Advanced / A Guide to Berlin

Dr. Zakhar Ishov, Tuebingen University

"The aim of the lecture-seminar was to introduce a group of students in advanced Russian at Boston University to historical, cultural, linguistic and political aspects of the first wave of Russian refugees that settled en masse in the German capital in the 1920s in the aftermath of the Bolshevik coup d’état. A related aim was to open a discussion on the condition of exile. As a point of departure we used the 1925 short story by Vladimir Nabokov (Sirin) titled “Путеводитель по Берлину” / “The Guide to Berlin,” in Nabokov’s own later translation into English.

Nabokov’s “The Guide to Berlin” is an ostensibly unconventional guide to the German capital of the 1920s – the story’s narrator lists pipes, streetcars, Berliners’ daily chores, the zoo and a dingy pub as the city’s main attractions. The story’s startling complexity has prompted a number of literary scholars to write their own guides to the short story in an attempt to solve its mysteries. And yet I found the story to be well suited to represent the complexity of Nabokov’s art and to open a discussion on the topic of his Russian Berlin universe.

These topics include cultural, linguistic, psychological, material and political challenges that Russian exiles of the 1920s were facing in their adoptive environments and the role of literature and language in helping them cope with those challenges. Another idea was to suggest to the students the extant connections between some of the challenges that Russian exiles were facing in Berlin of the 1920s to those faced by the modern day refugees, who find themselves at the center of today’s political decisions on both sides of the Atlantic.

Nabokov’s Russian Berlin novels and stories, which at the time were just becoming available to a larger Russian readership after decades of censorship, turned out to be the guides to my own new life in Germany after I had immigrated with my family to Berlin in the early 1990s. Nabokov’s works were, in fact, of great help to me in the difficult process of cultural readjustment. My own experience allowed me to point out to the students the differences that existed between the Russian diaspora in Berlin of the 1920s and that of my own wave of Russian emigration to Germany of the early 1990s. I hoped that this personal touch might help the students to better relate to the discussion topic.

The ultimate goal of the class was to acquaint the students of the fourth year Russian with the difficult, but exciting art of Nabokov’s earlier works. His nine novels and many short stories written in Russian and published under Nabokov’s pen-name Sirin in numerous Russian émigré journals during his Berlin years are less familiar to the readers of the English language novels composed in his American period. And yet Nabokov’s Russian works provide a key to many of his later works written in English.

At the close of the lecture-seminar the students were given a task of creating a guide of their own city using the example of Nabokov’s unconventional guide to Berlin. To make their task more meaningful, the students’ guide was meant to be written for the modern day refugees with the idea of facilitating for them a discovery of the hidden and inconspicuous aspects of their foreign habitats so as to help them cope better with the challenges of exile and of the adjustment to their new settings."