The Tragic Wife of the Composer

figes_1-030614.jpg
Serge Prokofiev Estate
Lina Prokofiev with her husband Serge, his mother Maria Grigorievna Prokofieva, and their son Svyatoslav, Paris, 1924

Among the wives of famous men who languished in the Gulag, few had a more tragic tale to tell than Lina Prokofiev, the wife of the composer, who in 1948 was sentenced to twenty years in the labor camps of the far north for “treason to the motherland.” Soviet Russia was not her motherland. Born in Madrid, she had grown up mainly in New York, where she met Prokofiev, who had fled there to escape the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1919. Lina had spent only a few childhood summers in her mother’s native Russia when she went back there with her homesick husband, first to visit, and finally to live with their two sons in 1936. It was a bad time to return.

After her release, Lina rarely spoke about the camps, not even after she left the Soviet Union in 1974. Although she gave interviews to journalists, she “perfected the art of evasion” and wrote only a few “scattered notes” of her autobiography, according to Simon Morrison, a Princeton music history professor, who was given special access to the family’s private papers for this revealing book, which casts Serge Prokofiev in a troubling new light.

Along with Berlin and Paris, New York was the largest center of the Russian emigration after 1917. The city had three quarters of a million Russians by the time Prokofiev arrived, via Japan and California, in August 1918. Lina was the daughter of two struggling singers, Juan Codina and Olga Nemïsskaya, who had performed in Russia, Switzerland, and Havana before settling in Manhattan, where they had good connections in Russian émigré circles. Lina was working in the New York branch of the Moscow People’s Bank where the young composer, just twenty-seven, six years older than Lina, would come to wire money to his mother, who was stranded in southern Russia, then engulfed by civil war between the Red and White armies. Prokofiev was earning handsome fees from his piano recitals. Lina met him in the green room after one of them. The tall, blue-eyed, and blond composer was surrounded by beautiful women.

At first she found him “vaingloriously rude” and “said so to his face,” according to Morrison. The child of prosperous and doting parents, Prokofiev had had instilled in him from an early age an unshakable belief in his own genius and destiny. By the age of thirteen, when he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he already had four operas to his name. In his diaries of these student years he is always thinking about what he needs to do to advance his career.1 In New York, he was the “lion of the musical revolutionists,” according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, but the generally conservative American critics preferred the romantic style of Sergei Rachmaninov, who had also just arrived from Soviet Russia. Years later, Prokofiev recalled wandering in Central Park …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $74.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

  1. 1

    Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries, 1907–1914: Prodigious Youth, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips (Cornell University Press, 2006). See my review in these pages, May 10, 2007.