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Sergey Prokofiev and the Soviet Experience

prokofiev052609.jpgThis book review about the life of the famous Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953) reveals a complex and contradictory tale of one artist’s confrontation with the groundswell of history in Russia.

A not untypical contemporary reaction to the composer’s wish to return to Soviet Russia was the artist Yuri Annenkov’s sardonic comment “Prokofiev wanted to milk two cows simultaneously.” In the eyes of most Russian émigrés, the fact that Prokofiev hoped to enjoy his freedom in the West while taking advantage of commissioning largess from major Soviet cultural institutions smacked of a Faustian bargain. Any accord with the Bolsheviks was a result of either naïveté (as in the case of the poet Marina Tsvetayeva, who returned to the Soviet Union in 1939, with tragic consequences) or misguided cynicism. Perhaps Prokofiev was guilty of the former, a quality born of his inherent optimism. But in an essay from Sergey Prokofiev and His World on the composer’s spirituality, conductor Leon Botstein remarks on the importance of Prokofiev’s embrace of Christian Science. He and Lina encountered the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy in 1924, and their devotion to the faith, with its definition of evil as a transient force and its perception of pain and suffering as illusory, offered them serenity. It also helped them disregard (if not come to terms with) the horrors of Soviet reality.

Prokofiev and his family transferred theirresidence to Moscow in 1936 on the understanding that he and his wifewould be free to travel to the West to fulfill professionalengagements. Leaving their children as hostages in Moscow, Lina andSergey journeyed twice to America and France, but after 1938, the lidwas clamped down on travel abroad. The pressures of their new life inMoscow were great, particularly for Lina, who found herself cut offfrom family and friends. Their marriage was already under stress when,in August 1938, Prokofiev met Mira, a young, earnest student ofliterature, who seduced him through her fierce devotion and naturalcharm. In 1941, Prokofiev moved in with Mira, and Lina found herselfabandoned in a hostile environment. But worse was to come. When thecomposer came under fire in the 1948 attack on formalism in music, itwas Lina who was arrested; being a foreigner and the ex-wife of aleading “formalist” was enough to earn her seven years in the camps.Prokofiev could do nothing to save her, yet his reticence to interveneremains an enigma.