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From Russia to Radcliffe

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MOTHER was Russian-born. How immeasurably this background has enriched my life! Because of her, Russian history and literature were never mere abstractions; rather, they became a part of me. More than any teacher, she advanced my education. On occasion, Mother would talk about her own education, undertaken in the midst of war and revolution, and the necessity of adapting to life in a new country.

She was born in 1903 in St. Petersburg, the capital city of Russia, which became Petrograd in 1914 in an effort to Russify its German-sounding name and later, Leningrad, to honor the leader of the revolution. She was, as Nabokov once described himself, a perfectly normal trilingual child, her three languages being Russian, French, and English.

Her Russian-born father had traveled extensively in the United States, where he acquired a mastery of English to such a degree, that toward the end of his eight-year stay, he worked as a court stenographer. He was imaginative and energetic. His knowledge of English helped him immensely in business, enabling him to represent British and American companies in Russia such as the Gillette Safety Razor Company in Boston.

My grandmother was a talented, high-spirited woman who assisted Grandfather in business. A gifted linguist as well, she translated English books into Russian, including Barrie's ``Peter Pan.''

As conditions in Petrograd deteriorated -- for in 1917 Russia was both at war with Germany and in the midst of revolution -- Grandfather moved his family to Finland, then a duchy of the Russian empire, where he owned a summer house at Terijoki on the Gulf of Finland.

The house, previously owned by an American, had a library filled with books by Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, and Scott. These Mother devoured, for she loved reading.

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