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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nabokov's Big in Beijing

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Most Russians think that they see bits of Gogol and Dostoevsky regularly in their daily lives; I see Nabokov everywhere. Just recently in a Hong Kong shopping mall I encountered a Kate Spade accessories store that featured a bright green leather bag and next to it a first edition of "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov, whose birthday is Sunday. I was on my way to mainland China, invited by a number of universities to talk about propaganda and politics, subjects I work on academically. Upon arrival, however, I discovered that Russian politics or comparative propaganda, the lurid headlines in the Western world, are only mildly entertaining for the Chinese.

The Chinese respect Vladimir Putin, who they believe was right to reassert the greatness of the Russian state after it was almost destroyed in their eyes during the presidencies of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. But they don't think there is much to learn from contemporary Russia. As one professor from the Institute of Russian Studies at the Beijing Academy of Sciences put it: "Whatever Putin needs to do to assure a strong state and prevent Western manipulation, he should. But frankly, our own communism has fared much better than your democracy -- in economic advancement (membership in WTO, for example) and national modernization (you name it -- cities of the future, speedy trains, the 2008 Olympics), while shielding itself against disintegration and Western ideological domination."

Similarly, propaganda is not as important in China (there it simply means to advance or disseminate information) as it is in the United States or Russia, where it has a negative connotation. In the United States it is seen as a nasty holdover from totalitarian times, while the West of course "engages in truth"; in Russia propaganda was discredited by the excesses of Stalinism and Soviet communism. Today, Russians believe what Putin tells them only through the veil of cynicism, despite his staying away from the marble mausoleums and traditional posters and, instead, engaging in the much livelier forms of U.S.-style political PR. In fact, there is little difference between U.S. President George W. Bush and Putin when it comes to flying in fighter jets, kissing babies or praying in church.

Comparative Russian-American-Chinese politics and propaganda would have been a fine topic -- after all, that's what I was invited to talk about -- until the Chinese discovered I was sitting on a Nabokov gold mine -- my book "Imagining Nabokov" is to be published this fall. The Hong Kong shopping mall "Lolita" display was not a fluke -- high culture and high fashion are on equal footing everywhere in contemporary China. Nabokov, indeed, is enjoying a sort of pop culture celebrity status in Beijing and Shanghai, where I had to amend my lecture topics in the author's favor due to public demand -- even when I was speaking at the journalism schools, which should have been perfectly attuned for talks about propaganda.

In early April, The New York Times ran a piece titled "Classical Music Looks Toward China with Hope," which discussed the phenomenon of China embracing -- massively -- European classical music. The authors cited the example of a Beijing woman who carried a portrait of Mozart in her wallet. I met a reporter in Shanghai who had Nabokov's picture in her notebook. In Beijing after my talk, titled "Coming Closer to Nabokov," the audience of his fans, who normally gather virtually on a culture-related web site,, insisted that I sign the Chinese translations of the writer's books -- absolute blasphemy, of course. But from a pop-culture standpoint they felt I was close enough, especially after I explained that my relationship with Nabokov was not an academic endeavor but a matter of love, closer in spirit to Abram Tertz's "Strolls with Pushkin" than to Mikhail Bakhtin's "Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics."

Apart from my fascination with the writer's aesthetic and stylistic discoveries, not to mention sympathy for his fate as an exile, I love Nabokov for the same reason most Russians love their literature -- in the words of Pushkin, "for burning with its word the human heart." Rather than isolating Nabokov from the Russian tradition of composing socially relevant works, such as Gogol's "Dead Souls" or Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," I include him in this tradition as the most relevant writer for the ongoing political transformation in contemporary Russia. In spite of himself -- "It is not my custom to display my political credo," he repeatedly declared -- Nabokov uncovered the mysteries of modernity by integrating the collectivist past of traditional Russian culture into a modern world dominated by Western-style capitalism and individual initiative.

Rejecting the traditional Russian literary characters who, following Dostoevsky's motto "We are all guilty before one another," excel in spiritual suffering within a communal setting, Nabokov reinterpreted the traditions of Russian fiction. In "Ada, or Ardor" and "Pnin" he rewrote the Russian world into an American one. By doing so, he predicted Russia's political destiny ahead of time -- liberation from communism and the slow and agonizing creation of the capitalist culture of individualism and competition. Focusing on individual characters, Nabokov brought them into modernity, where the emphasis was not on personal misery or communal life, but rather on forging an individual happy destiny.

After the 1991 collapse of communism, Russians, with their newly acquired individualism, found themselves reflected in the writer's many characters; Kinbote and Pnin, for example, who have to endure the challenges of integrating into U.S. society. But for Russians there was something unnerving about this. And so after the Yeltsin era's democratic jitters, Russian readers started to long again for more familiar models -- the Soviet-like Putin, or Dostoevsky, an advocate of Russia's uniqueness.

China, on the other hand, has never formally denounced communism but has embraced modernity in a much more creative manner. Translating Nabokov's relevant Russian and American experiences into their own, the Chinese consider him a big trend and read his books not only as aesthetic art, but also as books important to society. They learn from them the hardest art of all: how to be an individual, to live for yourself, and to rely on yourself for happiness -- skills necessitated by the advent of capitalism and open borders.

In the 30 years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, China has appropriated many if not most of the formulas of Western capitalist success -- from markets and McDonald's to classical music and literary masterpieces. At the kind of time warp speed found in science fiction, China has internalized them in service of "New China," a modern Middle Kingdom, in essence affirming Nabokov's claim, "The real modern world is the world the artist creates, his own mirage, which becomes a new ... 'world' ..."

Nina L. Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at New School University in New York. Her book "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics" will be published this fall.