Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Russian Tether

For the first time since Anna Karenina, Mary allows us to continue the discussion of Russians abroad. Like Kitty, the residents of the pension use their time away to reflect on their home country. On page 81, Podtyagin states "whenever we dream about Russa we never dream of it as beautiful, as we know it was in reality, but as something monstrous." Ganin's reply to this is "I only dream about the beautiful things...we have to get out of here." The sense of displacement the Russians feel is intensified by their (perhaps false) mental images of Russia. Even as they move farther away or acknowledge, like Podtyagin does, that they may never return, the Russians' memories tether them to their home country. Because of these memories, even the diverse group of Russians that we see in the pension are able to establish some sort of commonality.

The shift I've noticed since Anna Karenina is that there seems to be less focus on the idea of what it means to be Russian abroad. During Kitty's spa visit, the Russians are either trying to blend in with the western Europeans or assert their "Russianness" as Kitty's father does. Perhaps there's less focus on Russian identities because we don't see the citizens of the pension interact with other non-Russians.


  1. It may be that since Russians abroad in Mary are refugees, they are in no position to assert their "Russianness" unlike the aristocratic elite of Anna Karenina. Being a refugee makes it also difficult to blend with the western Europeans. Emigrants, with some rare exceptions, are typically an equally irrelevant group in their both adopted country and home country because they really do not belong to either place. The lodgers in the pension seem to fit the bill pretty well.

  2. I think the lack of overt displays of "Russianness" in Mary was meant to reflect the deterioration of traditional Russian identity at the time Nabokov was writing. Though Ganin comes from a Russian background like Anna Karenina, he's something of a fish out of water after the Revolution. Really, I think a lot of what Nabokov was trying to explore in Mary was how the Revolution transformed and figuratively exiled the old "Russianness" of Tolstoy's era and replaced it with something new, alien, and exclusive that leaves many self-identified Russians feeling left out.