Vladimir Nabokov and the Jews

'Lolita' Author Was Outspoken Critic of Anti-Semitism

Defender of the Jewish People: Growing up in a privileged family, Vladimir Nabokov opposed anti-semitism on both moral and aesthetic grounds.
Getty Images
Defender of the Jewish People: Growing up in a privileged family, Vladimir Nabokov opposed anti-semitism on both moral and aesthetic grounds.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published May 14, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian American author of such novels as “Lolita,” “Pnin,” and “Pale Fire,” was a compassionate observer of modern Jewish history. This has been established in such works as Stacy Schiff’s “Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov),” a 1999 study of the writer’s much beloved Jewish wife; essays by critics Maxim Shrayer and Shalom Goldman, and a majestic two-volume biography of Nabokov written by Brian Boyd and published in 1991 by Princeton University Press.

Supplementing these is a new study, “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.” Written by Andrea Pitzer, “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov” is a good excuse for revisiting just how esteeming Jews and fighting their persecutors became second nature for Nabokov.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov came from a family of high-ranking civil servants who courageously opposed anti-Semitism. His grandfather Dmitri Nikolaevich Nabokov, minister of justice for Czar Alexander II, fought for Jewish rights, while his father, the lawyer and statesman Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, decisively condemned two 1903 events — the publication of the notorious anti-Semitic tract “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and the Kishinev pogrom, in which dozens of Jews were murdered and hundreds injured, in the then-capital of the Bessarabian province.

Growing up in a privileged and enlightened family, Nabokov would oppose anti-Semitism not just on moral grounds, but also for aesthetic reasons, as a sign of “philistinism in all its phases… crude, moronic, and dishonest,” as he explained in 1967 to the Cleveland-born American Jewish author Herbert Gold.

Nabokov’s notion of anti-Semitism as crass philistinism made it natural for the author, starting from his early years as a writer, to characterize Jews sympathetically and despise their haters. During studies at Cambridge University, followed by residence in Berlin, Paris, New York and Montreux, Nabokov stoutheartedly resisted noxious ideological appeals.

One such came from a Cambridge roommate who urged him to read “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” not realizing that Nabokov’s grandfather had rejected that forgery decades earlier.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.