The myth of the Russian soul; 'Reading Nabokov's books, Khrushcheva felt like a Nabokov character: a Russian learning to be an individual'
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 January 2008)

A century ago, Russia had more political theory-mongers than any other country in history. It was infested with many varieties of anarchists, it had socialists beyond number, and there were armies of radical Christians, Tolstoyans and Communists. Stirred by all this progressive thinking, Russia shed an ocean of blood in the service of Karl Marx's theories.

Remarkably, that didn't make much of a difference. When it was all over, Russia ended up with a czar. Vladimir Putin, the 21st-century czar, may be nicer than Stalin or Czar Alexander III (who reigned from 1881 to 1894) and brighter than Nicholas II (1894 to 1917). But he's still a czar, with a czar's sense of infinite entitlement. Putin believes he deserves to rule Russia, and it appears that most Russians see things his way. Freedom of speech, for instance, is no more important to Putin than to Alexander III or Stalin -- and only a small minority of Russians appear to care.

Nina Khrushcheva was talking about these issues when she visited Toronto last week to appear on TVOntario. She's a political science professor whose scholarship is deepened by personal contact. Teaching graduate students at the New School in New York, she speaks with the unique authority of Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter.

He was a czar, too, until the politburo fired him in 1964. When his great-granddaughter lists Russian despots, she doesn't omit him.

She has nothing but contempt for Putin but knows her fellow Russians don't agree with her. The typical Russian, whom she calls "the lazy Russian Ivan," adores Putin. Russians believe their country should be regarded as a great nation and that Putin is winning back the respect it deserves. If his behaviour scares the West, all the better.

Behind Putin's sheep-like followers Khrushcheva sees the myth of "the Russian soul." In her opinion, the idea of a humane, poetic national soul functions as an excuse for Russia's backwardness. She attacks that idea in a brilliant and thoughtful new book, Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics (Yale University Press), which combines political science with literary criticism.

She treats Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the hero of her book, as the antidote to underdeveloped, slow-witted Russia. A member of the aristocracy, Nabokov lost everything when the Soviets forced his family into exile. Yet that was also a piece of good luck. It pulled him out of the communalism that has always crippled Russia and helped him realize himself as an individualist in the West.

And it's individualism that Russia needs. As Khrushcheva sees it, the old Russian ideal, derived from Orthodox Christianity, considers individualism morally inferior to the communal way of life. That thinking, part of Russia's national self-definition, is what she decided to escape when she arrived in America in 1991 to study at Princeton. In this effort at self-transformation, she made Nabokov's books her guide. He always insisted he wasn't a political writer, but Khrushcheva believes his work carries a political message for everyone who cares about the future of Russia.

In his novels, Nabokov replaced "the soulful hero," much loved by Russian writers and readers, with rueful, critical characters in the style of the West. Reading his books, Khrushcheva felt like a Nabokov character, a Russian learning to be an individual, "responsible for one's own actions, when no state ideology exists to provide your life with form and meaning." Nabokov's books were her way out of "the vast, undifferentiated, traditional Russian collective." He said, "I do not write for groups Only the individual reader is important to me."

On the question of individuality and modernity, Nabokov represents one clear choice. For his opposite, look back to the dreamy, aimless hero of Oblomov, the 1858 best-seller by Ivan Goncharov. The protagonist (Oblomov) has inherited property that's decaying because he won't get out of bed to manage it. When the novel appeared, everyone agreed that it defined a pervasive element in the Russian character. A new word was born, Oblomovism. That was 170 years ago, but Khrushcheva makes it appear that a similar character type influences Russia today.

V.I. Lenin, organizing the new Russian economy in the name of the proletariat, discovered in the 1920s that many members of the proletariat weren't eager to work. He decided that Communism must squeeze the Oblomovism out of the Russian soul.

He and his successors failed, but Khrushcheva answers Lenin with a sweet irony: The job he wanted to do can be accomplished only by individualism developed in the West and understood best through that passionate anti-communist, Vladimir Nabokov.

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