Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
April 22, 1899: Vladimir Nabokov is born.
Vladimir Nabokov was born in Saint Petersburg and wrote many of his novels (including his earliest nine) in Russian, but his most famous work, the controversial classic Lolita, was written in English. Nabokov was born to an aristocratic Russian statesman (killed in 1922 by monarchist assassins) and his wife; the Nabokovs enjoyed a cushy and privileged lifestyle in St. Petersburg until 1919, when they were forced into exile in Western Europe. There, Nabokov studied at Cambridge, wrote short stories and poetry under a pseudonym, and composed his first major work in English - The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, shortly before he and his family (including his Jewish wife, Vera Nabokov née Slonim) fled to the United States from France in 1940 with the onset of the German invasion of France.
In the U.S., Nabokov worked at a number of institutions (New York’s Museum of Natural History, Stanford, Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell) teaching in a number of different fields (entomology, creative writing, comparative literature, Russian, and Russian and European literature). In addition to his fiction writing, Nabokov was also an accomplished literary critic, chess problemist, and entomologist - in fact, he wrote his most famous novel while studying butterflies in the Rocky Mountains. Lolita and Pale Fire (1962) were ranked fourth and fifty-third on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels List, respectively.
March 27, 1854: The Crimean War begins.
The Crimean War was one of the first major conflicts to pit the Great Powers of Europe against each other following the Napoleonic Wars. It was fought between an alliance made up of the French, British, and Ottoman Empires (with support from Sardinia) and the Russian Empire, with much of the action taking place on the namesake peninsula of Crimea, and it arose as a result of a number of different factors (though much of it centered around the slowly-decaying Ottoman Empire). In the summer of 1853, Tsar Nicholas I sent troops to Moldovia and Wallachia, principalities then under the control of the Ottomans, leading the Ottoman Empire to declare war on the Russians in October 1853, followed by the belated France and Great Britain on March 27 and 28 of the next year after Russian ships destroyed an Ottoman force at the Battle of Sinop.
Like the American Civil War a decade later and an ocean away, the Crimean War was one of the first “modern” wars. Railroads, armored warships, and telegraphs were used, and William Howard Russell acted as one of the world’s first modern war correspondents when he covered the action for the Times; similarly, Roger Fenton presented some of the first examples of war photography to the public - his famous photo “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is pictured above. Wedged between the Napoleonic Wars and the 20th century, the Crimean War was also a conflict that combined elements of both, most obviously in that tactics had not yet caught up with technology. In addition, Russia’s defeat in the war proved to be one of the factors that led to Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of Russia’s large population of serfs. The war cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, and it was tremendously unpopular on both sides as well.
Many of the cultural aspects of the war have outlived the military and political - for example, women like Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale (both of whom treated soldiers at the famous Siege of Sevastopol) are better-known than the conflict they served during, and the “Charge of the Light Brigade” at the Battle of Balaclava was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem.
March 15, 1917: Tsar Nicholas II abdicates.
Crowned in 1894, Nicholas II led Russia through a disastrous and embarrassing war against Japan, a period of widespread political and social unrest, a world war in which millions of Russians were killed, and finally, the last Russian Revolution before the Tsar’s abdication. Violence and riots erupted as a result of the hardship - famine, inflation, military defeat, all-around misery - caused by the first World War, and especially the Tsar and his government’s handling of the war. In Petrograd, then the Russian capital, thousands of people converged to protest and condemn the Tsar, his disastrous policies, and the old imperial government. the Tsar attempted to use military force to put down the rebellion, but it was too late; thousands of soldiers joined the rebellion in protest as well. On March 15, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated as Emperor of All the Russias, and because he was the last to officially rule (his designated successor, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, never reigned), his abdication also brought an end to the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for over three hundred years.
The Tsar signed his own decree of abdication in the afternoon, and his issued statement called for the people of Russia “to obey the Tsar in the heavy moment of national trials”, but the Russian Empire was dissolved that year with the proclamation of the Russian Republic and the creation of Soviet Russia following the October Revolution. Nicholas and his family (his wife, four daughters, and son) went into exile and were subsequently executed together in July of 1918.
March 3, 1861: Alexander II of Russia issues the Emancipation Reform of 1861.
For centuries after the fall of the Kievan Rus’, varying percentages of Russia’s peasant population were bound as serfs to their landlords and land. Serfdom became widespread practice in Western Europe several hundred years before the system spread to Russia and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. In 1649, Tsar Alexis issued (through parliament) the Sobornoye Ulozheniye, a law code designed to replace the older 1497 code enacted by Grand Prince Ivan III; it defined the status of serfs for the subsequent three centuries and tied their lives and livelihoods on the landowners and nobles on whose land they worked. This code was issued toward the beginning of the rule of the House of Romanov after the turbulent and miserable period known as the Time of Troubles, not coincidentally - in tying the serfs to landowners the code made these same masters subservient and loyal to the new dynasty of tsars.
Serfdom in Russia was on the decline by the 1800s, although serfs still made up an impressive portion of the population; of the around 60 million people living in Russia at the time of the emancipation, the majority were peasants and approximately half of those peasants were considered serfs. Fleeing was a criminal offense, and serfs, despite some reforms, still possessed few rights and were barely distinguishable from slaves. The Emancipation Reform of 1861 was created and passed mindful of the events that had directly preceded - the Revolutions of 1848, initiated by a disgruntled working class, and the Crimean War, which had been an astonishingly embarrassing failure for the Russians and seemed, at the time, to demand the creation of an army composed of free Russians, not serfs. In 1856, Tsar Alexander II delivered a famous speech to representatives of the countrýs nobles in which he declared
… the existing condition of owning souls cannot remained unchanged. It is better to begin to destroy serfdom from above than to wait until that time when it begins to destroy itself from below.
Of course, those responsible for creating the legislation that would bring this abolition about were landowners and masters of serfs, and therefore heavily invested in the future status of serfs. The resulting Emancipation Manifesto granted serfs the rights of free citizens as well as the opportunity to buy land from their previous masters, but, for the most part, freed serfs received insufficient, nearly unfarmable land, while their landlords received financial compensation from the government and the choice of which portions of land to keep and sell. While the reforms were impressive in scale - larger than the freeing of American slaves during the same period, and accomplished without civil war - it is also often considered a failure. At the time of its implementation, it disappointed the privileged, the peasants, and progressive reformers alike.
February 2, 1943: The Battle of Stalingrad ends.
The decisive and bloody five month-long battle at Stalingrad, widely considered the turning point in the European Theatre of the Second World War, ended seventy years ago in a crushing defeat for German forces and marked sort of a beginning of the end for the Third Reich. The battle began in August of 1942, when a massive bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe reduced the entire city to rubble; Stalingrad soon became a conflict of both practical (the city was an industrial center) and symbolic importance. The Battle of Stalingrad was characterized by massive casualties on both sides: an estimated 850,000 Germans were killed, wounded, or declared missing, and a further 100,000 died in captivity; over 400,000 people on the Soviet side - including 40,000 civilians - were killed. It was also characterized by heavy, brutal urban warfare (see: Pavlov’s House), a method known to the Germans as Rattenkrieg - “Rat War”, and also the prevalence of snipers on both sides, most famously Vasily Zaitsev.
Despite the failure of the Luftwaffe to adequately supply German troops, Adolf Hitler insisted that his trapped and cornered armies stay resolute and reject surrender at any cost. Out of both basic victuals and ammunition, the commander of the Sixth Army Friedrich Paulus requested permission from his Führer to surrender in late January. Instead, Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall, reminding him that no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered and dared him to become the first. Paulus acquiesced, disregarding Hitler’s less-than-subtle suggestion that he commit suicide, and allegedly said:
I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal.
Out of the 107,000 German soldiers who made up the remainder of Paulus’ forces, 6,000 survived captivity - the Sixth Army had been completely obliterated, the first time such a thing happened to a German field army. And for the first time, the Nazi government acknowledged a major setback in its war effort. In his famous Sportpalast speech, Joseph Goebbels emphasized the looming threat of ”Bolshevism from the East”, and he declared that such an imminent threat meant that the German people would have to make sacrifices and meet this threat with “total war”.
January 16, 1547: Ivan IV Vasilyevich (“Ivan the Terrible”) is crowned Tsar of All the Russias.
Ivan IV was the son of Vasili III, Grand Prince of Moscow, a title he acquired upon his father’s death when he was just three years old. Ivan’s mother served as regent for five years until her own death, and eight-year-old Ivan and his younger brother were left in the care (or rather custody) of the boyars, who mostly neglected the boys and fought among themselves for power (one of the families may have even had a hand in Ivan’s mother’s mysterious death). In 1547, the sixteen-year-old Grand Prince had himself crowned “Tsar of All the Russias”, marking the beginning of the Tsardom of Russia, which lasted until 1721, when it was succeeded by the Russian Empire. The tsar was no mere duke - he was an autocrat granted “by the Grace of God” power equal to the emperors of Rome and Byzantium, as was only fitting for a state whose rulers saw it as the “Third Rome”. Ivan was crowned at the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow with the symbolically significant “Golden Cap” - Monomakh’s Cap.
Although granted the sobriquet “Terrible” by English-speakers, Ivan’s Russian nickname, “grozny” means something closer to “fearsome” or “formidable”.