Soviet pianist and composer Sergei Prokofiev died 60 years ago, on March 5, 1953, at the age of 61. He had been ill for many years and may have died from a cerebral hemorrhage. His death happened to be on the same day Soviet media reported the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, the man whose life and deeds hung like a shadow over most of Prokofiev’s career.
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke with Princeton University music professor Simon Morrison — author of “The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years” and the forthcoming “Lina and Serge: The Love And Wars Of Lina Prokofiev” — about Prokofiev, who made the fateful decision in 1936 to move his family from Paris to Stalin’s Soviet Union.
RFE/RL: Let’s begin by discussing how Prokofiev came to be living abroad.
Simon Morrison: He received permission from Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar of culture under [Vladimir] Lenin [in 1918] to travel to the West to pursue his career. This was right after the Russian Revolution. He went east, through Japan to San Francisco, and he spent two years in the United States. That’s where he composed his most famous opera, “The Love Of Three Oranges.” After that, he spent several years in Paris. He worked for a while with [Sergei] Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes organization.
Beginning around 1925, and for about 10 years, he was pretty seriously courted by the Stalinist regime to return to the Soviet Union. Although he spent many years in the West — the first third of his career — he never really thought of himself as relocating permanently to the West. He always knew he would be heading back there. He always thought of himself as a kind of Russian cultural representative abroad. And so, in many respects, it was only a matter of time before he decided to return to the Soviet Union.
His wife, however, was not Russian. She was Spanish born and he had met her in New York City. He also had, by 1936, two children who were both born in Paris. He had various degrees of homesickness and a desire to take advantage of the commissions that were being offered by the Stalinist regime. So he moved his sphere of operations from Paris to Moscow at this point.
RFE/RL: And what was his international reputation at that time?
Morrison: He had established himself as…I won’t say as great as [Igor] Stravinsky but certainly as an enormous talent. He had been touring as a virtuoso pianist for a number of years and he had composed several works that became instant classics. One of them is the third piano concerto, which he himself recorded; the ballet “The Prodigal Son,” with [George] Ballanchine; the opera “The Love Of Three Oranges.” He didn’t achieve the success in the West that ultimately he would achieve with the compositions that he began composing in the Soviet sphere, but he certainly was regarded as an immense international talent, in demand everywhere, certainly as a concert artist.
He was somebody that the Stalinist regime, which was pretty desperate for celebrities, really wanted to get back. The Stalinist regime also reached out to [Sergei] Rachmaninoff, who left for New York; Stravinsky, who left earlier than Prokofiev and was in no way going to go back; as well as to several pianists and violinist and so forth. The various artists who had left Russia in the so-called Second Wave of emigration after the revolution. So, he was one of the targets and he was the one who was most interested in returning, owing to his strong connection to Russia and the fact that his whole artistic-support network was located there.
PHOTO GALLERY: Prokofiev’s Legacy
RFE/RL: So, Prokofiev made what you describe as his “Faustian bargain,” and he returned to the Soviet Union on the very eve of Stalin’s Great Terror. How did he reach this decision?
He recognized that politically things were grim, to put it mildly. He’d heard this from his friends. One of his cousins had been imprisoned for counterrevolutionary activities. He recognized it was not a free society. He knew that when he used the telephone — calling into Russia and calling out, when he visited — that his calls were being monitored. He was contacted by various agents in the West, as well as in the Soviet Union. He knew the situation — that this was a totalitarian regime.
Nonetheless, the Faustian bargain was that the Stalinist regime promised him — and for a while made good on its promises — they promised him lucrative commissions. They promised him freedom of travel inside and outside of Russia. They promised him performances, publications, royalties. They promised him no administrative duties and they promised him a nice apartment, a chauffeur, and a good lifestyle. All of the things that he — entering middle age and a period when he was very, very exhausted from concerts to make ends meet — he found very attractive.
RFE/RL: But surely he must have known how dangerous it was?
Morrison: He hesitated for many years because of the political situation. In 1932, he planned to go back and then he decided against it. This happened as well a year later. In 1935, however, he went to Russia with his family and they had this wonderful summer, this sort of halcyon summer outside of Moscow. This is where he composed in pretty serene surroundings the piano score of “Romeo and Juliet.” He found there, in Russia, irrespective of the politics, that he had great artistic inspiration.
He convinced his wife — who went along with it — that they could have this wonderful lifestyle above the fray in a place that was dangerous but also exciting because it was unclear what was going to happen there and there was an enormous amount of construction. They didn’t know the full scope of the [Great] Terror until after the fact, many years after the fact. Terrible things were happening, but their comprehension of it was limited, like the comprehension of everybody around them. And they did think of themselves as somehow untouchable because of his celebrity status.
RFE/RL: When did he start the see the dark side of his bargain?
Morrison: When he initially moved back, the first year was fine. He received a bunch of commission related to the centennial celebrations of [the death of Russian poet Aleksandr] Pushkin. He had a ballet on the go; he was busy working on a cantata in celebration of the [20th anniversary of the] revolution. And the first bad things that happened to him personally [were] that a lot of these works didn’t get performed. A couple of them were banned outright as being alien to the concerns of the Soviet people. This censorship was the first sign that his decision to relocate had been a mistake. Nonetheless, from 1936 until early 1938 he traveled extensively. He did his last international tour — all the way to Los Angeles — in March of 1938.
[When] he returned from that tour — because he and [his wife] Lina had both decided that perhaps they wanted to live and work in Hollywood for a couple of years, and because Lina had gone ahead and signed a lease for an apartment there, and because they were being followed and tracked — [their] travel permission was rescinded and they were essentially trapped there.
It was a year after that, in 1939, that Prokofiev lost his greatest friend, his artistic friend, [the theater director Vsevolod] Meyerhold, who disappeared. He himself never learned what happened to him, although of course he recognized that he was either in prison — which was the gentlest thing that could have happened to him — or else he’d disappeared for good. And that was absolutely horrible for him — shattering, in fact. But at that point he could do nothing about it. Things darkened — his relationship with Lina fell apart owing to the pressures of the situation. And then World War II started in the Soviet Union.
RFE/RL: Did he ever regret his decision and try to get out of the Soviet Union?
Morisson: As far as we know, he made extensive plans to tour internationally for many, many years. He did not think of himself as confined to Russia. He wanted to think of himself as effortlessly international. What we know from the documents, he had plans to tour abroad in 1939 and 1940, to the United States and to Europe. We do know that once his relationship with Lina began to deteriorate rapidly that he did try to arrange for her to leave the Soviet Union and at least go to France where her mother was.
One of the problems with that arrangement was that it meant he would probably lose contact with his two sons. It is unclear whether he seriously tried to get them out and was refused or whether he just talked about that with her and didn’t do anything about it. There are some letters between them that show her really desperate to leave. She was desperate to leave when she — in 1937 already, which was before they were confined there — recognized that neighbors were disappearing and people were being arrested. She wanted to leave. She told him that, “You promised me that if we didn’t like it here, we could leave.” And she said, “I don’t like it here.” And he said, “What I promised you a couple of years ago, I cannot achieve for you.”
He recognized that his hands were tied politically. His mindset was far more distinctly Russian than hers, and so he was — for all the horribleness of the situation and all the horribleness of what was happening to his career — he seemed far more willing to endure it than she was.
RFE/RL: We know that Stalin was personally interested in the fates of many artists — from poets Osip Mandleshtam and Boris Pasternak to composer Dmitry Shostakovich. Did he take a personal interest in Prokofiev’s fate?
Morisson: We know from his diaries that Stalin did make a comment like, “We need to bring Prokofiev back home.” That was something that Prokofiev actually thought was a good sign for him in terms of his career. Lina saw Stalin once at a concert. Stared at him and then flinched when he stared right back at her. But I will say that I personally don’t think Stalin was as involved in musical matters as he was in film, cinema. He took an active interest in that and he took pleasure in personally haranguing and meeting with directors to talk about the scripts for their various propagandistic films. The rumor was that he had singing expertise and loved opera, but in fact the harassment of composers was something that took place at lower levels within the administration.
There was a sort of watchdog organization called the Committee on Arts Affairs, which took care of censoring decisions. Also, there were a lot of lesser-known composers — second-tier composers — who really resented Prokofiev, not only for his talent but because of the fact that he’d been many years in the West. They, in a very petty way, harassed him and made his life fairly miserable on the bureaucratic front.
I don’t think Stalin, who was clearly a busy man running extermination camps and dealing with starvation and a war, was so directly involved in the lives of these composers. Although, certainly in the case of Shostakovich, there exists correspondence between the two of them about apartments and various favors.
RFE/RL: Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953, the same day that Stalin’s death was announced. Tell us a little about that story, please.
Morisson: It is a terrible story. We think that they died within hours of one another. We certainly know when Prokofiev died. Whether Stalin died exactly on March 5 is unclear because he was in a coma for a while. But there was an enormous outpouring of grief — real and manufactured — for Stalin. We know that Prokofiev’s death was not announced until after Stalin’s was. It came a few days later, the official announcement.
His funeral was something that was a small, modest affair. There were no flowers available for it. His neighbors provided potted plants to grace his coffin. In terms of the accounts, some of the musicians who had to play for Stalin pretended they were playing for Prokofiev, as homage to him. There are accounts of the funeral bier — the carrying of Prokofiev’s coffin to Novodevichy Cemetery — was something that was going against the massive crowd that was going in the other direction to memorialize or lament Stalin’s passing.
The most poignant thing I can say about that is that Lina Prokofiev was at this time in prison. She was in the Gulag system and she herself didn’t know. She was languishing in the Far North of Russia in terrible conditions, just trying to survive. Lina was arrested in 1948 and she was in prison when Prokofiev died. She spent eight years in the Gulag system. She didn’t know, although she suspected that his life was miserable. She wondered whether or not he, too, had been arrested.
And she found out about his death in a couple of ways. First, because there was a radio broadcast of his music that she heard in the camp. And also because of a letter that she received from her older son, Svyatislav — a long letter that I have a copy of. It is very intimate and describes the death of Prokofiev, what it was like that night, how he died. And also the letter says, “And what a terrible coincidence…” and the rest of the sentence in question is blacked out by the censor.
I have an original draft of that letter and the rest of the sentence reads, “What a terrible coincidence that Papa” — the son referring to Prokofiev as papa — “died on the very same day as Stalin.” That sentence was blocked out by the censors, but because the son in question kept copies of his correspondence, we actually have the original. He reported this terrible coincidence to his mother, who was languishing in the Gulag.