On 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, Stockholm and Oslo become the world’s most important scientific and literary stages.  This year, it will be 81 years since the first award of Nobel Prize for Literature to a Russian, Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) – also, and not incidentally, the first writer in exile to receive the award.

 

Ivan Bunin, 1937.
 
Little has been written about the support for the Nobel Literature Prize that Ivan Bunin received from Emanuel Nobel, the founder’s nephew, despite the award’s rules excluding family intervention.  Was this revenge for the Bolshevik despoliation of the riches of the Nobel family?
The important chapter that Alfred Nobel and his family wrote in Russian history is not well known. The head of the family, Immanuel Nobel, had moved from Sweden to Saint Petersburg in 1838. With his three sons, Robert, Ludwig and Alfred (the inventor of dynamite) accomplished astonishing work in developing the Russian oil industry. One of Ludwig’s sons, Emanuel Nobel, managed the family’s Russian oil business – Branobel, the world’s largest at the time – for 30 years. His sister, Marta, married the Russian doctor George Oleinikoff.
By 1916, the ‘Russian Rockefellers’ owned, controlled, or had substantial interest in companies producing a third of all Russian crude oil, which provided almost two-thirds of the country’s domestic consumption.
But two years later, when the Bolshevik Revolution triumphed,  Immanuel had to flee Russia disguised as a peasant, while his two brothers were imprisoned by the Cheka secret police. The Nobel empire vanished overnight as the refinery fires were extinguished, hundreds of wells were filled with water and the factories in St. Petersburg closed down.
In exile for the next ten years, first in Paris and then in Stockholm, the Nobel family fought to recover what had been seized by the Bolsheviks until they gradually realized it could never be possible.
Since then the Nobel family, Emanuel Nobel above all, became dedicated to fulfilling the will and testament of Alfred Nobel to establish the famous Nobel Prizes.
Thus the scene was set for the intrigue that developed over many years around the Nobel Prize for Literature that confronted two polarized groups: those in favour of Stalin’s favourite Gorky, who had remained in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution, and those in favour of the émigré “white” writer, Ivan A. Bunin, who fled Russia to France in 1921.
At the end of 20s and the beginning of the 30s, Western authors were engaged in a war of words to see which Russian writer would be first to get the Nobel Prize. The rupture (for a conflict of egos, but also for political views) between Gorky and Bunin, friends in other times, was well known.
Gorky had an international reputation and was supported by influential personalities in the literary world, among them Rolland Romain, George Bernard Shaw, Malraux, Gide,  H. G. Wells, Stefan Zweig.  And he was, before Bunin, a clear favourite for the Swedish prize when he was first nominated in 1918.
Over the years, however, Bunin and his writing provoked a positive reaction from the democratic West, especially in France, with its strong Russian exile community. But perhaps the key factor in the race to become the first Russian literatura Nobel was the crucial backing of three persons: Emanuel Nobel himself, the writer Romain Rolland and the Czechoslovak President Thomas Masaryk.
 
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