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!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • 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.