Lives & Loves of the Exile

Dominique Nabokov Archives/Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York/Getty Images
Nicolas Nabokov, New York City, 1965; photograph by Gjon Mili

Nicolas Nabokov was a Russian composer, exiled at sixteen, a year and a half after the October Revolution, and best known for his career as secretary-general of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international organization created in 1950 for the purpose of sponsoring festivals, conferences, and magazines that would exemplify Western artistic and intellectual freedom in contrast with Soviet censorship and conformity. Nabokov brought unique gifts of energy and generosity to the job. Working for the congress—often working against his bureaucratic colleagues—he conceived and organized the first large-scale international festival of music, drama, and the arts, a far more complex and ambitious affair than pre-war local festivals like those presented at Salzburg or Glyndebourne. He opened everything he organized to composers and artists who worked in every contemporary style, including those he privately disliked. He sustained lifelong friendships in four languages, and was loved and admired by friends as various as Isaiah Berlin, George Kennan, Mary McCarthy, Leontyne Price, Igor Stravinsky, and W.H. Auden.

Then, in the 1960s, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was revealed to have been funded secretly by the CIA, and for the next fifty years received wisdom has judged everyone involved as either a willing agent or an unwilling dupe of American imperialism. Vincent Giroud’s nuanced and scrupulously documented Nicolas Nabokov overturns that judgment, and brings into clearer focus a contentious episode in cold war history. Its deeper implications include new ways of thinking about the psychology of exile and its effect on twentieth-century art and culture.

Nabokov’s first cousin Vladimir Nabokov, born four years before him, was also exiled in adolescence, but the two responded to exile in diametrically opposed ways, each choosing a different life path, like brothers in a timeless myth. Exiled at an age when adolescents typically construct their personality from a combination of their inner impulses and the norms and conventions of their surrounding culture, each was forced to create himself in his own way, in the sudden absence of the culture that had sustained them in childhood.


Nicolas Nabokov was born in 1903 to a family of wealthy liberal intellectuals. He spoke Russian to his father, French to his mother, English to one governess, and German to another. One day he had his “first musical shock” when he heard his mother play a Rachmaninov prelude on the piano, and he resolved to be a musician. Later, looking back to his childhood, as Giroud reports,

what remained in Nabokov’s memory was a prelapsarian universe, in which music took possession of him—as he saw it—not through dry piano exercises, but naturally, through the “open window” which let him absorb the sounds, smells, and rhythms of the surrounding world.

After his family fled the revolution, Nabokov studied music in Germany and France,…

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