Forty years ago, Leon Edel – an expert on Henry James – sneered at Nabokov’s claim that the communist revolution in Russia completely destroyed the rule of law and took away all the limited but tangible liberties that Russians enjoyed under the old regime. Nabokov outlined his view in a letter to Edmund Wilson in 1948:
Under the Tsars (despite the inept and barbarous character of their rule) a freedom-loving Russian had incomparably more possibility and means of expressing himself than at any time during Lenin’s and Stalin’s regime.
There can’t be much doubt about this, assuming “the Tsars” are limited to Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II – the last three emperors. Nabokov said something that should have been but wasn’t obvious to any inteigent reader.
He [the Russian] was protected by the law. There were fearless and independent judges in Russia. The Russian sud [≈ courts] after the Alexander reforms was a magnificent institution, not only on paper. Periodicals of various tendencies and political parties of all possible kinds, legally or illegally, flourished and all parties were represented in the Dumas. Public opinion was always liberal and progressive.
Under the Soviets, from the very start, the only protection a dissenter could hope for was dependent on government whims, not laws. No parties except the one in power could exist… Bureaucracy, a direct descendant of party discipline, took over immediately. Public opinion disintegrated. The intelligentsia ceased to exist.
One could argue that public opinion was not uniformly liberal, although outspoken reactionaries faced ostracism from polite society; that the bureaucracy that took over after the Revolution wasn’t worthy of this name, being an amalgam of the party nomenklatura and the secret police; that the intelligentsia did not disappear at once – but these are minor points relative to Nabokov’s principal argument.
Back in 1979, Edel brushed off Nabokov’s judgment as being “so at odds with the history books and eyewitnesses.” How things have changed – different history books, more eyewitnesses allowed to speak posthumously, and a healthy skepticism of pro-Soviet narratives.