After his departure from Soviet Russia, travelling from Japan to America, France, and Germany (Ettal), Prokofiev almost lost touch with the relatives he had left behind. When contact by mail was resumed, the most important of his family contacts became the sister of his mother, Yekaterina Grigoryevna Rayevskaya, née Zhitkova (1857–October 22, 1929).
There are a few signs, some rare details, regarding her once-comfortable life in the autobiography of his childhood. The Rayevsky family home was the epitome of a welcoming, hospitable St. Petersburg household, where the most important thing was not wealth but kindness, education, culture, and fear of God.
Each Sunday the entire family gathered at the Rayevsky family home for lunch. The New Year was met each year with the same ritual: At the tolling of the midnight hour everyone knelt and prayed, after which Yekaterina Grigoryevna and Aleksandr Dmitriyevich (20) went to the kitchen to congratulate the servants.
After the Revolution Yekaterina Grigoryevna re-experienced the extreme poverty of her childhood. The Zhitkova sisters grew up in need, a childhood drama about their dresses getting ruined in a railway station was etched even into Prokofiev’s memory. He recalled it in his autobiography, likewise the suicide of one of the sisters “owing to the hardships of poverty.”(21)
The return of deprivation was aggravated by loss and humiliation. Yekaterina Grigoryevna lost her husband two years before the Revolution, in 1914. Each of their children experienced tragedy. Yekaterina Grigoryevna was herself partly paralyzed by a stroke.
In the mid-1920s she lived with her daughter in Penza, where in 1924 she wrote a brief memoir about Prokofiev’s parents and his childhood.(22) It reveals that both sisters were drawn to music, playing four-hand piano arrangements when they saw each other. Yekaterina Grigoryevna regularly reported the latest goings-on in the music world. The remnants of an incident involving Glazunov are preserved in a 1925 postcard: “When they were playing your concerto or symphony, or perhaps something else—I can’t say that Glazunov defiantly stood up from his chair, put on his hat, and walked away. Two old men sitting in the first row unfolded their newspapers. But the young people in attendance applauded and were on your side.”(23)
One day she told Prokofiev that she had been approached by Olga Aleksandrovna Satina, her “former co-worker at Peasant House, where I was in charge of refreshments and she the cooking. She’s quite gentle, deserving full respect as a woman from good society.” Olga Aleksandrovna asked Prokofiev to find out from Rachmaninoff the whereabouts of her grandfather Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Satin (her husband’s uncle). “On one occasion either this uncle or Rachmaninoff had sent her some money. In her lamentable state she desperately needed it. She had four children to look after, and was literally breathing her last. She had second-stage tuberculosis and had recently contracted pleurisy, and with a temperature of 40 degrees went to work serving refreshments in the theater, since if she didn’t she risked losing her job, and her children would be left without a crust a bread. She earned a mere 15 rubles a month and would be most grateful if her uncle could send her an equivalent amount each month. Talk to Rachmaninoff about her, my dear. You’ll be doing her a good turn.”(24) Prokofiev replied from Samoreau: “I’m sending you the letter that I received from Rachmaninoff’s wife—she regrets that she wasn’t able to achieve better results.”(25)
One day she and her nephew entered into a discussion about religious concerns. Prokofiev sent her the book Science and Health,(26) the founding text of Christian Science, which did not receive an enthusiastic response from Yekaterina Grigoryevna, an Orthodox believer. She backed her negative opinion of the book with reference to the assessment of P. de Kuleven, to which Prokofiev replied: “The response to Science and Health that you cite by Kuleven is very superficial. The author has no comprehension of the depth and significance of one of the greatest scientists of our time [Mary Baker Eddy, the author of Science and Health]. I ask you, dear aunt, to read the book from start to finish, and when we see each other we’ll speak in detail about it and I’ll tell you some marvelous things.”(27)
The habits and desires that remained from happier times were abandoned, of necessity, one at a time. “Yesterday was the name-day of Nadya and Sonnichka,(28) and we had upwards of sixty people over,” Yekaterina Grigoryevna wrote. “I was pleased to see how much they love Nadya and how much attention they paid to her. They brought Sonya candy, fruit, flowers, biscuits, and even wine and cheese. Nadya had announced just the day before that she didn’t have a cent to her name and so wouldn’t be buying anything special for the occasion because she simply couldn’t. Soup and salad were our only lunch that day. And now she’s been brought so much, enough to make a gorgeous feast and even today a lot of good food is still left over. There were a lot of children and I loved how they gently played together.”(29)
The rare joys of the past were replaced by the tightening restrictions of the present. Health concerns were first and foremost—the doctor, medicine, and care for Nadya’s and Tanya’s children. A needle was needed for the sewing machine, and a gift still had to be found for Katya’s name-day celebration (something inexpensive, like a string of fake pearls).
Yekaterina Grigoryevna’s very distant nephew and his growing success ornamented her life.
Another disaster in her life came with the arrest of Katya in Penza. In addition to this misfortune, Yekaterina Grigoryevna was left without the means to get by.
She mobilized herself to travel to live permanently with the convicted Katya. Prokofiev advised her to stay in Moscow among close friends and offered to pay for a summer vacation for her.
Like everyone in the USSR, Yekaterina Grigoryevna added Aesopian double-speak to the languages she had learned in her childhood. Huge icebergs were carefully concealed behind coded phrases. Kseniya Erdeli consulted with a specialist on the subject of her (Katya’s) illness. The specialist in question might in fact be the lawyer on whom Yekaterina Grigoryevna pinned an illusory hope of saving Katya. Did Shurik actually have an operation in prison or were they referring to something else? Some of her secrets are lost to history.
After Yekaterina Grigoryevna had left Moscow for good, she was able to see her imprisoned son. She subsequently wrote that “Shurik came to the station to say goodbye.”(38) It might well be that she was alluding to being taken by close friends to Shurik’s prison, and seeing him there.
Prokofiev was right to advise her not to go to Katya. Yekaterina Grigoryevna lasted little more than a year in the poetic Russian north.
Sometimes Fate weaves its inscrutable threads in tight knots. Events are pressed together in strange combinations lacking cause-and-effect relationships. But seen from the future, at a great distance, they look different, the nature of their coupling, random and chaotic, assumes a character of interdependence and immutability.
Such came together in the fall of 1929. And in retrospect it seems that the cause of this chain of tragic events was a little screw that a careless mechanic had not properly fastened to the front wheel of Prokofiev’s Ballot automobile.
The letter from his aunt came to Prokofiev on October 13. Ten days later Prokofiev wrote about a car accident that he and his family had been involved in on October 11. Then came a telegram from Katya informing him that on October 22 Yekaterina Grigoryevna had died. By telegram in response, Prokofiev offered his condolences: “I’m deeply saddened by the death of my dear aunt. I’ll come to Moscow on the 30th. I’ll pay all of the costs immediately. Prokofiev.”(39) Upon arrival he learned of Nadya’s arrest.
Prokofiev wrote the following to his cousin Sonya Brishan: “Aunt Katya died from edema of the lungs. She passed away in remarkable fashion, in full consciousness, having said goodbye to everyone, as Katya was reading a prayer.”(40) Katya also wrote about her death. “She’s indeed left me. Her passing was wondrous. God willing everyone should die like that.”(41)
20 Aleksandr Dmitriyevich Rayevsky (1850-1914), the husband of Yekaterina Grigoryevna, was a State Councilor.
21 Sergey Prokof’yev, Avtobiografiya, ed. M. G. Kozlova (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1982), 11- 12.
22 Rossiyskiy gosudarstvennïy arkhiv literaturï i iskusstva, f. 1929, op. 2, yed. khr. 605.
23 July 12, 1925, postcard from Ye. G. Rayevskaya to Prokofiev, SPA VIII 187.
24 April 7, 1926, letter from Ye. G. Rayevskaya to Prokofiev, SPA X 223-226.
25 The letter from N. A. Rakhmaninova is apparently lost. Olga Aleksandrovna Satina was the wife of Mikhaíl Ivanovich Satin, the nephew of Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Satin—the father of Rakhmaninov’s wife. A. A. Satin died in 1926. I am grateful for this information to Aleksey Aleksandrovich Naumov, resident scholar at the N. S. Golovanov Apartment Museum in Moscow.
26 Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the foundational text of Christian Science, was first published in 1875. The specific book by P. de Kuleven (1853-1927) to which Yekaterina Grigoryevna refers is unknown.
27 From a letter of December 7/9, 1926, SPA XIII 164.
28 The wife and daughter of Yekaterina Grigoryevna’s son Aleksandr, who served time in prison.
29 From a letter of March 10, 1928, from Ye. G. Rayevskaya to Prokofiev, SPA XVI 81.
30 The Ballets Russes premiered Le Pas d’Acier on June 7, 1927.
31 The director of the Grand Opera from 1915-39 was Jacques Rouché. From 1940-45 he continued to direct the theater in tandem with Philippe Gauber from 1940-42 and Marcel Samuel-Rousseau from 1942-45. He approached Prokofiev about writing an opera to a text by Edmund Rostand on May 29, 1927, at the home of Princesse Edmond de Polignac during the general rehearsal (to piano) of Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex.
32 The family arrived at the dacha on June 27.
33 Letter of June 22, 1927, from Prokofiev to Ye. G. Rayevskaya, SPA XVII 172.
34 From a letter of March 22, 1928, from Ye. G. Rayevskaya to Prokofiev, SPA XVII 243-246.
35 The former nursemaid of Nadya and Shurik’s three daughters.
36 Highlighted in the original.
37 From a letter of May 24, 1928, from Ye. G. Rayevskaya to Prokofiev, SPA XVIII 56-59.
38 From a letter of August 9, 1928, from Ye. G. Rayevskaya to Prokofiev, SPA XVIII 265d.
39 Telegram of October 24, 1929, from Prokofiev to Ye. A. Ignatyeva, SPA XXII 204.
40 From a letter of December 2, 1929, from Prokofiev to S. Brishan, SPA XXII 364.
41 Letter of October 29, 1929, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XXII 234-235.