through the Eyes of Vladimir Nabokov in "Speak, Memory" ...
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The 1905 Russian Revolution through the Eyes of Vladimir Nabokov in "Speak, Memory"
By Iulia O. Basu
The insight that Vladimir Nabokov provides into the 1905 Russian Revolution, in his book Speak, Memory, sometimes merges with the general view--presented, for example, by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky in a more traditional account--but at many other times is totally unique, a product of Nabokov’s personal observations.
1st edition cover of Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.
Many of the causes that determined the 1905 Russian Revolution are presented in Nabokov’s novel. One of these is industrialization, which occurred at a rapid pace: “In the early years of this century, a travel agency on Nevski Avenue displayed a three-foot-long model of an oak-brown international sleeping car.... One could make out the blue upholstery inside, the embossed leather lining of the compartment walls, their polished panels, inset mirrors, tulip-shaped reading lamps, and other maddening details. Spacious windows alternated with narrower ones... and some of these were of frosted glass.... The then great and glamorous Nord-Express... connected St Petersburg with Paris.”1 This industrialization, which grew apace under Witte’s supervision2, was accompanied by a proportionate decrease in the living conditions of industrial workers, who were enduring “overcrowded housing with often deplorable sanitary conditions, an exhausting workday... widespread disease... constant risk of injury from poor safety conditions, harsh workplace discipline, and inadequate wages.”3 All of this could only spread resentment towards the government and the Tsar, helping form a perfect arena for revolutionary ideas, notably Marxism4. However, these details are not dwelled upon by Nabokov, who gives only a glimpse of the luxurious results of this trying process.
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In Speak, Memory, Nabokov gives a frugal look into the 1905 Russian Revolution and its causes, dwelling on the issues he was most familiar with, like the peasants' pleas, the organizations and activities of the liberal aristocrats an the Russo-Japanese war, and less so into the situation of the workers. But in doing so, he also gives us precious details, that history books do not always record; the look and feel of industrialization, the luxury of life in the countryside, despite the problems raging throughout the country, the continuous Westernization of the aristocratic class as well as their professed patriotism, and the personal touch of all the events, such as the realistic and human portrait of the commander in chief of the Russian army. Lastly, it gives details of the 1905 Russian Revolution that show it in all its grotesque and violence, extended from the revolutionaries in the streets, to innocent children, and to the members of the royal family. In this, Nabokov tells us that the 1905 Russian Revolution involved everybody and forgave nobody.
Article written November 20th, 2009 and published January 26th, 2011. Citation Information »
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