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Book review: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 3:35pm

Lina & Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev

by Simon Morrison

Harvill Secker

Born in Madrid in 1897 to a Spanish father and a Russian mother, both singers, Lina Codina was brought up in New York, where she met the 27-year-old Sergei Prokofiev at a piano recital he gave in 1918. After a fitful courtship they eventually married when Lina became pregnant with the first of their two sons in 1923. For the next 13 years she led the life of itinerant composer's moll, but always engaged in a battle with his music for a share of his attention.

The return to Russia was always, for him, a homecoming. For Lina it was an adventure whose successful outcome depended on his love and support. Alas, both were swiftly withdrawn. In 1941 he left for good. For more than two years there had been another woman, a literature student called Mira Mendelssohn. Having set out to capture Prokofiev, she made herself useful, helping to write his articles and libretti.

Lina's life meanwhile went steadily downhill. She lived alone with her sons through the Moscow siege. Not surprisingly she began to look for a way out. She was increasingly under suspicion because of her unconcealed inquiries about leaving, until one night in February 1948 there was a phone call. When she descended to the street to pick up a parcel she was dragged into a car, carted off to the Lubyanka, and her flat ransacked while her sons looked on in despair.

Morrison's detailed and harrowing account of Lina's eight years in a sub-Arctic gulag contains few surprises for anyone who knows their Solzhenitsyn. What's uniquely appalling about the story is the sense that she had no business being in Russia in the first place; she had gone to Moscow for her husband.

Although Prokofiev was one of the composers condemned by the central committee in February 1948 he was never arrested. But he lived only another five years, and died in March 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin. Lina, by contrast, lived on for 33 years after her release in June 1956, and did eventually manage to leave the Soviet Union, apparently with the help of Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB.

Morrison tells a good story, without excess or indulgence, and with touching empathy for his heroine. Lina Prokofiev was no saint: she was good looking but not especially talented, a spirited, sharp-tongued arguer. She needed these qualities to help her stand her ground against a self-centred genius whose work came first and whose sense of the world began and ended with his own interests. For sure what happened to his abandoned wife was partly his fault. Whether it is expiated by Romeo and Juliet or the Fifth Symphony is a matter of taste.

Guardian News & Media

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