A Scandal in Letters: Nina Berberova and the Nazi Occupation of France

TitleA Scandal in Letters: Nina Berberova and the Nazi Occupation of France
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsFrank, Siggy
JournalThe Russian Review
Date Published10/2018

This article focuses on the scandal around the Russian émigré writer Nina Berberova in post‐war France, when she was accused of having been a Nazi sympathizer and collaborator. Rumours about her alleged Nazi collaboration during the German occupation of France started emerging from 1941 onwards and proliferated after the liberation of Paris in a complex exchange of letters between writers, journalists and political figures of the Russian emigration in France and the United States. In September 1945, Berberova defended herself against these allegations in an open letter to leading figures of the Russian émigré establishment. Yet, rather than putting the matter to rest, this public declaration of innocence only fuelled intense discussions among Russian émigré writers in the autumn of 1945 about Berberova’s role during the Nazi occupation of France. Berberova was by no means the only Russian émigré writer accused of collaboration with the Nazis, but she commanded a disproportionally large amount of space in the correspondence of the literary and cultural elite during and after the Second World War. Berberova ascribed the accusations of Nazi collaboration to personal “jalousie,” yet the distinctly public nature of the discourse about her suggests that her alleged transgressions had a wider symbolic significance for the Russian intellectual emigration. In this article, the author argues that the Berberova scandal was a symptom of the deepening fault lines between Russian and Russian‐Jewish writers in the Russian émigré community in post‐war France. While émigré discourse tended to ignore this emerging rift or the distinct identities and divergent experience of Russian‐Jewish writers during the German occupation, the Berberova scandal marks a moment in émigré history when a small group of influential intellectuals tried to put the suffering of Russian‐Jewish writers during the war years and the covert anti‐Semitism in parts of the Russian emigration on the agenda. To this end, Berberova came to stand in for those Russian émigré writers who were seen to have been indifferent to the suffering of their Russian‐Jewish colleagues during the occupation. This article therefore looks beyond the issue of Berberova’s guilt or innocence and instead examines the function of the scandal and its underlying ideological conflicts within the complex process by which the Russian emigration negotiated its own demise as a culturally distinct group with a shared purpose during and after the Second World War.

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