Vladimir Nabokov was born here, in his parents’ home, 47 Bolshaya Morskaya, St.Petersburg, on April 10 (Old Style), April 22/23 (New Style), 1899.
Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, a jurist, criminologist, statesman, and editor, was the son of a former minister of justice. Nabokov’s mother, Elena Ivanovna Nabokova (nee Rukavishnikova), was the daughter of a wealthy mine-owner, who lived not far from here, on the Neva embankment, Admiralteyskaya Naberezhnaya, 10, midway between the two wings of the Admiralty building that reach the embankment. Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova married at the end of 1897, and after a honeymoon in Florence moved into 47 Bolshaya Morskaya in 1898, adding another storey and renovating the facade in 1901. After Vladimir, their first, they had four more children, Sergey (b.1901), Olga (b.1903), Elena (b.1906), and Kirill (b.1911). The Family continued to live in this home until they left for the Crimea in November 1917 and then for England in 1919.
47 Bolshaya Morskaya as political center
Even before Nabokov’s father became a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party, he offered his house for the final meeting of first national congress of zemstvos (local councils) in November 1904, at which was signed a resolution calling for a constitution for Russia, a move which helped precipitate the first revolution of 1905. In 1906 V.D. Nabokov headed the liberal Constitutional Democrats, the largest party within the First State Duma (Parliament). When Tsar Nicholas II unexpectedly dissolved the Duma later that year, V.D. Nabokov, along with many other members of Duma, signed the Vyborg Resolution, calling on citizens to resist the government. For this he was imprisoned for three months and debarred from future Dumas. However he remained one of the leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party and advance its cause as an editor of Rech (Speech), the capital’s leading liberal daily newspaper.
47 Bolshaya Morskaya as cultural center
V.D Nabokov was for much of the 1910s head of St. Petersburg’s Literary Fund, and through their wealth, culture, position and associations, Nabokov’s parents had many of the leading intellectual and cultural figures of St. Petersburg, and many Russian and international visitors to the city as guest and performers. The bass Fyodor Shalyapin would sing here; the pianist and conductor Sergey Koussevitsky would perform here. The painter and draughtsman Mstislav Dobuzhinsky came here as drawing master for young Vladimir, and other members of the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) group, like Alexander Benois, were family friends. Among the family’s international dinner guests was English novelist H.G. Wells, whose work Vladimir Nabokov would always hold in high regard.
47 Bolshaya Morskaya as school
Young Vladimir and his brothers and sisters were educated first at home, by English and then French governesses, and then by Russian tutors. Taught first by English governesses, Nabokov himself could read English before he could read Russian. His French governess, Mlle Miauton, and her stuffy room in this house, feature repeatedly in his work, especially The Defense, Speak, Memory and Ada. Only from the age of eleven did Nabokov begin to attend a regular school, the liberal Tenishev School, 33-35 Mokhovaya Street.
47 Bolshaya Morskaya as library
In the early years of the century educated Russians wrote and read poetry with such fervor that this time was soon called the Silver Age of Russian poetry, second only to the Golden Age of Russia’s national poet, Alexander Pushkin. Young Nabokov followed the latest poets with passionate interest, and stored their works in his bedroom, a small supplement to his father’s personal library pf 11,000 books, in Russian, English, French, German, and other languages, where Vladimir could have access to the classics of European literature, ancient and modern.
Out into the world
In 1916, Vladimir published his first own book of poems, and was preparing another book when the 1917 revolution forced him and his family to flee first to Crimea, in November 1917, and then to England, in April 1919.
Nabokov studied at Cambridge until 1922, then joined his family in Berlin, which has developed into the first center of the Russian emigration. His father, who had become editor of the liberal Russian daily Rul (Rudder), published in Berlin, was assassinated there by Russian right-wingers in 1922. Nabokov remained there, switching largely from poetry to prose in 1924, marrying Vera Evseevna Slonim in 1925, supporting himself and his wife by language teaching. By 1929, as The Defense began to appear in serial form, he was recognized as the great literary find of the emigration. Only at the end of 1936 did he leave Germany for France, where he completed his greatest Russian novel, The Gift, and wrote a first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in 1938-1939, and in April 1940 was able to flee with Vera and their son, Dmitry (born in 1934), for the United States.
In his last years in France Nabokov had continued to write in Russian but after reaching the United States decided that he would have to stop writing Russian prose if he were to develop as an English novelist. He taught creative writing at Stanford (1941), Russian language and then literature at Wellesley (1943-48), Russian and European literature at Cornell (1948-1959) and Harvard (1952). While teaching at Wellesley in the 1940s he was also in charge of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) at Harvard’s museum of Comparative Zoology, and in his few years (1941-1948) as a professional lepidopterist became the foremost authority on the butterfly family known Lycaenidae (the Blues). He wrote stories and poems for the New Yorker, novels like Lolita and Pnin, and a four-volume translation of Pushkin’s masterpiece, Eugene Onegin.
After the success of Lolita (published in France, in English, in 1955, then in the US in 1958 and in England the next year, and rapidly translated into scores of languages), Nabokov retired from Cornell and traveled to Europe to see his favorite sister Elena (now Sikorski), who had settled in Geneva, and to be near his son, Dmitri, then training as an opera singer in Milan. He and Vera had not intended to settle permanently in Europe but never returned to the US to live, settling in Montreux, Switzerland, in the Palace Hotel, in 1961, where he completed Pale Fire and wrote Ada and other novels, and translated Lolita into Russian. Nabokov died in Lausanne on July 2, 1977.
Nabokov the writer: his world, his home, his homeland
In emigration Nabokov become one of the greatest twentieth-century fiction writers, first in Russia, then in English, and indeed in any language. He was not only a novelist and short-story writer but also memoirist, poet, dramatist, essayist, translator, scholar, and scientist. As a stylist, he took both Russian and English to new heights. As a storyteller, a creator of characters and worlds within worlds, he wrote works that have been called “the laboratory of twentieth-century novel” (Maurice Couturier). Faithful of fanciful versions of this house, its ceilings, elevators, library, windows, its smells and colors and lighting, of Nabokov, his family, his governesses and tutors, feature in his memoirs, his fiction and his verse. Nabokov’s works were banned in Russia until 1986, although keen Russian readers and many leading Russian writers had been reading him in samizdat editions for decades. Just after the success of Lolita, Nabokov wrote a poem in Russian that ended by expressing his confidence that he would be recognized and commemorated in Russia. He hardly expected that in would begin to happen even while his wife was still alive.