The Nabokov Generation

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Vladimir Nabokov, American writer, born April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia

It was a matter of fierce pride for any Bolshevik: "Russians read more than any other people on earth." Which in turn was a matter of bewilderment for any number of Western economists and management consultants who could not help noting that hypothetical and literary concepts have a far greater hold on people than practical ones. As a result, despite President Vladimir Putin's consistent assurances that Russia is doing just fine, capitalism and democracy here scarcely resemble any Western conception of those ideas. Russia's bookstores, however, are a bibliophile's dream.

My Russian heart warms to see that, despite Internet access, trendy restaurants, pubs and the multiple jobs people keep just to make ends meet in these busy post-socialist times, Russians still read books -- constantly.

My Americanized, rational mind, however, longs to find a practical way for Russia's reading passion, and its belief in the writer as prophet and teacher, to be made to benefit everyone. Here, after all, Solzhenitsyn and dissident writers were more important than Brezhnev and politicians.

Full of messianic intentions, I took a semester off from my research on the Russian political and economic transition to venture a few months of teaching at Moscow State University, or MGU, where I would give a course on Vladimir Nabokov, "Nabokov and Us."

Of course, I saw myself in many ways walking in Nabokov's footsteps. The many long years I've spent in Princeton and New York have turned a dreamy Russian intellectual into a practical Westerner. Please don't take this as a delusion of grandeur; I am saying only that my experiences in America have been akin to Nabokov's, not my writing.

So in returning to Moscow, I felt I had something to reveal to my fellow Russians: To become liberal and free, Russia must put its best traditions of reading to practical use. We should switch to reading Nabokov rather than trying to make sense of the IMF briefs -- official documents have never been a Russian forte -- for Nabokov has provided a better road map of the way forward than some uncertain successes in far-away Indonesia or Brazil. He was able to remain Russian, dreamily, greedily unambiguously, yet be a Westerner at the same time.

Like all missionaries, I was humbled to discover, with satisfaction rather than disappointment, that I am almost late with my "good news." Nabokov, who stoically accepted (or at least claimed such) that he would have very few readers in his socialist homeland -- indeed, he imagined his audience in Russia as a "room filled with people, wearing his own mask" -- would have been extremely delighted at his reception in his homeland today: The whole country is wearing his mask.

The contemporary Russian reader reads Nabokov into everything. In response to a carved bust or a chocolate statue of Putin, some liberal-minded Russians quoted Nabokov: "Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size." Those Russians who stubbornly disregard material comfort recall his phrase about the "nuisance of ownership." Those who insist on individualistic values follow him in being "an indivisible monist." Nabokov is translated, retranslated and republished. There is even a "Nabokov Reader," a guidebook for schoolteachers on how and why to read Nabokov.

Expecting just a few fanatic students in my class at the university's School of Journalism, I walked into the room to find that with each session the number of people wearing Nabokov's "masks" doubled. They are deft and determined; they recite passages of "Lolita" and "Speak, Memory" by heart in both English and Russian; and they don't skip classes or make excuses as we did in my own time at MGU 15 years ago. Instead of pitifully crying over Akhmatova's "Poem Without a Hero," or helplessly whispering about Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" in some kitchen, these level-headed kids of the post-post-communist new century put literature to practical use. They told me they find 19th-century writers too dramatic and too pathetic, and those of the 20th century too critical, unhappy, and dissident. Post-communist literature is too trashy. But Nabokov is just right!

"Pushkin has been everything for you; Nabokov is our Pushkin" -- and I detect a tinge of disdain for the old-fashioned traditions of the past. "He managed," their faces brighten with admiration, "to remain 'high' literature and nonetheless be pragmatic, no-nonsense -- a great stylist with cool themes and a brave, strong and victorious individual as hero." "My favorite creatures, my resplendent characters -- in 'The Gift,' in 'Invitation to a Beheading,' in 'Ada,' in 'Glory,' et cetera -- are victors in the long run," they passionately quote. "We," they say with pride in themselves, "are that 'et cetera'. Nabokov is a literary manual for our everyday life on the road from unapplied Russian intellectual to efficient, pragmatic, Western individual." "Something like 'Pnin,' but better," one girl added resolutely.

I was puzzled. "Why do you need me then, why do you come to this class?" I asked the now 30 students in the room.

They said they needed somebody who had already gone the way Nabokov and his characters had -- to make sure it's doable, to verbalize the experience through his books.

Despite rising concerns as to what Putin's "power vertical" may mean for the future, we can be certain that Russia's liberal transition has not been in vain after all.

Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at New School University in New York. Her book "Visiting Nabokov" is forthcoming from Yale University Press. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.