Sergei was born in St. Petersburg. The Nabokovs were members of imperial Russia's most exclusive social circles, and the children grew up in a glamorous whirl of country estates, liveried servants, balls, boating parties and annual vacations in Biarritz, France, and on the Riviera. The family was extraordinarily wealthy; their lineage included princes and generals and government ministers.
Sergei grew up out of the limelight, shy and unhappy and somewhat odd. He was not the favorite of the family, and was rather miserable during his childhood. Sergei was afflicted with an atrocious stutter that would only get worse as he got older. Help would only confuse him, so one had to wait until he could say what was on his mind, and it was usually worth hearing.
When he was 15 and his brother Vladimir 16, Vladimir found Sergei's diary open on his desk and read it. He showed it to their tutor, who showed it to the children's father. In retelling the incident Vladimir writes that Sergei's journal "abruptly provided a retroactive clarification of certain oddities of behavior on his part."
Among those oddities was Sergei's withdrawal from the famously progressive Tenishev school, an all-boy private school. Sergei left because of a series of "unhappy romances." It's unlikely that he found much sympathy within his immediate family that instituted a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy. They took Sergei's revelation absolutely quietly. Nobody ever spoke about it to him, and he was left to do as he wished.
When the revolution came in 1917, the Nabokov family fled Russia. Neither Vladimir nor Sergei would ever return to their motherland. After brief stops in Athens and Paris, Vladimir enrolled at Cambridge University; Sergei started at Oxford but joined his brother at Cambridge a semester later.
In 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Nabokov and his four siblings posed for a photograph as a present for their mother. The children were in Yalta, in exile from their native St. Petersburg. In the photo, the air of the fabulous wealth and privilege they grew up in still clings to them. The girls are wearing matching sailor suits.
In the background looms a serious and rather beautiful young man dressed entirely in black. His intense gaze meets the camera's through an exquisite pince-nez. He is not Vladimir, who is wearing a bow tie and looking hilariously full of himself. He is Sergei Nabokov, born 11 months after his famous brother and with a very different fate ahead of him.
The two brothers went on to earn identical degrees, but in all other respects Vladimir and Sergei were utterly different. Vladimir was the young homme de monde - handsome, romantic in looks, something of a snob and a charmer - Serge was the dandy, an aesthete. He was tall and very thin, very blond, and his tow-colored hair usually fell in a lock over his left eye. He loved music, particularly Wagner, and he studied the piano seriously. He attended all the Diaghilev premieres wearing a flowing black theater cape and carrying a pommeled cane.
When the brothers graduated in 1922, they joined their family in Berlin. Sergei fit easily into the growing gay community there, and he was friendly with German activist Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the world's first gay tolerance organization. Sergei and Vladimir went to work at a bank, but the 9-to-5 routine didn't suit them: Sergei quit after a week, Vladimir in a matter of hours. Vladimir remained in Berlin, and Sergei moved on to Paris.
Paris in the '20s meant the legendary Paris of expatriates, the Paris of modernists and the avant-garde, of Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and the surrealists. Sergei would spend much of the next two decades there. While Vladimir never stopped mourning the Russia of his youth, Sergei most likely felt at home for the first time in a city that celebrated art and music, and that took his gayness in stride.
Vladimir Nabokov, would go on to become one of the most important writers of the 20th century, earning not only critical acclaim but international fame and financial success as well. Sergei would never be famous, but in its own way his life would be just as remarkable.
Shy, awkward and foppish, the opposite of his gregarious brother, Sergei Sergei's homosexuality would cast a long shadow over his strange and heroic life, and it would also, ultimately, be the cause of his horrifying and untimely death. It cast a shadow over Vladimir's life as well: he loved his brother, but whatever else he may have been - a brilliant writer, a loving father - Vladimir was a confirmed homophobe, and his gay brother was a constant source of shame, confusion and regret to him.
It becomes more difficult to track Sergei when he passed out of his brother's exhaustively documented life, but some details of his time in Paris survive. In the winter of 1923 he met the painter Pavel Tchelitchev, who painted sets for Sergei Diaghilev. Tchelitchev was also gay and also a Russian migrant, and the two of them shared a tiny apartment with Tchelitchev's lover, Allen Tanner.
The flat had no electricity and no bath - they had to wash themselves in a zinc tub using water heated on a gas stove. Sergei survived by giving lessons in English and Russian. His circumstances may have been straitened, but the cultural scene in which Sergei found himself was rich beyond all measure. Sergei was good friends with Jean Cocteau, and he was also connected, through Tchelitchev and his cousin Nicolas, to Diaghilev, to composer Virgil Thomson, to those aristocratic aesthetes the Sitwells and even to the legendary salons conducted by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at 27 Rue de Fleurus.
He must have cut quite a figure. Sergei was an incorrigible dandy, and he wore a bow tie at all times. According to one story, told by a former archbishop of San Francisco, he was notorious for attending Mass in full makeup.
Sergei was deeply kind, always a gentleman, devoted to music but also steeped in Russian, French and English poetry - all languages that, along with German, he spoke fluently. He could recite anything by heart, and when he recited poetry, he would not stutter at all. He was also himself a poet, but none of his work survives.
The story of Sergei's life in Paris has a Cinderella ending. Sometime in the late '20s or early '30s he met and fell in love with a wealthy, aristocratic Austrian, Hermann Thieme.
Charming, handsome, something of a dilettante, Thieme was the son of an insurance magnate. His family owned (and still owns) Schloss Weissenstein, a magnificent 12th century castle in the tiny Alpine village of Matrei im Osttirol near Innsbruck, Austria. During the '30s Hermann and Sergei often retreated to Schloss Weissenstein.
In a letter that Sergei wrote to his mother, he describes the joy his relationship with Hermann gave him.
"It's all such a strange story, sometimes even I don't understand how it happened ... I'm just suffocating with happiness ... There are people who would not understand this, to whom such things would be completely incomprehensible. They would rather see me in Paris, barely surviving by giving lessons, and in the end a deeply unhappy creature. There is talk about my 'reputation' and so on. But I think that you will understand, understand that all those who do not accept and do not understand my happiness are strangers to me."
Was his own brother one of those strangers? After Vladimir met Hermann for the first time, he described the scene to his wife in a letter:
"The husband, I must admit, is very pleasant, quiet, not at all the pederast type, attractive face and manner. All the same I felt rather uncomfortable, especially when one of their friends came up, red-lipped and curly."
Vladimir simply didn't like homosexuals. Even after Sergei's death, Vladimir used homophobic slurs that make the modern reader cringe.
Where did this prejudice come from, in a man who spoke out vehemently against both racism and anti-Semitism (his wife was Jewish)? Nabokov's father, also named Vladimir, was a politician, and he was deeply involved in legislative debates over homosexuality. In pre-revolutionary Russia consensual homosexual intercourse was a crime (as it still is in parts of the United States), and although V.D. Nabokov, as he was known, argued for the decriminalization of sodomy, his attitude toward homosexuality was complicated: he made it abundantly clear that his legislative arguments were based on purely constitutional grounds, on abstract notions of freedom and privacy, and that he personally considered homosexuality to be "deeply repugnant" to any "healthy and normal" person.
Nabokov also had two gay uncles. Konstantin Nabokov, his father's brother, was chargé d'affaires at the Russian Embassy in London. Vasily Rukavishnikov, Sergei's maternal uncle, was also a diplomat, though a less successful one. He did succeed, however, in making an indelible impression on his young nephew.
Uncle Ruka, as he was universally known, was a wealthy, eccentric dilettante, and there's every indication that he was in love with the young Vladimir; certainly his attachment to his favorite nephew went beyond what was appropriate.
Like Sergei, Uncle Ruka was gay, stuttered and loved music passionately. He considered his greatest achievement to be an original poem that he set to his own accompaniment, but of all the Nabokovs it was Sergei who learned to play it by heart. But Uncle Ruka paid no attention to him. When he died in 1916 he left his entire estate -- a mansion, 2,000 acres of land and a fortune in rubles -- to his favorite nephew, Vladimir, who was a wealthy 17-year-old for a year before the Russian Revolution took it all away again.
In the spring of 1940 Hitler invaded France, and by May the Germans were bombing Paris. Vladimir and his family left for America on the last boat out of St. Nazaire, but Sergei was away in the countryside at the time. He returned to Paris to find their apartment suddenly empty.
He chose to stay in Europe with Hermann. The Nazis were already rounding up homosexuals as actively as they were Jews, and to avoid attracting suspicion Sergei and Hermann saw each other only rarely. Sergei took a job as a translator in Berlin, but he had no stomach for war, and the Allied bombings frightened him horribly. Sergei had almost no money, and as a refugee from czarist Russia his only travel document was a flimsy Nansen passport.
In 1941 the Gestapo arrested Sergei on charges of homosexuality. It released him four months later, but he was placed under constant surveillance. It's ironic that at that moment, after a lifetime of shyness and stuttering, Sergei could not keep silent. He began to speak out vehemently against the injustices of the Third Reich to his friends and colleagues. On Nov. 24, 1943, he served as best man at Ledkovsky's wedding. Three weeks later he was arrested for the second time.
The file that the police kept on Sergei accuses him of subversive statements. There may have been more to the story: it seems that Sergei was in fact involved in a plot to hide an escaped prisoner of war, a former Cambridge friend who had become a pilot and been shot down over Germany.
After his arrest Sergei was taken to Neuengamme, a large labor camp near Hamburg, where he became prisoner No. 28631. Conditions were brutal: The camp was a center for medical experimentation, and the Nazis used the prisoners to conduct research on tuberculosis. Of the approximately 106,000 inmates who passed through Neuengamme, fewer than half survived, and as a rule, the guards singled out homosexuals for particularly harsh treatment.
According to camp records, "Sergej Nabokoff" had died on Jan. 9, 1945, of a combination of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion. Neuengamme was liberated four months later.
Sergei's conduct in the camp was nothing less than heroic. Nicolas Nabokov's son Ivan says that after the war, survivors from Neuengamme would telephone his family out of the blue - they were the only Nabokovs in the book - just to talk about Sergei. "They said he was extraordinary. He gave away lots of packages he was getting, of clothes and food, to people who were really suffering." Meanwhile, Hermann had also been arrested, but he was sent to fight on the front lines in Africa. He would survive. He spent his later life at Schloss Weissenstein, without a career, caring for his invalid sister. He died in 1972.