Brian Boyd at the St. Petersburg Nabokov Festival

The Nabokov Centenary Festival in St. Petersburg
by Brian Boyd

In one of his best-known stories, Nabokov imagines a Russian émigré in the 1930s entering a small museum on the French Riviera and emerging, after a nightmare of twists and turns, to find himself to his horror by a canal in Leningrad, in the bloody Soviet Russia of that era. In recent years D. Barton Johnson and I have attended splendid Nabokov conferences on the Riviera, and even investigated relics of Russian Nice, but when this April we emerged into the air of St. Petersburg we found it anything but nightmarish--found it, in fact, more like a wish-fulfilment dream--as day after day we visited the V.V. Nabokov Museum.

The Museum was the focal point of the city's highly successful International Nabokov Centenary Festival, from April 10 to 24, organized by the St. Petersburg V.V. Nabokov Museum (Director, Dmitry Milkov, Deputy Director, Olga Voronina, and Public Relations Director, Zakhar Fialkovsky), as well as the Nabokov Foundation (President, Vadim Stark) and the Rozhdestveno V. V. Nabokov Museum (Director, Alexander Syomochkin), with the support of many other St. Petersburg cultural organizations.

The Festival opened, appropriately, on April 10, at the Nabokov Museum, the elegant house at 47 Bol'shaya Morskaya where Nabokov was born on the morning of April 10, Old Style, 1899. It had been hoped up to the last minute that Nabokov's son and translator, Dmitri, would be present to launch the Festival, but illness and injury confined him to Montreux. Nevertheless the Festival began festively in the former library of Nabokov's father, where V.D. Nabokov once had his morning fencing lessons, and where on the afternoon of April 10 Terry Myers of California presented the Museum with a valuable collection of Nabokov first editions, both books and émigré periodicals. Russian patrons also presented the Museum with Nabokov memorabilia, including household items from Vyra and Rozhdestveno and books mentioned in Speak, Memory.

That evening a concert dedicated to Nabokov was staged at the Alexandrinskiy Drama Theater, with leading St. Petersburg actors, poets and writers speaking about Nabokov and reading from his works. The Russian media were present in force all day, as they were for many of the festival events. Indeed, the three major Russian television networks, ORT, RTR and NTV, covered the events of the day in their evening news programmes.

Other events on April 10, 12, 14 I can't really comment on (as I can't really say much about the opening session, at which I presume Vadim Stark and Dmitry Milkov both spoke).

As part of the festival the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the Russian Academy of Sciences hosted an International Academic Pushkin and Nabokov Conference (April 15-18), to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of Pushkin's birth as well as the hundredth anniversary of Nabokov's.

Of course, there is more than an overlap of birth years connecting Pushkin and Nabokov. Among books launched or presented at the conference were: the bicentennial/centennial co-publication by the Nabokov Foundation and Iskusstvo St. Petersburg of a 900-page translation into Russian of Nabokov's commentary to Eugene Onegin, complete with a facsimile reproduction of the 1837 edition; a Pushkin-Nabokov special issue of the journal Vyshgorod; and issue number 3 of Nabokovskii vestnik, a centenary special on the Nabokov homes in St. Petersburg and Rozhdestveno-Vyra-Batovo.

Among those participating in the conference, held for the most part in an imposing state room on the Vasilievsky Island on the embankment of the Malaya Neva, were overseas scholars such as Mitsuyoshi Numano (Japan), Svetlana Polskaya (Sweden), D. Barton Johnson (USA) and myself (New Zealand), established Russian scholars such as Boris Averin and Vadim Stark, and talented younger scholars such as Maria Malikova, Olga Skonechnaya and Andrey Babikov. On April 17 one session of the conference was held in the town of Siverskiy (Siverskaya), with Vadim Stark playing the role of tour guide for conference participants as he led them around the nearby Nabokov estates. The conference proceedings will be published in August.

On the evening of April 17 the Lensoviet theater (the theater director noted the irony of the locale) staged a performance of A. Getman's adaptation of King, Queen, Knave in a lively and polished production directed by V. Pazi. The mannequins in the novel provided the pretext for numerous stylish dance interludes, with top hats (as I think I recall) and toplessness (which I know I remember).

On April 18, after the final session of the Pushkin and Nabokov conference, the St. Petersburg Center for Books and Graphics (Russia has a lively tradition of graphic work illustrating serious adult writing) opened an exhibition of entries for a competition of graphic artists who had submitted work on Nabokovian themes.

The next day a Nabokov centenary exhibit was opened at the Russian National Library at middday. In the early evening, I gave an open lecture at the Nabokov Museum, outlining my new interpretation of Pale Fire; with translations, the session lasted four hours.

The next day was a rest day in St. Petersburg, although some participants in the St. Petersburg Pushkin and Nabokov conference also attended the last days of another Nabokov Conference at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, April 18-20.

Over tea and brunch in the library at the Nabokov Museum, at noon on April 21, director Dmitri Milkov introduced the Museum and invited guests introduced themselves: members of the extended Nabokov family (from France, Ivan Nabokov, son of Nabokov's cousin, the composer Nicholas, and his wife Claudia; from the USA, Marina Ledkovsky, daughter of Nabokov's cousin Sonya; from Germany, her brother Nicholas Fasolt and his daughter Natasha; from Luxembourg, Nabokov's cousin Baron Falz-Fein; and from Russia, more distant cousins); St. Petersburg city officials; consuls from five countries, the US, Germany, Britain, France and Switzerland; representatives of international cultural organizations (the British Council, the French Institute in St. Petersburg, the Open Society Institute); Alexander Kononov of Symposium Publishing House, and his Nabokov translator, Sergey Il'in; Serena Vitale (Italy); D. Barton Johnson, as vice-president of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society, and myself. The guests discussed the future of the Nabokov Museum and commented on the Museum's development plan as outlined by Dmitri Milkov. The St. Petersburg City Administration, represented by the first Vice-President of the Cultural Committee, Pavel Koshelev, promised the museum its support, an unusual coup in view of the Museum's private status.

In the early afternoon the guests of the Museum were taken on a tour through the building (the first and second floor, in American parlance), by the Museum's subtle and enthusiastic tour guide, Lyubov Klimenko, and then later in the afternoon on a bus tour of Nabokovian sites in the city, with Vadim Stark again providing an encyclopedic commentary. In the early evening, at its editorial office, the long-established journal Zvezda launched a special Nabokov centenary issue, with a host of Nabokov materials unpublished in Russian or unavailable since their first publication, including the story "Easter Rain," rediscovered by Svetlana Polskaya.

Most Russians regard April 22 as Nabokov's "actual" birthday, since in 1899 this was the New Style equivalent of the Old Style April 10, and this day was therefore the climax of the Festival.

In the large entrance room of the Museum Olga Voronina opened an exhibition of hundreds of children's butterfly paintings, a successful way of involving the wider St. Petersburg community without straining the Museum's limited budget. Among the new publications and exhibitions launched before a crowd of hundreds were: the Nabokov Museum's superb brochure, whose photography, design and text reflect the imagination, flair and energy of the young Museum directors; a ten-volume centenary edition of Nabokov's works being published by Symposium in St. Petersburg (not only all the fiction, many of the English works being newly translated by Sergey Il'in, but also all Nabokov's poetry from his collections of 1918 and later, reviews, essays, interviews, and even his translations of Alice in Wonderland and Rolland's Colas Breugnon); and an exhibition of photographs of the Nabokov Museum by some of St. Petersburg's best photographers. The lights dimmed for two birthday cakes whose hundred candles were blown out by the members of the Nabokov family in attendance. Again, TV, radio and print media were present and reported extensively on the proceedings.

That evening at the Dom Uchonykh (House of Scholars) on the Nevsky Embankment, the former palace of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, a packed auditorium attended a "Speak, Memory" session compered by Vadim Stark, involving reminiscences from the Nabokov family members, and additional comments from Serena Vitale, D. Barton Johnson and myself.

Since the discrepancy between Old and New Styles increased a day each century, the twentieth-century New Style equivalent of Old Style April 10, 1899 was April 23, the date on which Nabokov therefore naturally celebrated his birthday after his family left Russia in 1919. This too was a major day for the Festival.

While the St. Petersburg Nabokov Museum held an open day, the Museum's guests took a trip out to the Nabokov estates. There they briefly joined a large commemorative concert, also televised, in the Rozhdestveno manor that Nabokov inherited at sixteen. Gutted by fire in 1995, the manor is now being restored under the direction of Alexander Syomochkin, the director of the Nabokov Museum at Rozhdestveno, who spoke eloquently on Nabokov as the last heir of Pushkin. The guests of the St. Petersburg Nabokov Museum and the Nabokov Foundation then toured the Nabokovian sites in the area (the Rozhdestveno church, Vyra, Batovo), with Vadim Stark again serving as tour guide, before banqueting at the village of Vyra (some distance from the Nabokov manor of the same name), when many a toast was raised to Nabokov and those who had organized and participated in the Festival.

In the evening a one-man show of Lolita was performed at the St. Petersburg Nabokov Museum by Leonid Mozgovoy (who starred in the Alexander Sokurov film Molokh, recent winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes), while in the House of Journalists on Nevskiy Prospekt an informal evening organized by Evgeny Belodubrovsky featured D. Barton Johnson and myself in a panel discussion on the theme "Why Nabokov?"

The final event in the Festival, on the hundredth anniversary of Nabokov's second day of life, was an open lecture at the Pushkin House by Serena Vitale, incorporating a hitherto unpublished Russian lecture Nabokov wrote on Pushkin.

Literature still plays a part more central in Russia's than in any other nation's culture, Pushkin a role more central in Russia's and Nabokov's sense of their heritage than anyone else, and St. Petersburg, especially 47 Bol'shaya Morskaya, and the Nabokov estates, occupy a place more central in Nabokov's memory than any other. St. Petersburg now may not have the wealth Nabokov was born into a hundred years ago, but how fitting that it should be here that the longest and most elaborate commemoration of Nabokov's hundredth anniversary took place, in the Pushkinskiy Dom, at the Rozhdestveno Nabokov Museum, and especially at the rosy-stone house on the Morskaya where Nabokov was born and the St. Petersburg Nabokov Museum now stands.

It should be pointed out that the Centenary Festival is only part of the St. Petersburg V.V. Nabokov Museum's plans for the year. It has already staged a series of "Nabokov and England" events, is planning a "Nabokov and Carroll" follow-up, and intends a "Nabokov and Germany" focus for later in the year. The "Nabokov and Germany" program is being curated by Marina Koreneva, co-author of the prize-winning screenplay for Molokh. In 1967 Nabokov's Zashchita Luzhina and Dzhems Dzhoys's Dublintsy were parachuted into the Soviet Union in CIA-sponsored editions. On June 16, 1999, Bloomsday will be publicly celebrated for the first time in Russia with a reading by Russian actors at the Nabokov Museum, in tribute to Nabokov's admiration for Ulysses. Although Nabokov in the early 1930s approached Joyce asking if he could translate the novel into Russian, the translation to be used, alas, will not be his.

The Museum also plans to open this year a Nabokov reading room, as a focus for those carrying out research on Nabokov in Russia, where it is still extremely difficult to gain access to Nabokov material other than recent Russian reprints. The Museum would welcome copies of their work from Western scholars, both in book and article form; anybody who does wish to donate material is advised to use the regular postal system, and not UPS or FedEx, which involves customs charges prohibitively expensive for the Museum, and to mark parcels "Cultural Purposes" or "Not for sale" or "Charity" or the like.

The Museum staff are a dedicated and talented team, working hard for little financial reward to maximize Nabokov's presence in Russia's cultural consciousness, and they and the many Russian scholars now wishing to work on Nabokov should be given every possible support.

photographs from the Festival
return to the main Festival page


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