Study Guide

A Russian Beauty Setting

By Vladimir Nabokov

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The setting is what makes the plot in "A Russian Beauty." Without it, Nabokov's short story is just the tale of a pretty girl down on her luck. Even though historical background is super important to understanding what's going on, Nabokov barely mentions anything about it. He was writing to other people like himself. This was their lives! They didn't need him to give them a history lesson. But we're not all Russian émigrés here, so we'll assume that you need a little update on the back-story.

Olga's Childhood: 1900-1919

Everything starts out great. Olga's rich, noble, and living the good life in St. Petersburg. That's hitting the jackpot. Her family has probably been living in luxury for centuries, and they could never imagine that anything would ever change their way of life.

Well, at least until Olga's five years old. In 1905 a group of peaceful protesters gathered in front of the Tsar's winter palace to petition for worker's rights. Instead of negotiations, their protest was met with gunfire. This shocked people throughout Russia and eventually led to the Russian Revolution of 1905.

The Revolution and it's aftermath is the first crack in the Tsar's rule, leading to the October Manifesto (a Bill of Rights) and the establishment of the Duma (a Parliament). The October Manifesto was kind of like a beta version of the Russian constitution. It actually gave the peasants things like rights to free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to vote. That might seem basic now, but it was pretty shocking at the time (as a point of comparison, in the U.S. at this time, women couldn't vote yet and national child labor laws weren't in place). The Duma was a council where people, even non-nobles, could actually vote on what would go on in their neighborhoods and country. Finally, all the power wouldn't just be in the Tsar's hands! Or not.

Even though things were supposed to change after this revolution, everything more or less stayed the same. Or at least until the beginning of World War I in 1914. Tsar Nicholas II decided to bring Russia into the war. The people even supported him at first, and it was a big nationalistic propaganda party. But you won't be surprised to hear that after massive inflation and shortages of food, arms, and fuel, people weren't so excited about the whole war thing. Riots began, protests were held, and people started to question the rule of the Tsar.

Everything came to a head in 1917. Just like in 1905, a bunch of people stormed into St. Petersburg. But this time, instead of shooting them, the Army sided with the people. Dun dun dun. This is the beginning of the February Revolution, a.k.a. the revolution that would end tsarist rule.

Why is it the February Revolution instead of the Russian Revolution? Well, because a few months later the October Revolution kicked off, overthrowing the provisional government established by the February Revolution and putting a Bolshevik government led by Lenin in it's place.

The provisional government was pretty bad at governing, and its members were constantly fighting for power. All that ended when the Bolsheviks took over. They knew that power belonged to the workers, and their leader (Lenin) was going to make sure the power stayed in the right hands.

Olga's Mother and Brother Die: 1918-1919?

The narrator never tells us when Olga's mother and brother die, but we're going to guess that it's around this time. As you have probably noticed, stuff is starting to get a little crazy. Well hold on to your hats, because it's going to get even crazier.

In 1918, the Russian Civil War began, pitting the White Army (monarchists and anti-socialists) against the Red Army (Bolsheviks). Basically, the guys that wanted to keep the Tsar and nobles around (or just plain didn't like the Bolsheviks) fought against the Bolsheviks who wanted to get rid of all that monarchy junk and give the power to the people. In that same year, the entire Russian royal family wass killed by a firing squad. If you've ever watched the movie Anastasia, this story should sound familiar.

But back to Olga's mom and brother. Olga's brother is killed by a firing squad, just like the Romanov family. It probably happened either during the October Revolution or the civil war, since many other people from noble families were killed like this at the same time.

Olga's mom, on the other hand, dies of something seemingly peaceful: typhus (sweet, peaceful typhus). But even typhus is still linked to revolution and warfare. The soldiers in the civil and world wars transported the disease in their clothing, bringing an epidemic with them when they returned home. During the October Revolution there were around 30 million cases of typhus in Russia, and 3 million deaths as a result of the disease. Olga's mom would have just been one of the many people sharing that story.

Typhus was so widespread that it impacted many Russian authors. You can see examples of other characters dying from it all over the place. Even Nabokov couldn't leave it alone, and wrote about it again in Lolita, making it the cause of death for Humbert Humbert's first love.

Olga Flees Russia: 1919

Yep, right about now seems like a good time to leave.

Between all the fighting and the disease, staying would have been a near-certain death sentence for Olga and her father. Between 1917 and 1920, Russian nobles and other people who opposed the revolution left the country for greener pastures. They were called the White émigrés after the White Army who opposed the Bolsheviks. And guess who was part of that wave of émigrés? That's right, Mr. Nabokov himself.

Olga and Her Father's Deaths: 1926-1931?

Shortly after Olga leaves, the USSR was established in 1922. While she is dancing with her friends in Berlin, Lenin was leading his new Soviet republic. Many of the émigrés were still watching their motherland to see if they could ever return.

This all changed, though, when Lenin died in 1924. When Lenin died, Stalin began implementing a plan to take total control of Russia, which he completed in 1927 by expelling his main competition, Trotsky. You see, Lenin and Trotsky were the big shots behind the October Revolution. They shared the same ideology and Lenin even endorsed Trotsky in his will. So by kicking Trotsky out and placing himself at the head of the government, Stalin made a huge break with the revolutionary and optimistic nature of the October Revolution. At this point, there is definitely no going back for the émigrés. Maybe it's no coincidence that Olga's dad dies the year before this happens.

When Stalin took power, he implemented new economic policies that were meant to improve agriculture and speed up industrialization. But what happened instead is that the country became even poorer... just like a certain pretty Russian lady we've come to know.

We don't know exactly what year Olga dies, but it's probably somewhere in between 1931 and 1932. That would make it very close to the time of the Great Soviet Famine of 1932, which claimed the lives of 8 million Russians. Shortly after this Stalin began his Great Purge, killing or detaining anyone he thought was "suspicious." The Purge wouldn't end until after his death and killed over a million people between 1937 and 1938 alone. So, if Olga had to die as a symbol of Russia, this was a pretty good time to do it.

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