The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison

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The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of singer Lina Prokofiev, wife of one of Russia's most famous 20th-century composers, based on previously unpublished letters and diaries.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 328 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 9781846557316

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This book is a biography of and based largely on the letters of Lina Prokofiev. Born Carlina Codina in Madrid in 1897, she spent most of her childhood in New York. After making her stage debut as a soprano in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ under the name of Lina Llubera, she met the Soviet composer and pianist Serge Prokofiev, best remembered for the children’s musical fable ‘Peter and the Wolf’. They married in 1924 and for the first thirteen years of their marriage they lived in Paris, where two sons, Oleg and Svyatoslav, were born to them. Soon after moving to Moscow in 1936 their marriage fell apart. In 1941 he left her for a writer, Mira Mendelson, 24 years his junior, whom he married six years later.

From then on, her life was harrowing. She had to put up with physical and mental abuse as well as infidelity from the husband whom she never really ceased to adore as well as champion as an artist. He taunted her with comments such as his sudden recognition of the barrenness of his life, and that when she kissed him he felt like an adulterer, as he was betraying his real love, Mira.

Yet far worse was to come. She was in her Moscow apartment one night in 1948 when a telephone call summoned her to come downstairs and collect a parcel. When she went to fetch it she found the message was a hoax. Seized, arrested and charged with espionage and treason, she then endured several months of interrogation and torture at the hands of Stalin’s secret police. For a long time she was not allowed to sleep and feared she was on the verge of madness. One of her tormentors told her cruelly, 'Don't worry, you'll be screaming even louder when you feel this truncheon down there!'

After six years her burden in the gulag eased, and she was permitted to do clerical work, teach opera arias to other women, and read newspapers and books, including those in other languages. Her regime had improved markedly after the death of Stalin in March 1953, whose demise was announced ironically on the same day as that of Serge. In 1956 she was released, having been required to sign an oath of silence about her experiences in captivity before being granted her rehabilitation certificate.

She gradually recovered her health to some degree, and travelled widely to musical festivals, some involving performances of her husband’s work. Unhappily, her fight to be recognised as his legal heir almost foundered when it was initially found, or announced, that her marriage to him had not been registered with the Soviet government, but with her persistence this ruling was overturned and she successfully petitioned for the estate to be distributed between her, his second wife Mira, and their sons. (He had no issue by his second marriage). After all she had been through, it is pleasing to read that she enjoyed a relatively serene old age, dying in January 1989 at the age of 91.

At one stage she considered writing her life story, with the aid of a ghostwriter. This project foundered for various reasons, not least as she knew she could not tell her story as honestly as she would have liked, for fear of the consequences. It has now been left to Morrison, a British-born music professor at Princeton University and President of the Prokofiev Foundation, to undertake the task. Shortly before Svyatoslav, her elder son, died in 2010, his last wish was for his mother’s true story to be told, aware that she would have wanted such a thing to happen. He made 600 of her letters, never previously seen outside the family, available to Morrison. For a long time they had been sealed in the Russian State Archive, ‘categorically forbidden’ because of the subject matter. It was as if certain persons from the family (though not her son) and in Russia had no wish for the Prokoviev legend to be tarnished. Morrison admitted to being shocked by what he had read, admitting that as a listener he would then never be able to hear the music the same way again.

With the aid of these letters plus additional family correspondence and diaries, he has told the unhappy story of the talented woman and her more famous, equally gifted husband very effectively, but in stark terms. Her much-travelled life story is set against the uncompromisingly drab and often backstabbing existence that was the lot of those living in the Soviet Union for so much of the twentieth century. Morrison has skilfully evoked the atmosphere of a way of life in which creature comforts frequently taken for comfort were often denied, with personal possessions liable to be confiscated and never returned. In November 1941 Serge’s car, a blue Ford imported from St Louis in 1937, was requisitioned by officers of the Red Army as it was needed for use at the front. She had instructed her chauffeur to remove the wheels, carburettor and ignition, but was repeatedly bullied into surrendering these parts as well. A little later their piano and Svyatoslav’s bicycle were also requisitioned. ‘Why don’t you take everything and leave me naked in the flat?’ she asked in desperation at one stage. The piano was later restored to her, damaged and out of tune, but taken away for good after her arrest.

This is a very well told story, but not surprisingly a very sad one.

For more from Russia we can recommend Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith.

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