As a stateless Russian refugee, Vladimir Nabokov possessed no travel documents other than a Nansen passport. In “Speak, Memory,” he writes: “The League of Nations equipped émigrés who had lost their Russian citizenship with a so-called ‘Nansen’ passport, a very inferior document of a sickly green hue. Its holder was little better than a criminal on parole and had to go through most hideous ordeals every time he wished to travel from one country to another, and the smaller the countries the worse the fuss they made.”
Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), a Norwegian national, at various periods in his remarkable life was a champion ice skater and skier, Polar explorer, scientist and diplomat. In 1921 he was appointed by the League of Nations to be the first High Commissioner for Refugees.
Roland Huntford, in “Nansen, The Explorer as Hero,” cites an apocryphal Russian saying: “A man consists of a body, a soul and a passport.” Over 1 millions Russians, stateless as a result of the Russian Revolution and ensuring civil war, possessed the first two, but not the third. Nansen set out to remedy this. Contrary to Nabokov’s negative comments, Nansen was successful in these efforts.
Huntford writes: The Nansen passport was “issued by the country of residence as a certificate of identity and a travel document. It did not confer nationality; it merely gave the holder a title to existence. For the first time, the concept of statelessness was enshrined in law. By ensuring re-entry the document removed the main barrier to crossing borders…. Fifty-four countries ultimately recognized the arrangement…. Stravinsky, Chagall, Pavlova and Rachmaninoff were some illustrious holders.” (To this list should be added the name, Nabokov.)
Nansen’s pioneering work on behalf of refugees—his passport system and humanitarian undertakings in the areas of emergency relief and refugee repatriation and settlement—became the basis for the League of Nations and United Nations conventions relating to the status of refugees. (“Immigration and Asylum From 1900 to the Present,” Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen, editors.)
Like Nabokov, my mother was a stateless Russian refugee, but not the holder of a Nansen passport, having arrived in the United States from Russia in 1919, via Finland and Copenhagen, before Nansen began assisting refugees. Her father had moved the family from St. Petersburg, where they lived, to their summer house in Finland, then a grand duchy of Russia, as fighting intensified in the capital.
I wish I had known my grandfather. He was a remarkable human being; very much a self-made man. Unhappy at home, at age 16 he ran away and came to New York City, with no money and speaking no English. Over an eight year period, he traveled to 22 states, eventually becoming a courtroom reporter, before returning to Russia and moving to St. Petersburg. With his knowledge of English and understanding of American ways, he was well-suited to represent American and English companies in Russia.
My grandfather became the managing director in Russia for an American gramophone company. To help create a market for the gramophone, in 1909 he arranged to record voices of the great Russian writers, Tolstoy among them, spending three days at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy estate. He represented the Gillette Razor Company, introducing the Gillette razor into the Russian army and making millions for the company.
My grandfather despised both the Whites—mother remembered him joyfully receiving the news of Rasputin’s murder—and the Reds. He had enormous admiration for the English political system and belonged, as did Nabokov’s father, to the Constitutional Democrats, a political party favoring a constitutional monarchy in Russia.
The civil war did not spare Finland. My grandmother hid meat under the snow and jewelry and money in flower pots. Executions took place nearby. The house shook from the firing of artillery shells. Grandfather decided at this time to take the eldest of his three children—my mother— to Copenhagen, from where she would travel to Boston to pursue her education. The world being a perilous place, he felt strongly that each of his children, two daughters and a son, needed the finest education possible to cope, as best they could, on their own.
My mother, at age 16 and alone, just as her father had done decades earlier, sailed for the United States, but unlike her father, she was, to use Nabokov’s felicitous phrase about himself, “a perfectly normal trilingual child,” being fluent in Russian, French and English, having read the literary classics of each of these lands. (Nabokov had read War and Peace the first time when he was 11.)
And unlike grandfather, mother had a benefactor waiting for her in the United States in the form of the Gillette Razor Company. For services rendered to the company by my grandfather, Gillette arranged for mother to come to the United States and paid her educational expenses at Radcliffe College, then at Yale for her master’s, and Radcliffe-Harvard for her doctorate in the field of international relations, her lifetime professional pursuit.
My grandfather later brought the remaining members of his family to London, perhaps using Nansen passports as travel documents, where he lived in straitened circumstances, having, unfortunately for the family’s finances, been a patriot who invested heavily in Russian bonds to finance the war against Germany, and where he died a stateless refugee. Across the Atlantic, as my grandfather would have wished, his eldest daughter became a United States citizen.
Nabokov described his Russian inheritance as being in the form of “unreal estate” —not the extensive estates once owned by his family, all lost in the revolution, but the Russian language, its literature, and rich memories of childhood and St. Petersburg. My mother shared this same inheritance.
As the son of a refugee mother, I am very much aware of living in a city where close to one-half of the residents are foreign-born. Through my mother’s experience, I understand both the pain of homeland loss and separation and the opportunities a new land offers.
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.