The wife of the Russian ambassador, Madame Bakhmeteff

Vera Janacopulos

Ekaterina (Catherine) Breshko-Breshkovskaia



Serge Prokofiev, New York, 1918

Charles adored Lina, alternately nicknaming her “buttons” and “butcha”, the latter a Sanskrit word meaning “little girl.”(34) His wife, whom Lina remembered as an old-fashioned Russian matron, discouraged his fawning, and let on that she had grown tired of her husband, as he had of her. They distracted themselves with the theatre and shared their tickets to operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan and a play by W. B. Yeats with Lina and her parents. She enjoyed The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance, but could not grasp the arcane Celtic drama. Though Charles sought to explain it to her, her sole grade-school impression was of helmeted swashbuckling.

In February 1915, they were among the cosmopolitan company at a reception and banquet aboard the Russian-American ocean liner Kursk, docked at the Bush Terminal port in Brooklyn. It was the launch of a fundraising campaign organised by the recently formed Russian War Relief Society and sponsored by the wife of the Russian Ambassador, Madame Bakhmeteff. Vera was a member of the executive committee, and Lina her special guest. On an unseasonably warm winter evening, women boarded the ship dressed in fur-trimmed coats and full-length, velvet gowns in deep jewel tones, many cut in the stylish mode of the moyen âge. Along with the dancing after dinner, a troupe of Domba players in Bozar costumes presented a programme of eastern folk music. That they hailed from India rather than Russia suggests that Vera had enlisted her husband’s help in arranging the musical entertainment.(35)

Through the Johnstons, and through events like the War Relief banquet, Lina came to know the family of James N. Allison, a brigadier general who served as the secretary of the Military Service Institution on Governors Island, headquarters of the eastern division of the United States army. Allison arranged for the special passes required to visit the island, and Lina took the ferry from the Battery at the tip of Manhattan across the Hudson to where the general lived with his wife and four children. The youngest boy, Stanton, was Lina’s age, and she remembers playing the card game Hearts with him, always under the watchful eye of her mother. Like Lina’s dance partners at Public School No. 3, Stanton seems to have developed a crush on her, so she pretended to prefer his older brother Phillip. Naturally coquettish, she had mastered the art of keeping suitors calling while also holding them at bay.

The third Vera who shepherded Lina into the workplace was Vera Janacopulos, a Brazilian singer of Greek descent. She was romantically involved with a Russian several years older than her named Aleksei Staal, a lawyer who arrived in the United States in 1918 from Russia, where he had served as a public prosecutor. Lina described him as a former mayor of Moscow, but he was in fact a member of the short-lived provisional government who had been forced to flee when the Bolsheviks came to power. He was full of stories about his survival, which he shared with friends and acquaintances over too many glasses of vodka at his Staten Island home. Lina admired him from a distance, recognising danger in his charms and a mischievous streak in his twinkling eyes. His ginger beard enhanced the impression of fox-like cunning. Staal’s paramour Vera was the opposite: enchanting, kind-hearted, fluent in French. For Lina, she was the ideal role model.

Through such contacts, Lina landed her first job. Much of the position was clerical, but it provided a startling education in international politics. In 1919 she was hired for a month as an assistant to Ekaterina (Catherine) Breshko-Breshkovskaia, nicknamed the “Grandmother of the Revolution.” Breshkovskaia was 75 when she came to the United States, with some three decades of militant political activism behind her and 15 years still ahead. Her American supporters, including such progressive women activists as Lillian Wald, Jane Addams, and Alice Stone Blackwell, sanctified Breshkovskaia for her selfless fundraising on behalf of Russian orphans. But while the beloved babushka lobbied for American humanitarian aid, she also spoke out forcefully against the dangers of Bolshevism and in support of the League of Nations. Twice imprisoned in Siberia for her involvement in militant anarchist and socialist organisations in Russia, she had agitated for the overthrow of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and served in the provisional government that succeeded his abdication. The government teetered and collapsed between March and October of 1917. That November the Bolsheviks seized power, forcing Breshkovskaia to flee Russia under threat of arrest.

Her story was the same as Lina’s Staten Island friend, Aleksei Staal. Unlike Staal, however, Breshkovskaia never lost her passion for politics. Even in exile, she continued to campaign for change in Russia. In America, she denounced the Bolsheviks and their leader, Lenin, as reckless fanatics under the control of German agents. The Russian Revolution was nothing but a coup d’état, she argued, that had subverted the cause of socialism.

Reported to have been executed in Russia in 1918, Breshkovskaia in fact escaped. She made her way across the Pacific to the United States in January 1919, arriving in Seattle to begin a coast-to-coast tour of sorts to report on the destruction and ruination in her homeland at the hands of the Bolsheviks.(36) She was a guest at Hull House in Chicago, a settlement dedicated to the welfare of new immigrants and to the cause of cosmopolitan pluralism. Speaking to 1,000 supporters at Union Station, she described the suffering of the Russian people in frightening detail and urged Americans to redouble their efforts on behalf of her Orphans Fund Council.(37) Ten days later she arrived at Grand Central Station in New York. She was greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters bearing flowers before being whisked to the Henry Street Settlement, a sister institution of Hull House serving the immigrant community of New York’s Lower East Side which Breshkovskaia made her local headquarters.(38)

There the 21-year old Lina Codina worked as her typist and occasional interpreter, regarding her employer with wonderment. Breshkovskaia assumed an innocent, modest manner despite an astonishing range of experiences. She made a paradoxical impression on Lina: the “very old lady” pretended to be apolitical, “certainly not Bolshevik” and “far from totalitarian”.(39) But as Breshkovskaia laboured to explain to her American handlers, there was a difference between Socialists and Bolshevists, whom to her were just another brand of dictators worse than the Tsars. “It is difficult to speak of Russia unless you understand Russia,” she concluded.(40)

Lina was also struck by her feminism, though she would not have characterised it as such. Breshkovskaia believed that women, especially staunch American women, represented the best hope for humankind. She lauded the struggle for women’s suffrage and stressed the importance of education in the pursuit of a just, goodhearted life. As she put it to Lillian Wald, education prevented people from being “enticed, tempted, and mislaid”.(41) Lina, still rather naïve herself, recalled a much vaguer stress on “fundamental good foundations” and “humanitarian principles”.(42)

The job was temporary and intermittent, Lina being just one of Breshkovskaia’s assistants tending to her overfull calendar. At the invitation of the Executive Committee of the Friends of Russian Freedom, the Grandmother spoke on 10 February at Carnegie Hall—raising almost $11,000 and explaining to the audience that what Russia needed most was a constitutional, representative government.(43) After that she journeyed to Washington to appear before a congressional subcommittee on Bolshevism, testifying until exhausted and advised by her physicians to rest.(44) Some of her audiences on the left were sceptical and, to her amazement, she found herself being caricatured as a lackey of capitalism. In Boston, Bolshevist supporters shouted impertinent questions in Russian from the balconies.(45) A near riot erupted in Providence, with radicals in the rafters singing a revolutionary march while supporters on the floor sang “The Star Spangled Banner”.(46) Sensing that she had outworn her welcome, Breshkovskaia left the United States for France on 28 June—but not before warning that there were some three million Bolshevik sympathisers in the United States who needed to be monitored. After she had departed, Vera Janacopulos gave a concert at the Ritz-Carlton to benefit Breshkovskaia’s fund for Russian orphans.(47)

Again tapping into the Russian network that was now as much hers as her mother’s, Lina parlayed the experience with Breshkovskaia into another position, this one more regular and routine, in New York’s financial district. Every morning she paid the 5 cents to ride the IRT West Side subway, newly extended to Lower Manhattan, from Washington Heights down to 136 Liberty Street. There she earned between $16 to $20 a week—the typical salary for a young woman stenographer or office assistant—working for the American Committee of the Russian Cooperative Unions. The American Committee was part of the All-Russian Central Union of Consumer Societies, a trade organisation known to the Russian community by its opaque acronym “Tsentrosoyuz”.(48) It published a monthly English-language magazine called Russian Cooperative News, which reported on the activities and aspirations of the organisation in rather coarse detail. The first issue explained the economic and diplomatic purpose of the American Committee: “The Cooperatives will endeavor to make America’s share in the commerce and the industry of Russia as important and as significant as the international trade position of the United States demands at the present time.”(49) But of course the real interests served were Russian. Consider that the declaration of the end of the First World War was greeted with anything but euphoria. While Russia remained war-torn, there was nothing to celebrate. “The peace treaty has been signed by Germany and the blockade of that country has been lifted. A strong and powerful rival has appeared in the world market and has to be reckoned with. Other nations are now shaping their economic policies on a footing totally different from that in vogue during the war ‘that was.’”(50) The economic reforms that the Bolsheviks had introduced in an effort to rescue the Russian economy from chaos were now under threat from, of all things, peace.

The American Tsentrosoyuz (there was of course one in Moscow, located in a building by Le Corbusier) housed a telegraph office along with branch of the Moskovskii narodnii bank (Moscow People’s Bank). Lina worked on the fourth floor under the supervision of Eugene Somoff, a friend of a friend who was also the personal assistant of the composer Serge Rakhmaninov. He was a little sweet on Lina, and liked to tease her from his desk on the other side of a glass partition. Sometimes he picked up the telephone receiver to eavesdrop on her personal calls.

One of the clients at the bank was a blue-eyed, blonde-haired composer and pianist visiting New York from Russia.(51) He was well on his way to fame in Europe and the United States. The American press, representing him as a something of a rabble rouser, dwelled on his ferocious, mechanistic technique at the keyboard. In person he was awkward and rather gaunt, beleaguered by a touring schedule that taxed his strength. Now and again he came to the bank to wire funds to his mother, who was trapped in Russia during the Revolution. As far as he knew she had travelled southward with her nephew’s family. The journey was treacherous, since the nephew was a member of the retreating White Army and thus on the losing side of the civil war that had followed the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government. The hope was that they would both be evacuated by boat on the Black Sea. The composer, who had very little money, was trying desperately to reach her. He had sent letters to all of the Russian consulates, enclosing small amounts of cash with a plea for information and instructions as to how his mother might contact him.

Lina thought him rude at first, but then became smitten. He gradually became curious about her. By the summer of 1919, they had been out a few times to concerts and dinners. Staal was a mutual friend and, seeming to encourage the match, extended invitations to gatherings on Staten Island. Lina’s mother voiced concern about the nascent relationship and advised her daughter against getting involved with a musician, as she herself had once been warned by her father. But Olga admitted that the lad was charming, and she enjoyed his talk of Russia, past and present.

His name was Serge Prokofiev. Lina first saw him on 10 December 1918, at a performance at Carnegie Hall that featured his First Piano Concerto. Vera Danchakoff had telephoned her mother with the news that an iconoclastic composer just arrived from Russia would be giving an orchestral concert. Neither she nor Olga liked new music, but they thought it might be interesting to hear a decadent “Bolshevik” musician rumoured to be a mad genius. Having overheard the conversation, Lina exclaimed, “Oh, I’d like to go too!” (52) So she went to the well-received concert, and another one after that, where she met the composer backstage. Thus began the next phase of her life, which proved to be even more of an adventure than her childhood.

34 LPF1/4.

35 “Aids Russian Sufferers”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 23 February 1915, 17.

36 “Mme. Breshkovskaya Tells of Russia’s Need”, New York Times, 20 January 1919, 6.

37 “Breshkovskaya in Chicago”, New York Times, 25 January 1919, 3; “‘Little Grandmother’ Tells of Russia’s Plight”, New York Times, 26 January 1919, 37.

38 “Exposes Bolshevist Misrule in Russia”, New York Times, 30 January 1919, 3.

39 LPF1/9.

40 “Exposes Bolshevist Misrule in Russia”, 3.

41 Letter of 23 August 1919, Folder 10 [Reel 2] of the Lillian Wald Papers, Columbia University.

42 LPF1/9.

43 “Sees Free Election Russia’s First Need”, New York Times, 11 February 1919, 2.

44 “Senators Hear Breshkovskaya”, New York Times, 15 February 1919, 16.

45 “Bolsheviki in Boston Bait Breshkovskaya”, New York Times, 26 February 1919, 11.

46 “Rout Bolshevist Rioters”, New York Times, 7 April 1919, 2.

47 “Concert to Aid Russian Orphans”, New York Times, 21 May 1919, 17.

48 The American Committee of Russian Cooperative Unions comprised representatives of the All-Russian Central Union (Tsentrosoyuz), the Central Union of Flax Growers, the Moscow People’s Bank, the Union of Siberian Cooperative Unions, and the Union of Siberian Creamery Associations.

49 The Russian Cooperative News: Bulletin of the American Committee of Russian Cooperative Unions 1, No. 1 (June 1919), 15.

50 The Russian Cooperative News 1, No. 3 (August 1919), 1.

51 The address of the bank and the address and telephone number of the Codina apartment on W. 145th Street is listed in Prokofiev’s 1918 address book (RGALI f. 1929, op. 4, ed. khr. 41).

52 LPF1/1.