Page 176. " a Somov aquarelle (young birch trees, the half of a rainbow - everything very melting and moist), a splendid Versailles autumn by Alexander Benois "
Sumov: The Rainbow
Public DomainSumov: The Rainbow - Credit: Sebastian Nizan

Konstantin Somov (1869-1939) was a Russian painter who worked mainly in watercolour and gouache and who belonged to the influential Mir Isskustva movement of the early 20th century. The Nabokov family owned works by Somov, which they had to leave behind when they fled St Petersburg in 1918. The works are now said to be in the State Russian Museum.

In 2007, Somov's "The Rainbow" (1927) (pictured left)was sold at Christie's in London for £3.72 million, the highest price ever recorded for a work sold at an auction of Russian art.

Page 177. " When I first met Tamara - to give her a name concolorous with her real one "

Nabokov changes the name of his first love, perhaps in order to protect her identity. Or was it really because she had a name that evoked none of the fiery Romantic associations of "Tamara", the heroine of Lermontov's epic poem Demon or of the poem Tamara? Note the use of the word "concolorous" in this line - colour creeps in anywhere it can, in Nabokov's writing.

The romance of the 'exile' of Nabokov's family to Crimea - close to the Caucasus, traditional place of exile for Russian 19th century literary and political figures including Lermontov - following their flight from St Petersburg was not lost on Nabokov either.

Page 182. " we would have to transfer our furtive frenzy elsewhere - to the Pedagogical Museum, to the Museum of Court Carriages, or to a tiny museum of old maps, which guidebooks do not even list "

Even now St Petersburg boasts a wealth of obscure specialist museums, alongside its world-famous Hermitage and Russian State Museum. Among my favourites when I lived there in the 1990s were the Museum of the Arctic and the Antarctic (moth-eaten polar bears watched over by moth-eaten attendants in arctic conditions), and the Museum of Hygiene (Pavlov's actual dog, stuffed!).

Page 182. " from these great museums we graduated to smaller ones, such as the Suvorov "

General Alexander Suvorov (1729-1800) is to Russians what Admiral Nelson is to Britons. Born a nobleman, Suvorov never lost a battle in his long military career. He is best remembered for his victories in the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-92, and against French revolutionary armies in Italy in 1799. His army achieved a spectacular retreat across the Alps, for which feat he is known as "Russia's Hannibal".

Suvorov was a favourite of Empress Catherine the Great, but was not much liked by her son and successor Paul. As a result, Suvorov died relatively unsung, and his reputation was only rehabilitated much later in Russia, on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1900. This was the year in which the Suvorov Museum in St Petersburg, to which Nabokov refers, was opened.

Page 182. " The Hermitage, St Petersburg's Louvre, offered nice nooks, especially in a certain hall on the ground floor, among cabinets with scarabs, behind the sarcophagus of Nana, high priest of Ptah "

Housed in the former Imperial Winter Palace on the Neva River, The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is one of the world's greatest museums, with collections ranging from Impressionist paintings to Scythian Gold.

Further reading: The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum by Geraldine Norman


Egyptian Sarcophagi, Hermitage Museum
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeEgyptian Sarcophagi, Hermitage Museum - Credit: Thomas Ault

Page 183. " The favourite actor of the day was Mozzhukhin "

Ivan Ilyich Mozzhukhin (1889—1939), known as the "Russian Valentino", was a silent film actor and the star of Tsarist cinema and later the French cinema (for which he spelled his name Mosjoukine). After leaving Russia he achieved instant stardom in 1920 with L'Angoissante Aventure, his first French film, which told the story of a troupe of Russian actors fleeing the Revolution and heading to Paris.

For a decade thereafter, Mozzhukhin's hypnotic face stared out of film magazines all over Europe. (Nabokov describes it here thus: "Mozzhukhin would drive up to it in a smart sleigh and fix a steely eye on a light in one window while a celebrated little muscle twitched under the tight skin of his jaw.") It is his face, in fact, and not necessarily his acting, which has been his most memorable legacy: in the 1910s and 20s Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov used old footage of Mozzhukhin's face to demonstrate his film montage effect now known as the Kuleshev Effect.

Page 188. " while my brother and I went to Cambridge - he to Christ's College, I to Trinity "
Great Gate, Trinity College Cambridge
Public DomainGreat Gate, Trinity College Cambridge - Credit: Hans Wolff
Nabokov's years at Trinity College, Cambridge are captured in his 1932 novel Glory, his fifth Russian novel and the last to be translated into English, in 1971. Nabokov felt extremely homesick for Russia when at Cambridge.
Page 191. " My father became Minister of Justice in a new Provisional Government located in Simferopol, and his family was lodged near Yalta on the Livadia grounds, the Czar's former domain "


Livadia Palace
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeLivadia Palace - Credit: Alexander Noskin
 Livadia Palace, the summer residence of the Imperial family in Crimea was later the site of the Yalta Conference of 1945, where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill decided the future of the world.



Page 191. " I recognized the unfortunate rider as Mozzhukhin, whom Tamara and I had so often admired on the screen.The film Haji Murad was being rehearsed on the mountain pastures of the range "

Mozzhukhin was a silent film actor known as the "Russian Valentino" in the 1920s. (see also Bookmark to page 183). In 1918, like Nabokov and many other members of the St Petersburg intellegentsia and aristocracy, he was in exile in Crimea, though he was about to find a second stardom in Europe. The film of Haji Murad that Nabokov saw being rehearsed in Crimea in 1918 apparently never got beyond the rehearsal stage because political events did not allow the crew to be in Crimea for long enough. Mozzhukhin later starred in a film called Der Weisse Teufel (The White Devil) in 1930, which was said to be loosely based on Tolstoy's Haji Murad

Page 193. " I planned for so long to join Denikin's army, with the intention not so much of clattering astride a chamfrained charger into the cobbled outskirts of St Petersburg as of reaching Tamara in her Ukrainian hamlet "

Although his noble blood would have gained him entry into this counter-Revolutionary White Army, Nabokov was being tongue-in-cheek when he wrote this line, and playing up his lovesickness for Tamara. For he cannot have seriously wanted (or been suited) to join the ranks of Anton Ivanovich Denikin (1872 – 1947), one of the civil war's most prominent White Army generals.

Following WWI in which he distinguished himself, Denikin was appointed chief of staff to Lavr Kornilov, a general whose unsuccessful attempt (known thereafter as the Kornilov Affair or Putsch) in August 1917 to overthrow the Russian Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky led to the arrest of both Kornilov and Denikin.

Denikin's Volunteer Army, made up of White Russians (anti-Bolsheviks), was started in southern Russia after the October Revolution. After a promising start, Denikin's Army suffered one defeat after another by the anarchist Black Army (also known as the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine) and Leon Trotsky's Red Army troops. 

The song Farewell of Slavianka (embedded below) was adopted as the White Army's unofficial anthem.

By 1919, the Denikin Army numbered almost 40 000 men. It had a reputation for violence and cruelty towards the inhabitants of the areas it occupied, particularly against Jews. In a bizarre reversal of the Revolution's aims, Denikin's men, former landowners, seized peasants' property and attacked workers.

In 1920 Denikin resigned, and his army finally merged with the army of Pyotr Wrangel in Crimea.  

Page 195. " Repetitive pictures of gray pears on the grimy walls of Victoria Station advertised the bath soap English governesses had used upon me in my childhood "

Here is a perfect example of the way one can shape one's own memories and associations. Compare this line to the one on page 63, where Nabokov is boasting of his family's Anglophilia and its use of imported English goods: "Pears' Soap, tar-black when dry, topaz-like when held to the light between wet fingers, took care of one's morning bath". On page 195, the Nabokov family are suddenly refugees, on their way to Europe, through London, and contexts have all changed; soap, that most evocative of products, is now the vehicle of anti-climax as the new reality of their life dawns.

Page 196. " On the way there, being challenged by my father and Korney Chukovsky to rhyme on Afrika, "

Korney Chukovsky's (1882-1969) verses are to Russian childhoods what Dr Seuss or Roald Dahl are to English children. Poems such as Doctor Aibolit (Doctor Ouchithurts - character based loosely on Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle) and Krokodil (Crocodile) have been delighting children for generations, while the redoutable washstand of Moidodyr (Wash-em-clean) has been terrifying them into washing behind the ears daily. Moidodyr (which literally means "wash until you get a hole") became a symbol of hygiene and purity and was frequently used in advertising. The character even made it onto a Russian postage stamp.


Chukovsky also wrote a short morality tale called The Stolen Sun, which was made into a celebrated children's film in 1943-4.  He was also a literary critic and an accomplished translator.

Two things are worth noting in Nabokov's mention of Chukovsky: he was not, like the Nabokovs, emigrating, on that journey. He was to return to the Soviet Union and live there until his death in 1969. The other is that Chukovsky wrote a popular children's poem, Barmalei, about an ogre of the same name, who lives in "terrible" Africa. The poem is a warning to children not to be naughty and wander off to places like Africa, lest they meet a terrible fate. Barmalei became the prototypical villain in Russian culture, and first made his appearance in a poem of 1916, so Nabokov may have been aware of him, and mentioned the "Afrika" rhyme as a nod towards Barmalei. Nothing, after all, was ever casually tossed into Nabokov's writing!