Below: Prokofiev with Svyatoslav, Oleg, and Lina in 1936

Prokofiev, Prisoner of the State

An interpretation of the composer's relationship with the Soviet regime

by Ian MacDonald

Part Two: ...Into the Fire

In May 1936, Prokofiev's wife and sons finally made the move to Moscow. What pressure, if any, was then exerted on the family by the Soviet authorities is unknown, but if ever there was a time not to settle in Russia, this was it. Having spent the last four years vacillating, Prokofiev found himself trapped in precisely the predicament he might have hoped to avoid.

The situation was, by any standard, unnerving. The waves of arrests that had been building since 1935 were now mountainous and, as the year progressed, the trials of Stalin's rivals trailed a parade of grotesque confessions across the pages of the world's press. Had Prokofiev been at the emergency session of the Soviet Composers' Union in Moscow that February (he was on tour in Europe), he might yet have reconsidered his move to Russia. Convened to debate the Pravda editorials of 28th January and 6th February accusing Shostakovich of "anti-people Formalism", these proceedings soon degenerated into frenzied denunciation of everyone in sight.

Quick to join in was Tikhon Khrennikov, a mediocrity determined to make a splash. "Too late," notes Viktor Seroff, "in denouncing Shostakovich, Khrennikov was anxious to be the first to assail Sergei Prokofiev, thus showing his foresight, a quality much appreciated by the Communist Party". Seizing on Prokofiev's unguarded remarks of 1934 about "provincialism" and a new "grand style", Khrennikov demanded to know how this foreign Formalist dared lecture loyal Bolsheviks on composing music for a revolution he had run away from.

Returning to the USSR in March, Prokofiev got himself into hotter water by venturing that a sensible definition of Formalism might be "music which one does not understand at first hearing". However, fine points of aesthetics were not greatly valued by those now engaged in terrorising the Soviet people into numbed submission. The composer began to find it hard to get work.

A crash-course in Communism

Reasoning shrewdly that a piece for children could cause no offence, Prokofiev came up with Peter and the Wolf, such an immediate hit with Russian youngsters that barring it from the repertoire was impossible. After this, however, things got distinctly unpleasant.

For inscrutable reasons, the Bolshoi production of Romeo and Juliet was suddenly cancelled; then, invited to contribute some pieces to the Pushkin centenary, Prokofiev found, on delivering them, that they were not wanted. The mass-songs of Opus 66 having failed to redeem him, he resolved to come straight to the point with his Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution.

Using texts by the big three of Soviet Communism, Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, Prokofiev appears to have assumed he had caught the style in vogue - yet, once again, he misjudged the situation. The cantata was intercepted at its audition by Stalin's underlings who rubbished it for "Leftist deviation and vulgarity" (i.e., for dragging Marx and Lenin into it).

Desperate to contribute something - anything - to the 20th anniversary, the composer threw together a concoction of folk-tunes and Party singalongs entitled Songs Of Our Days. Mysteriously held back till 1938, the work was thereupon dismissed as "pale and lacking in individuality". Prokofiev must by now have been utterly bewildered. If he wrote like a simpleton, he was a depersonalised Left deviationist; if he wrote like Prokofiev, he was a mercenary Formalist. Individual, non-individual... there must have seemed no rhyme or reason to it - and, of course, none existed.

The novelist Ilya Ehrenburg, who met the composer at the Moscow Writers' Club around this time, records that "he was unhappy, even grim, and said to me, 'Today one must work; work's the only thing, the only salvation'". Insuring himself against creative impotence by turning inwards, Prokofiev started on his autobiography, Childhood.

A human chess-piece

As an item of human Soviet state property, and with his family as hostages - this being the term then used to cover such delicate situations - Prokofiev could be sent abroad on propaganda trips with no risk of defection. Thus, in December 1936 and again in early 1938, he was dispatched on propaganda concert tours of the West.

Nikolai Nabokov, who met him during these trips, saw, in place of his usual breezy demeanour, a "profound and terrible insecurity", while an American hostess recalls Prokofiev as a "grouch" who sat through dinner without saying a word. Doubtless partly a sombre realisation that, once back in Russia, he could kiss goodbye to cordon bleu, his bad temper had another more sinister cause: he was under NKVD surveillance.

According to Seroff, "he avoided his former close friends, and if by any chance he happened to meet one of them, he made a quick sign with his eyes indicating that he was being watched". Though invited back to the States the following year, Prokofiev was prevented from going and the 1938 trip was his last crossing of the Russian border.

Shortly after returning home, his luck changed. The director Sergei Eisenstein had been ordered to film an anti-Nazi version of the life of Alexander Nevsky, the medieval prince of Novgorod who defeated the invading Teutonic Knights.

Like Prokofiev, Eisenstein had returned to the USSR in 1932, though he had thereupon vanished from view so completely that for years it was thought that he had been liquidated as a "renegade".

Reappearing on the world stage as a victim of the drive against Formalism in 1937, he had been reprimanded for "overweening conceit and aloofness from Soviet reality" and had since been unable to find work. All things considered, a lot hung on Alexander Nevsky for both men and, working under tight government supervision, they were careful to do exactly what they gathered Stalin wanted. Their luck held: Stalin approved.

En prise

Capitalising on his winner, Prokofiev broke off work on his First Violin Sonata to turn Nevsky into a cantata. Opportunism triumphed over art: the public loved it. Moving smoothly to repeat the formula, he began an opera, Semyon Kotko, about German atrocities in the Ukraine in 1918, planning to have it directed by his friend Meyerhold.

Like Eisenstein, Meyerhold had been pilloried in 1937, while his theatre had been closed as "alien and hostile to Soviet aims". Enjoying a good argument, he had given as good as he got in a way no one else ever dared do, his subsequent survival being widely regarded as a kind of paranormal phenomenon. He was, in short, trouble, and Prokofiev's belief that he could transmit his own rehabilitation to Meyerhold by involving him in his next triumph proved to be yet another mistake.

In June 1939, the director was arrested and his actress wife gruesomely murdered. Shaken, Prokofiev begged Eisenstein to take over but, thinking fast, the latter replied that he was busy. Then, in August 1939, the Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed and suddenly operas about German atrocities were no longer in demand. Following a visit from Prosecutor Vishinsky, Semyon Kotko turned into an opera about Austrian atrocities (the Ukrainian setting being retained in order to avoid having to repaint the scenery).

Towards the end of the year, Meyerhold died in jail under torture. Prokofiev's opera survived a short season before being taken off and left unplayed for twenty years. Meanwhile, he hastily concluded his autobiography (at a diplomatically early age) and wrote Hail To Stalin for the dictator's 60th birthday, receiving a gruff acknowledgement from the Boss for his thoughtfulness.

A quiet war

Summer 1940 found Prokofiev understandably warding off reality with the light opera Betrothal in a Monastery, begun at the suggestion of a young lady called Mira Mendelson who had shown him the Sheridan play on which the work is based. Where she popped up from is unknown. All that can be said for certain is that Prokofiev and Lina separated (or were separated) in 1941, after which Mira became his secretary and de facto wife until his death.

That she was politically orthodox is conceivably of no sinister significance. More important was that she made him happy, to some extent softened his character, and inspired him to create. Accompanying him on evacuation to the Caucasus at the start of the war, she soon had him working on War and Peace and Cinderella. Friends were astonished to report him smiling.

The success of Romeo and Juliet, at last produced by the Kirov in 1940, compensated for the disaster of Semyon Kotko and Prokofiev's return to favour was cemented by the Seventh Piano Sonata in 1942. A halcyon period now ensued, his Second Violin Sonata, Fifth Symphony, Cinderella, and score for Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part I making him Russia's most popular composer. He seemed, finally, to have found his Soviet feet.

Stalin, meanwhile, chose to mark victory in the Great Patriotic War by decreeing an era of chauvinism in which all Western inventions were said to have been made first by Russians and the price of a warm remark about the Allies was twenty-five years' cold storage in Siberia. Accompanying this came a new wave of purges directed by Stalin's hatchetman Zhdanov, who was soon attacking Eisenstein's failure, in Ivan the Terrible Part II, to depict the Tsar with the correct Stalin-like dignity. (Stalin had recently formed the view that Ivan had been a previous incarnation of his.) This blow broke Eisenstein and must have shocked Prokofiev, whose music was all over the soundtrack.

Around this time, his usual productivity tapered off. Apart from completing the First Violin Sonata, his attention was for eighteen months devoted to the Sixth Symphony, a brooding, tragic work which absorbed him deeply. Premièred by Mravinsky in Leningrad in October 1947, it drew thirty minutes of applause from an audience to whom it clearly spoke volumes.


But an ill wind was blowing. Orders from above halted rehearsals on Part II of War and Peace, the trouble this time being Prokofiev's disrespectful portrait of the great revolutionary liberator Napoleon (who, being roughly the same height as Stalin, might, after all, have been confused with him by the unsophisticated).

Music's turn to feel Zhdanov's boot on its neck came in February 1948. Officially, the cause was the failure of Vano Muradeli's opera The Great Friendship to entertain the Boss. Semi-officially, it was sparked by Politburo fury over the poor showing of the country's leading composers at the Revolution's 40th anniversary (Prokofiev's Flourish, Mighty Land, Myaskovsky's The Kremlin At Night, and Shostakovich's Poem Of The Motherland having all been flops).

In fact, the '48 affair, another step in the mechanisation of Russia's intellectual life, had been in the pipeline for years. From a file supplied by Khrennikov, Zhdanov was able to inform the assembly that not only had Prokofiev enjoyed a privileged youth attended by "downtrodden" servants, but that there was no record of him having helped the peasants with the harvest. On the contrary, he had, like a typical exploiter, lounged indoors playing the piano. Other contributors wished it to be known that the composer dressed like a dandy, had soft hands, and owned an American razor.

Too unwell to attend, Prokofiev was obliged to thank the Party for its guiding wisdom and admit his "alien" Formalism in a letter read before the Central Committee. (Published in the Soviet press, this confession, to which he probably contributed little more than his signature, duly baffled Western observers.) To drive the point home, the composer's Sixth Symphony, "War Sonatas", and works written between abroad 1918 and 1932 were all banned. Rocked by the death of Eisenstein, Prokofiev became seriously ill.


Fate pursued him relentlessly. His marriage to Lina annulled by a decree forbidding matrimony between Soviet citizens and foreign nationals, Prokofiev was "advised" to wed Mira, with which order he complied in January 1948. The legal niceties out of the way, the authorities now arrested Lina, awarding her ten years for "espionage". (She had asked the American ambassador to send some money to her mother in Paris.) Deported to the Arctic colony of Vorkuta, she never saw her husband again.

Soon after came the fiasco of the composer's dutiful song-opera The Story Of A Real Man, ruined because the orchestra were too frightened about playing music by an Enemy of the People to be able to stop their fingers shaking. The egregious Khrennikov, now First Secretary of the Composers' Union, dutifully savaged the work for "bourgeois Formalism, anti-melodious content, and lack of understanding of Soviet heroism and Soviet humanity" - not so much criticism as a deliberate attempt to break Prokofiev's spirit and health for good. Six months later, the same treatment was meted out to his ballet The Stone Flower.

The composer's final years were a scandalous tale of neglect. In 1950, the state awarded him Stalin Prizes, second grade, for his suite Winter Bonfire and oratorio On Guard for Peace - but this was little more than a pretence of rehabilitation linked to the so-called "struggle for peace", a strategy by Stalin to mobilise pacifism in the West by using Soviet artists as cultural ambassadors.

Apart from the care of Mira, the only saving grace of Prokofiev's last period was his relationship with the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Deprived of income, he was, for the first time in his life, experiencing hardship. Rostropovich's wife Galina Vishnevskaya has described how her husband, finding a "helpless and bewildered" Prokofiev unable to pay his cook, went and shouted at Khrennikov until he coughed up some union funds.

The composer's last works were either conformist or noncommittal. Even the quietest pages of his Symphony-Concerto are guarded, as if he feared to be accused of musical "facecrime" - of not smiling confidently enough at the prospect of his country's ever-receding "radiant future". "My soul hurts," he kept whispering to Mira during his final illness.

Prokofiev died on 5th March 1953, fifty-five minutes before Stalin. He was 61. At his memorial service, David Oistrakh played the first and third movements of the composer's First Violin Sonata. Then 37, Mira Mendelson devoted herself to looking after the composer's archive and effects until her own death in 1968.

Part Three

© 1988/95

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