Juan Codina, 1890





Olga Codina, date unknown

Reciting them in the original French, she encouraged Lina to learn their elegant structures by heart—which she did, though much later in life. Her grandmother was also an accomplished scholar of French literature and an author: she read Lina the stories she herself had written. Most of them dwelled on religious conflicts that were difficult for a six- or seven-year old, to understand. One of the grimmer tales concerned the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and seemed to refer, perhaps by allegorical extension, to the persecution of Caroline’s Huguenot relatives. As an adult and in gratitude to her grandmother, Lina recalled the moral of the La Fontaine tale about a butterfly that leaves its hiding place only to be torn apart by children: “to live happily one must live hidden.” (4) The phrase was offered to interviewers as a clue to understanding her experiences in the Soviet Union.

The summer became sadder when her grandfather, having lost his lifelong love, decided that he could not continue on his own. He was a handsome man, intimidating in his youth and gallant with a softened demeanour during his middle years. In his dotage, he grew a thick beard, which Lina recalled twirling in her fingers while sitting on his lap. The death of Lina’s grandmother deprived him of the desire to endure another winter in the Russian mountains. His metabolism was weakened by various nagging ailments, and he contracted pneumonia by throwing open the windows of his house and breathing in the frost. He died in November of 1907. Juan and Olga never returned to Russia after his death.

Home for Lina at the time was Switzerland, in the quaint Grand-Saconnex suburb of Geneva. She recalled a park and a lake, with skaters in the winter, a pair of bakeries, one much better than the other, and outdoor parties arranged by the local mayor. Neighbours alternately called her La Petite Espagnole or La Petite Russe, unable to decide from what corner of Europe the exotic child with the long dark braids had emerged. She attended kindergarten in the village, frowning at its strictness and struggling with French grammar. The setback, which her mother helped her to overcome, belied what would prove to be a phenomenal talent for languages. During her early years, Lina would hear and absorb five: Russian from her mother and maternal grandfather, English from the nannies, French from her maternal grandmother, and Spanish and Catalan from her father. German came in dribs and drabs. The exposure was the greatest blessing of her cosmopolitan background, and provided the groundwork by the time Lina had reached her twenties for a likely career as an interpreter. Near the end of her life, she went back to see the kindergarten schoolhouse again, only to find that it had been razed, along with the entire village, to build the Geneva international airport.

Juan and Olga pursued their musical careers, performing in and around Switzerland. There survive short reviews of recitals at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève, where Juan performed Italian arias on a mixed programme in January of 1904. According to a paragraph in Le Journal de Genève, he capably interpreted songs by Paolo Tosti, an Italian-English composer still active at the time and very much in demand in drawing rooms and salons. (5) Olga also performed, and attracted her admirers. (6) One of them made a profound impression on Lina and, thanks to his connections, became a crucial contact for her in adulthood. This was Serge M. Persky, a prominent Russian-to-French translator who worked for a dozen years as secretary to the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau. His admiration for Olga and her mother Caroline (Lina’s grandmother) was long-standing. Having arranged several concerts for Olga in Europe, he expressed piquant frustration that she had not achieved the fame that, in his estimation, she deserved. Nor could he quite understand her decision to curtail her musical activities in order to raise her daughter. Lina benefitted from his chivalrous largesse, and looked forward to his visits and the tins of chocolate-covered biscuits he presented to her in an effort to sweeten his relationship with Olga. When, in 1920, Persky learned that Lina was living in France, he sought her out, lavishing truffles on her as if she still had ribbons in her hair and asking, “Avez-vous une aussi belle voix que votre mère?” (7) (Do you have as beautiful a voice as your mother?). Deaf to Lina’s protests, he imagined marrying her off to one of his millionaire friends.

Juan and Olga were not poor, but their finances were precarious and they found themselves having to draw on family money from Olga’s side. When discussing this and other sensitive matters in Lina’s presence, they would write notes to each other in languages she had not yet learned to read. During one of these exchanges they decided to accept an offer of help from Olga’s Swiss uncle to sail to New York, where it was hoped they could enhance their careers. This was naïve, since Juan at 40 was past his prime as a singer and Olga, 35, had let her skills slide. They promised each other and their daughter that the move would not be permanent. On 21 December 1907, the family sailed on the Statendam ocean liner from Boulogne-sur-Mer, listing Juan’s brother Paul as their nearest living relative in Spain and an unnamed hotel as their destination in New York. (8) They disembarked at Ellis Island on New Year’s Day 1908, becoming part of a vast wave of immigration that would, by 1910, bring the population of the five boroughs of New York to some five million people. Nearly two million residents were foreign born, half a million from Russia.

4 Henahan, Donal, “Is She the Only Wife of Serge Prokofiev?” New York Times, 20 December 1976, 59.

5 Juan Codina, “of the Italian opera”, performed in concert on 16 January 1904 at the Grande Salle of the Conservatoire. Two notices appeared: “Spectacles et Concerts”, Le Journal de Genève, 1 August 1904, 3; and “Spectacles et Concerts”, Le Journal de Genève, 15 January 1904, 3.

6 Two announcements of Olga’s recital on 13 April 1904, appeared in Le Journal de Genève: “Spectacles et Concerts”, Le Journal de Genève, 11 April 1904, 3; and “Spectacles et Concerts”, Le Journal de Genève, 13 April 1904, 2.

7 Letter from Lina to Serge Prokofiev, 29 December 1920, Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) f. 1929, op. 4, ed. khr. 300.

8 Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls); Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (National Archives, Washington, D.C.), Year: 1908; Microfilm serial: T715; Microfilm roll: T715_1068; Line: 10; Page Number: 14. Accessed through Ancestry.com. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2006 (25 June 2010).