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

by Ian MacDonald

Part One: The Gambler

Leaving Revolutionary Russia for the West in May 1918, Sergei Prokofiev was given a message from an important figure whose identity was not revealed to him: "You are running away from events, and these events will never forgive you when you return. You will not be understood."

This prediction was to be only half-fulfilled. Events, or at any rate their human agents, did not forgive the composer and, by his death 35 years later, they had taken a terrible revenge on him. The lack of understanding, however, proved to be all Prokofiev's. He was a highly intelligent if somewhat self-centred man, and this impercipience did not last forever - merely long enough for illumination to arrive too late.

Prokofiev lived in Paris during the Twenties and continued to do so for four years after his "return" to Russia in 1932. During his visits to the USSR, he lodged like a foreigner at Moscow's Hotel National, leaving his Spanish wife Lina at home with their sons Svyatoslav and Oleg. Temperamentally he was a dry and egocentric aesthete; politically, an unreconstructed capitalist. What could have possessed a man like this, at 40, to lay everything he had won from fifteen years of Western fame upon the indifferent altar of Soviet Communism?

Shostakovich's explanation in Testimony is that Prokofiev knew that Soviet culture was becoming fashionable in the West and that the USSR would not long tolerate him as a weekend guest. A permanent move to Moscow would improve his image from both angles while simultaneously putting him beyond the reach of certain parties in Europe to whom he owed money in connection with his interest in poker.

Some may call such deductions too cynical. For instance, Prokofiev's fellow émigré Nikolai Nabokov recalls him in Paris "continuously repeating that the Revolution for him was an inescapable, positive event of Russia's national history, and that he did not see in it, as so many of his compatriots did at the time, a desperate and fatal calamity". On the contrary, Nabokov insists, "he believed that the Russian Revolution was teaching a lesson to the West and would ultimately lead to a regeneration of European society".

If genuine , Prokofiev's high-minded stance of the mid-Twenties represents a remarkable shift from the position he had taken during the Revolution itself. Then, with bullets humming down the boulevards of Petrograd, he had stayed indoors writing the anti-Bolshevik cantata Seven, They Are Seven, using lines by Balmont based on inscriptions from an Akkadian temple:

Charity they know not,
Shame they know not,
Prayers they heed not, to entreaties they are deaf!
Earth and heaven shrink before them,
They clamp down whole countries as behind prison gates,
They grind nations, as nations grind grain!

An unlikely socialist

On his own admission, Prokofiev's grasp of politics was so slight that any conclusion he drew about the USSR, particularly from a distance, could only have been based on self-interest. It is, after all, fair to ask why, if he believed so strongly in the Soviet "experiment", he happened to be living in Paris. The recent publication of the composer's Soviet Diary 1927 shows that his attitude in that year to Communism was sceptical to the point of fundamental distrust - the typical Russian bourgeois position of the time. (In fact, given his background and social tastes, this is likely to have been his abiding stance towards the Soviet regime from 1917 onwards.)

During the mid-to-late Twenties, iconoclastic modernism was Prokofiev's calling card and being hailed by European critics as "an apostle of Bolshevism" for the constructivist ballet Le Pas d'acier was as useful in building a lucrative notoriety as being smeared by the American press as "a tool of Soviet propaganda" for the same composition.

This is not to deny that acquaintance with the Changing Landmarks school of fellow-travelling émigré writers and conversations with the ballet's scenarist Sergei Yakulov (and later with Maxim Gorky in Sorrento) may have influenced Prokofiev into a rosier view of the Revolution than he might naturally have taken. What, though, would have carried more weight with him was favourable news of his standing at home - and, in the liberal era of the New Economic Policy (NEP), such news was not hard to come by.

Under the aegis of Anatoly Lunacharsky, People's Commissar for Enlightenment and a keen Prokofiev fan, the composer's music was being heard in both the opera house (The Love For Three Oranges in 1926) and the concert hall (by the conductorless Persimfans orchestra). Nor is there any doubt that Prokofiev badly missed Russia ("The air! The soil!"). Careful to retain his passport and ensure that all formalities were scrupulously observed when leaving in 1918, he clearly had a long-term plan, conditions permitting, for coming back - one perhaps so cherished that he was prepared to go a considerable way in self-deception in order to fulfil it.

Had he entertained a deeper interest in what was going on in his homeland, he might not have persuaded himself so easily. The "error" of Seven, They Are Seven was not the sort of thing lightly overlooked by the new regime, whose watchdogs were notorious for missing and forgiving nothing. Unknown to him, the composer had become an obsessive hate figure to Soviet Left activists.

Prokofiev versus the Left

Initially, events conspired to keep this from him. When, in January 1927, he made his first tentative return to the Soviet Union, the political scene was deceptively calm. Prokofiev met his old friend Nikolai Myaskovsky in Moscow, visited Leningrad to hear the 20-year-old prodigy of Soviet music Dmitri Shostakovich play his First Piano Sonata, and gave several concerts. Audiences applauded the elegant virtuoso whose music was officially said to be advancing the cause of the Revolution abroad.

His second visit, in November 1929, was very different. With Stalin in power, NEP had given way to the rigours of the First Five Year Plan and the radical Left were in full cry against "bourgeois individualism". Suspecting nothing, Prokofiev was invited to attend the Bolshoi's audition of his ballet Le Pas d'acier, an angular Modernist work depicting the industrialisation of Russia. Written to an opportunist commission from Diaghilev in 1925 when Soviet culture was first becoming chic in the West, the ballet had scandalised Europe, establishing Prokofiev as the daring "red composer" of the avant garde.

Despite the fact that to the Communist Left, he was an irredeemable "enemy of Soviet culture", Prokofiev must have assumed the work's success in the USSR to be a foregone conclusion. If Le Pas d'acier was an artist's fantasy of what life ought to have been like in modern Russia, the "comradely" discussion that followed it rudely introduced its composer to the reality of Soviet life in one of its ugliest phases.

A more diplomatic man might have disarmed his critics, but Prokofiev's response to charges of "dilettantism" was a display of terse arrogance. Tearing into the ballet with hyperbolic fury, the Leftists damned it as "a counter-revolutionary composition bordering on Fascism" and, powerless to do otherwise, the Bolshoi's directors turned it down. A piqued Prokofiev departed for Paris to reassess his position.

Despite this ominous brush with raw revolution, Prokofiev's renewed fascination with Mother Russia diluted what should have been a resolve never to go there again into a characteristically expedient decision to wait and see. Dismissing Rachmaninov and Stravinsky - who had had the sense to put Russia behind them - as rootless and declining talents, he projected his own brief lack of inspiration (On the Dnieper, the Fourth Piano Concerto) onto Western art as a whole, declaring it precious and irrelevant. In effect, he was already trapped, unable to do much more than wait for better news from the country he had convinced himself he couldn't do without.

In April 1932, Prokofiev heard what he took to be The Word: the Central Committee's decree on the restructuring of existing artistic factions into centralised unions. The Left was no more, its adherents forswearing their "vulgar sociology" to embrace the new official creed of Socialist Realism.

Sold as paternalistic concern for the welfare of Soviet culture, Stalin's unionisation of art actually entailed total control of creativity in the service of the state, the sordid work of coercion to be visited by the artists upon each other. As in other walks of Soviet life, this allowed the talentless to avenge themselves on the talented by every means from bureaucratic scheming to posting anonymous "denunciations" to the secret police.

Prokofiev was not alone in being deceived by the 1932 decree; even Shostakovich, whose experience of political arm twisting was already extensive, welcomed it (or let himself be officially presented as so doing). Prokofiev does, however, seem to have allotted wishful thinking an imprudent prominence in his analysis of events. Chatting with Viktor Seroff in Paris before leaving for Moscow, he explained how he saw it:

"Here I have to kow-tow to publishers, managers, committees, sponsors of productions, patronesses of art, and conductors each time I wish my work to be performed. A composer doesn't have to do that in Russia. And as for 'politics', they don't concern me. It is none of my business."
Sadly, Prokofiev's acquaintance with both politics and kow-towing was only just beginning.

Despite his highly publicised "return" to the USSR, the composer spent much of the next four years in Paris, where his family remained and where he wrote most of his Soviet commissions. How far this failure to commit himself was due to caution is unclear. His closest adviser Myaskovsky had consistently warned him to stay put and his Western contacts never hid their own misgivings. More importantly, his wife Lina strongly wished to avoid uprooting herself in order to move to a colourless world in which makeup was derided as "the mask of the society matron" and tracking down the makings of a decent dinner required either a Party card or the patience of a saint.

Nonetheless, Prokofiev remained convinced that he should go. Without doubt, nostalgia was the main impulse, with the lure of being a big fish in a small pond an enticing secondary consideration. However, he seems also to have genuinely believed that the situation in Russia would better not only his own work, but the state of music in general.

From sheltered affluence to Socialist Realism

Mindful of the propaganda coup of securing Prokofiev's allegiance to the USSR, the Soviet authorities were misleadingly accommodating. "They paid court to him," writes Galina Vishnevskaya, "treated him with kid gloves, and tried to persuade him to return to Russia. They even paid his fees in foreign currency."

The carrot was, however, accompanied by a discreet stick: until the composer's family and furniture followed him to Moscow, he could not become a full Soviet citizen with all the benefits that this entailed. Since one such benefit was a "luxury apartment" (as, from 1933, was awarded to any artist proving himself a reliable conduit of state propaganda), Prokofiev stayed mostly in Soviet hotels, his contact with the outside world limited to official newspapers and phone-calls to Lina in Paris.

At first, he had too much trouble finding his feet on the cultural scene to notice which way the political wind was blowing. Arriving at a time when everyone was trying hard not to be something called a Formalist and the benchmark of artistic success was being set by elephantine novels about hydroelectric dams, Prokofiev was puzzled to discover that, from the perspective of Socialist Realism, his recent neoclassical scores lacked "actuality of subject matter".

On the other hand there were, he was told, vast quantities of this peculiar substance in his friend Myaskovsky's "Collective Farm" Symphony and the grandiose "song symphonies" of Lev Knipper. Fortunately, before he was forced to try his hand at a Soviet Hotel Symphony, Prokofiev was asked to score Lieutenant Kije. Ruined by the censor, the film sank without trace but the music, salvaged as a suite, was a big hit with the Soviet public.

Prokofiev's hit, silk ties, and patrician manner predictably infuriated the ex-Leftists, now jockeying for position in the Composers' Union. Playing on his vanity, they tempted him into compromising remarks and he incautiously obliged them, observing that to ignore new developments in Western music would render Soviet composers "provincial" and calling for a new "grand style" suited to the requirements of a heroic people (which his enemies deliberately misinterpreted as meaning one style for the intelligentsia and another for the workers).

Meanwhile, the lull in political upheavals came to an abrupt end on 1st December 1934 with the murder of Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov (shot, on Stalin's order, so as to provide an excuse for a more sweepingly efficient destruction of the dictator's enemies - the only commodity in Russia of which there was an apparently limitless supply).

Was Prokofiev worried by these developments? Seemingly not. So wrapped up in his work that the fate of others failed to deflate his perpetual optimism, he had not even noticed that he was running out of friends. Lunacharsky was dead and Gorky about to join him. Myaskovsky, though still faithful, was toeing the Party line in every work he produced. But the most ominous indications surrounded Prokofiev's staunchest supporter, the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold.

In the aftermath of the Kirov assassination, Party meetings all over Russia had turned into confessional sessions on various themes, one of which was repentance for "former infatuation with the theatre of Meyerhold". As the pace of events accelerated in 1935, "Meyerholdism", signifying an effete brand of "anti-people" élitism, brewed up into a scandal - and Prokofiev, one of Meyerhold's most obviously effete associates, was a prime candidate for being drawn into it.

Yet far from looking to his safety, he was enjoying an idyllic summer in the country with Lina and the children, composing Romeo and Juliet and the Second Violin Concerto. Still ostensibly oblivious of the changing climate, he left Lina in Moscow to prepare for the final move six months later, took the boys back to Paris for their last year at lycée, and toured the new concerto through Southern Europe, returning to Russia in time for the New Year.

Questions and quandaries

With Stalin's Great Terror imminent, Prokofiev's apparent freedom to come and go as he pleased is a puzzle since, apart from him, no one outside the security organs was then allowed to leave Russia. Had the storm broken without his wife and children safely in the USSR, the government would have had no leverage over him and he might have stayed away, to the embarrassment of its image abroad. Were the Soviets taking a calculated risk to keep Prokofiev sweet by letting him tour? Or was Lina's winter sojourn in Moscow a form of collateral against the chance of him baling out?

Against this, it must be said that the authorities let the Prokofievs go abroad again in January to wind up their affairs in Paris - and this just before the Pravda attacks on Shostakovich shook Soviet music to its foundations. It is tempting to suppose that Prokofiev was simply too politically naive to realise which way the wind was blowing; yet such a deduction is arguably too simple. (See, for example, the remarks on the Second Violin Concerto in Part Three of this article.)

Conceivably, the composer felt irrevocably committed to a final return, trapped by his pro-Soviet public statements (or his foreign gambling debts). Perhaps he believed nothing terrible could befall an apolitical man in Russia so long as he did and said the right things. (His only work during his January stopover was on the mass-songs of Opus 66, a simplistic idiom to which he had previously been too fastidious to stoop.) Whatever the truth, neither the Pravda affair nor the urgent counselling of his friends in Paris were enough to slow the momentum of his careering life.

In March 1936, he returned to Moscow, leaving Lina and the boys to follow him. This time, the change of atmosphere was unignorable. The Terror had begun in earnest, the papers were full of denunciations, and a regime of silent anxiety had entered daily life. According to Seroff, the authorities now withdrew the composer's passport, stranding him in the Metropol Hotel:

"He did not even have Lina with whom to share the daily gruesome news... All he could do was to write meaningless postcards (all letters were censored) and keep telephoning her, urging her to come to him. He was virtually a prisoner of the State."

Part Two


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