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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uncovered: Nabokov's Secret Room

ST. PETERSBURG - The discovery of a secret room is always interesting for researchers, and the one discovered recently in the childhood home of the Russian emigre writer Vladimir Nabokov is no exception.


The presence of such a room was hinted at in Nabokov's novel, "Mashenka", and Nabokov specialists have been looking for about a year for a secret compartment where the Nabokov family might have hidden valuable family possessions when they fled Petersburg in 1917.


The secret room, located beneath the floor of Nabokov's father's study and bathroom, does not show on any of the known floor plans of the building, said Valentina Bushlyayeva of the Nabokov Foundation, which has two small rooms for offices and a little exhibition in the building. "This was either done on purpose, or just happened so because this space is in between two levels".


Bushlyayeva said the foundation's chairman, Vadim Stark, has suspected that such a room existed for about a year. "The archway under the study floor was too low and the study floor was too high", she said. "It felt like there must be something more than just construction materials in between".


After searching all of Nabokov's books for hints and tapping out the suspected section of the floor, the foundation members finally decided to dig in. They found the secret room last Thursday.


But it soon became clear that even if treasures had ever been buried in the "secret room", somebody else found them 50 years ago.


"We discovered that Bolsheviks knew about the room long before us", Bushlyayeva said.


The only "treasures" found so far were sugar and meal coupons dated 1942, the time of the blockade of Leningrad, a gas mask from approximately 1939, a piece of newspaper from 1947 and a few other items from that period.


"The last date is 1947", said Bushlyayeva. "We think this is when the room was sealed again".


Today, the entrance to the new room looks like a messy hole in the floor. But after the impatient researchers squeezed through it, they found a trapdoor, also sealed off. The door led from what used to be the bathroom. Bushlyayeva said that a very old drain plug was found inside. This also proves that the room was somehow used by Nabokov's family, she said.


Those who were reseating the room must have been in a hurry. "In between the layers we found a hammer and a file", she said.


The question now is this: What did the Bolsheviks find in the hidden chamber and why it was closed up with no mention in the records?


"To find that out we'll have to go to archives and try to figure out who exactly these Bolsheviks were", said Bushlyayeva. "Only those who entered the room in the 1940s will be able to tell what they found there".


The Nabokov family lived in their Petersburg house until 1917 when, afraid of Bolshevik terror, the writer's father rushed his family to Crimea, which was still occupied by German troops.


After the family escaped, the house was taken over by a Danish agency. Later it was used by the Department of Public Baths and Laundry and the Funeral Services Bureau, Bushlyayeva said. The so-called Nabokov house, located at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa, was a small mansion that acquired its modern size by 1903. In 1898 the house was purchased by Ivan Rukavishnikov, a rich owner of gold mines and Nabokov's maternal grandfather.


Vladimir Nabokov, who died in 1977, spent most of his adult life abroad, primarily in America, writing and teaching literature in colleges. He is the author of the scandalous "Lolita", "Invitation to a Beheading", "Speak, Memory" and numerous stories.


Nabokov was born in the Petersburg house on April 22, 1899 - exactly 100 years after Pushkin, but on the same day as Lenin. He always celebrated his birthday a day later, on the day that William Shakespeare was born.