When Russian literature passed through Prague
In the wake of the Russian Revolution and civil war, Prague played a surprisingly large and often unacknowledged role in 20th century Russian literature and thought. While the exiled aristocratic and political exiles settled in Paris and most of Russia’s intelligentsia chose Berlin, the scholars and writers that came to then Czechoslovakia would have a far reaching intellectual influence.
While Prague provided a certain amount of comfort for Russian exiles, given that Czech is a Slavic language, a more compelling reason for resettlement was that the new republic’s constitution provided émigrés not only the right of asylum but financial support. The welcome provided refugees in Czechoslovakia was unique in Europe and was attributed to the insight and international outlook of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk as well as the anti-Bolshevik sentiments of the country’s first prime minister, Karel Kramář.
The Russian writer most closely associated with Prague is undoubtedly poetMarina Tsvetaeva. Leaving Russia in 1922, she arrived in the bustling metropolis of Berlin, where Russian émigré publishing was about to come into being among a community estimated then at over 100,000. After a short spell, Tsvetaeva went on to Prague to reunite with her husband Sergey Efron, who was taking advantage of student stipends and housing provided by the Czech government to continue his studies.
Upon arrival, though, financial concerns caused Tsvetaeva to immediately relocate herself and her daughter to a village on the outskirts of Prague where a number of other Russians had already taken up residence. Except for a brief period the following year in the city proper, she would live in a series of small villages on Prague’s outskirts, such as Všenory, Horní Mokropsy and Dolní Mokropsy.
While the material conditions of her life were extremely trying, Tsvetaeva was very productive as a poet in the years she spent in Prague, a productivity that was rewarded by assured publication in the Prague-based émigré journal Volja Rossii (Will of Russia); it published everything Tsvetaeva sent them from 1922 until the journal’s closure in 1931.
Unlike many of her scholarly fellow-Russians, who formed strong bonds in Czech literary and academic circles, Tsvetaeva confined herself to the Russian sphere. While isolating her at times she did make contact with number of Russian writers, including the young Berlin émigré Vladimir Nabokov.
In 1924 Nabokov was writing in Russian under the pseudonym of Vladimir Sirin and was still two years away from getting his first novel published. Nabokov’s mother and sister lived in Smíchov in Prague 5, as did Tsvetaeva at that time. The two Russian writers met and took a long walk that Nabokov would later refer to as a “strange, lyrical hike.”
It was during this visit in Smíchov that Nabokov would begin writing what many critics consider his best play, The Tragedy of Mr. Morn. In fact, though anxious to return to Berlin, he delayed his trip back to make further progress on the play, a work that is perhaps Nabokov’s most direct response to the revolution in his homeland. Because of some previously missing sections of the manuscript the play has never appeared in English until now, with publishers Penguin bringing out a translation in July 2012.
Nabokov’s mother would move to various parts of Prague over the next 15 years and died in Prague in 1939. Her sons were unable to to come to her funeral because of the war. ...