Vladimir Nabokov had the extreme misfortune of having to flee from totalitarian states twice. In 1919 he left Russia “under wild machine-gun fire from the shore (the Bolshevik troops had just taken the port)” and in May 1940 he left Europe for America on the SS Champlain—the ship’s last voyage before it was sunk by a German U-boat. Not all of his family was so lucky: his cousin was killed fighting the Bolsheviks during the Revolution and his younger brother, Sergei, died in a German concentration camp.
Throughout his life, Nabokov was extremely forthright when asked about his political opinions. He considered himself a classical liberal, like his father, a famous politician in pre-Revolution Russia. But unlike his father, who was murdered in Berlin by a Russian fascist who would go on to become Hitler’s minster for Russian émigré affairs, he was rarely directly involved in politics. Perhaps this apparent detachment dates back to Cambridge University in 1920, when he debated a fellow student on the Russian Revolution:
When challenged to justify the bestial terror that had been sanctioned by Lenin—the torture house, the blood bespattered wall—Nesbit would tap the ashes out of his pipe against the fender knob, recross sinistrally his huge, heavily shod, dextrously crossed legs, and murmur something about the “Allied Blockade.”
“Very soon after,” Nabokov concludes, “I turned away from politics and concentrated on literature.”
And concentrate on literature he did. Twenty years after arriving in the US and switching to writing in English, the success of Lolita was enough to allow him to retire from his teaching post at Wellesley College. His new-found fame brought with it a reputation for his being an aloof, slightly eccentric figure, something he seemed to revel in cultivating. For him art was what mattered, and compromising it was out of the question. “Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of social intent,” he claimed in a 1964 interview, and this sentiment was repeated throughout his life.
However, when you look closer at the man, you find that as with his writing, first impressions can be deceptive. In fact, far from being “a frivolous firebird”, as he put it, Nabokov had passionately held political principles. In a 1969 interview he explained:
My aloofness is an illusion resulting from my never having belonged to any literary, political, or social coterie. I am a lone lamb. Let me submit, however, that I have bridged the “esthetic distance” in my own way by means of such absolutely final indictments of Russian and German totalitarianism as my novels Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister.
These two novels, “the two bookends of grotesque design between which my other volumes tightly huddle,” were published in 1936 and 1947 respectively. Invitation to a Beheading focuses on capital punishment, of which Nabokov’s father was a passionate and active opponent, while Bend Sinister takes on the modern totalitarian state. Nabokov saw Communism and Nazism (“the idiotic and despicable regimes that we all know and that have brushed against me in the course of my life”) both “in terms of one dull beastly farce.” The regime depicted in Bend Sinister is an amalgamation of the two. Its ruler is the grotesque dictator Paduk, who Nabokov admitted was a combination of Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin. Its ideology is “Ekwilism,” a philosophy that pursues the equality of consciousness, not by raising up those “vessels” (people) with less consciousness but by redistributing the consciousness of those with more. As with Marxism, after the death of Ekwilism’s founder, the doctrine goes from being “vague and benevolent” to the “violent and virulent” tool of a one-party state.
Bend Sinister may have been Nabokov’s last overtly political work, but he continued to obliquely reference world events in his writing (in Pale Fire, for example) and to directly express his political opinions elsewhere. In a 1965 interview he said: “It is hard, I submit, to loathe bloodshed, including war, more than I do, but it is still harder to exceed my loathing of the very nature of totalitarian states in which massacre is only an administrative detail.” When Lolita became an international literary scandal and faced potential censorship in a number of Western countries, including the US, Nabokov delivered a speech entitled “Russian Writers, Censors and Readers.” Drawing a contrast between pre- and post-revolutionary Russia he remarked that though writers from the former era were “quite certain that they lived in a country of oppression and slavery” they had “an immense advantage over their grandsons in modern Russia of not being compelled to say there was no oppression and no slavery.”
Nabokov steadfastly stuck by his political principles throughout his life. He told an interviewer in 1963, “My political creed has remained as bleak and changeless as an old grey rock. It is classical to the point of triteness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art.” If anything, perhaps his politics hardened as he got older; when asked what “literary sins” he may have been guilty of in an interview he gave aged 72, he answered: “Of having spared in my books too many political fools and intellectual frauds amongst my acquaintances.” He was a victim of communism, but a proud and indignant one—fiercely proud of the free and democratic tradition he had come from and remained in in the West, and indignant about totalitarianism in all of its forms. As he put it in Pale Fire: “The one who kills is always his victim’s inferior.”