Click on photos to enlarge.
Vladimir Nabokov, as the plaque on the wall of this building at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg states, was born here in 1899. He died, every bit the contemporary of people of my generation, in Switzerland in 1977. By then his novels had made him famous and rich. The one that helped him turn the corner to fame was Lolita (1955), although there is much discussion about which of his works are the best and most-loved. That’s an open topic, you don’t need me to weigh in on it. Especially since I’ve never been infected by the fascination that many have for his craft.
In the spring of 2019 controversy came to this building where a Nabokov museum has been located for many years. In one of those typically contemporary Russian incidents, conflict came out of the blue for those who had been charged with overseeing the writer’s cultural legacy. The museum was closed with no warning, several employees were fired, others had their pay cut, the museum director was threatened, and workmen answering to someone else moved in and began restoring the building. A hue and cry went up, with many prominent individuals, including novelist Viktor Yerofeev, coming to the museum’s defense. It seems the museum somehow had been taken over by St. Peterburg University (a nominal “parent” in the past) and was being put in the hands of a St. Petersburg writer and teacher named Andrei Astvatsaturov. After a month or so of confusion in the media, the new director officially stepped into his position on April 26. He declared that all was now well, that his new leadership was in place, and that he was preparing to transform the Nabokov Museum into an international cultural and conference center. One of the reports, surprisingly neutral in its tone since it belongs to the scandal-mongering NTV network, admits in the last line that the former director, Tatyana Ponamaryov, knew nothing about the new one.
If all of that doesn’t sound fishy, you haven’t paid attention to real estate conflicts in Russia over the last 20 or 30 years. By the nature of my work over that period – writing about culture for a Moscow newspaper – I can say that this has all the hallmarks of a hostile takeover. You do it quickly, without fanfare, close things up for “restoration and renovation” so nobody can get in and see what’s happening, and you trust to your connections in the “courts,” or just hope your opponent will take the hint and disappear. As the old saying goes, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In any case, the museum is now open again, and Mr. Astvatsaturov (a descendant of the famed literary scholar and linguist Viktor Zhirmunsky) is in control.
This is the way Nikita Mikhalkov essentially stole the Cinema Museum from Naum Kleiman in 2013 in Moscow, and it’s similar to a scandal at Moscow’s Mayakovsky Museum, which was closed ages ago in a battle over who is going to control it. I can’t say for sure that the situation at the Nabokov Museum is exactly the same, but when there’s smoke, one does tend to wonder if there is fire.
The basic building at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya was erected around 1740. The street at that time was called Bolshaya Gostinaya (Great Parlor St.), was known popularly, though not officially, as Brilliantovaya (Diamond Street) at the time of Nabokov’s birth, and officially took on the name of Bolshaya Morskaya (Great Sea St.) in 1902. It was known as Herzen Street for most of the Soviet period. At the time of its original construction it was a single-story structure over a raised basement. You can see the lines of the original house in the full photos above and below – it corresponds to the red first floor in today’s configuration. As I understand it, a second story was added at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th centuries, followed by significant additions to the sides and interior in 1874. Finally, a third floor was added in 1900-02, while much of the external decoration was moved, apparently with some care. This came shortly after the building was acquired by Nabokov’s grandfather in 1898 with the purpose of turning it over to the future writer’s mother Yelena Rukavishnikova at the beginning of her marriage to Vladimir Nabokov, son the Russia’s Minister of Justice Dmitry Nabokov, and future prominent journalist and statesman in his own right.
Depending on the source, one can find dates that are off by one or two years from those I offer here. Some sources say the house was purchased by Grandpa Rukavishnikov in 1897, some say the last renovations took place beginning in 1901, various sources claim that Nabokov lived here either 18 or 20 years. I follow the dates offered in a relatively detailed and convincing piece on the website of a company whose business is renovation, but let’s agree that they are approximate. Nabokov described this home in varying degrees in his autobiographical works Other Shores and Speak, Memory! His room, following the reconstruction, was located on the third floor.
From that same website:
“The Nabokov House is a vivid synthesis of architecture and decorative art. The building is topped with what can be safely called a mosaic frieze that runs the entire width of the facade under the wooden rafters of the roof overhangs, created by the well-known workshop of V. A. Frolov. Thin lacy patterns of wrought metal contrast with the stone surface: parapet fences, flag holders, forged leaves, flowers, curls, and so on. The mansion is notable for its rich interiors, preserved from the former owner of the house, N. M. Polovtsova. All rooms are designed in various historical styles, to which modernity has been added.”