Prokofiev: The Genius In Stalin's Shadow

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?

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.

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?

 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.

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