When in 1936, Sergei Prokofiev moved from the West to Stalin’s Soviet Union, the choice not only affected his music, but put his personal life in turmoil. An innovative composer, Prokofiev lost his freedom to create, and his first wife, Lina, a foreigner, was deprived of her liberty altogether. In 1948, she was charged with treason and sentenced to 20 years in the gulag, of which she would serve eight.
Lured with commissions and privileges, the Prokofievs never even discussed their decision to migrate to the totalitarian state. Prokofiev, who initially had left Russia after the revolution, wanted to make Moscow the center of his international operations. Lina had ambitions of her own, hoping to perform on Soviet radio, something she would not later admit.
In “Lina and Serge’’ Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison, best known for his biography, “The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years,’’ creates a fascinating portrait of the self-absorbed couple. Lina’s dramatic story, new to Western readers, reveals Prokofiev beyond his famously unsentimental exterior. Beginning with Lina’s arrest, which had “shaken” Prokofiev, Morrison maintains strong narrative tension, following the couple back to their cosmopolitan milieus before the ill-fated relocation.
Lina Prokofiev interested Western biographers after her escape from the Soviet Union in 1974, at age 77. However, interviews were unsuccessful: She could not talk meaningfully about her life with Prokofiev — he was always on tours — and would not talk about the gulag.
Born Carolina Codina in Madrid into a family of two singers, a Russian-speaking mother and Spanish father, Lina studied voice in Paris and Milan, but was told she lacked the patience and will for a serious career. She was introduced to Prokofiev in New York in 1918, the year he left Bolshevik Russia, after a concert where the virtuoso pianist played his own dissonant, tempestuous music.
During almost two decades in the West, Prokofiev wrote operas, ballets, concertos and, like Igor Stravinsky before him, collaborated with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He was dedicated to his art alone, he told Lina, who also had to compete with a broad range of women in his life; it took her until 1923, not long before their first son was born, to get Prokofiev to commit to marriage.
An aspiring operatic soprano, Lina debuted in Milan’s Teatro Carcano substituting in “Rigoletto’’ for the principal singer, Marina Campanari. Subsequent performances were botched due to attacks of nerves. Prokofiev wrote songs for Lina’s voice, but their joint performances were only a burden. Even with Prokofiev accompanying, Lina disappointed her audiences, critics, and herself.
In 1927, the couple traveled to the Soviet Union where they witnessed the success of Prokofiev’s satirical opera “Love for Three Oranges.’’ Prokofiev “had never felt as popular, as potentially influential,” and the triumph of that trip would determine his decision to relocate. Although Prokofiev’s ballet “Le Pas d’Acier’’ (“The Steel Step’’) was attacked as a mockery of Stalin’s industrialization, by the mid-1930s his commissions came mostly from the Soviet Union, while interest in the West declined.
Lina was also preparing for a career as a Soviet musician. Having received a star’s welcome in the Soviet embassy in Paris and reassured about the purges, she read Stalin’s speeches and rehearsed the “Shepherd’s Song of Georgia.” But her radio contract in Moscow was canceled in 1935, after a failed performance.
When in 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich’s modernist ballet and opera were attacked in Pravda, the couple ignored the warning. In a letter to Prokofiev, then touring Eastern Europe, Lina implied Shostakovich’s downfall presented an opportunity: “It seems to me that in all of this drama you can play a very important role.” That same year, the Prokofievs made their disastrous move and became trapped in the totalitarian state, which needed its celebrities repatriated to restore the country’s prestige.
Prokofiev would continue to compose brilliantly, but now he had to revise his ballets and operas to see them staged. Tragically for Lina, they lost freedom to travel. She was desperate to get out and was at war with Prokofiev. The marriage soon unraveled, and in 1938 Prokofiev met Mira Mendelson, an aspiring writer, half his age. Mira became his co-librettist and eventually his wife and would experience the nightmarish period of his career when his works were prohibited from performance.
Prokofiev left Lina and their two sons in 1941, just months before Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, but supported them as long as he lived. In 1948 Prokofiev, along with Shostakovich and others, was condemned for absorbing modernist creative techniques. With Prokofiev in political disgrace, the court annulled his marriage with Lina, which had not been registered with Soviet authorities. By then, the secret police had collected a file about Lina’s persistent efforts to obtain an exit visa from foreign embassies, a crime under Stalin.
Morrison’s effort to portray Lina as “a tragic victim of Serge’s genius” is unsuccessful. She emerges as a charming socialite with an opportunistic streak, who had danced with Joachim von Ribbentrop’s aide at a Kremlin reception. But her destiny will surprise the reader at every turn, with her eventual triumph in the West where she served as cultural representative for the Prokofiev Estate and Foundation almost until her death in 1989 at age 91.
Alexandra Popoff is the author of two books of literary nonfiction and an upcoming book about Leo Tolstoy’s liaison with his disciple, Vladimir Chertkov.