, the proletarian mass, the Soviet people, the post-communist Rossiyane [Russian nationals]…He kept his soul without having to remain backward in order to do so.”
Fired up, Ms Khrushcheva returned to Moscow in 2001, hoping to share this gospel with literature students, only to find she was too late. Nabokov was already the flavour of the age. Her students could quote his works by heart. “They found the 19th-century writers too dramatic, too pathetic, and those of the 20th century too critical, unhappy and dissident. Post-communist literature is too trashy. But Nabokov is just right!”
That didn’t survive Putinism (another sign of her country’s impatience for bad short-cuts, she reckons) but inspired her to write this excellent book, and to dedicate it to the great Abram Tertz. That is a good choice. Tertz was the pen name of Andrei Sinyavsky, sentenced to seven years’ hard labour in 1966 for the crime of publishing literary criticism abroad. Protests on his behalf by Andrei Sakharov and others marked the birth of the Soviet dissident movement. His “Strolls with Pushkin” 30 years ago was criticised by many for being insufficiently reverential. Ms Khrushcheva’s imaginative memoir may be too. That is all to its credit.