An indistinct shadow dulls the silhouette of Prokofiev’s mother Mariya Grigoryeva, who was always in the background of unfolding events. The blurring of the distinction between this world and the other one was abetted by a white lie here, a selfish deceit there, the blindness of blissful ignorance, and a misunderstanding of events of a macabre character.
She was ill. Prokofiev was forced to put her in a German hospital, relying on the agency of his St. Petersburg writer friend Boris Bashkirov.(42) Boris Nikolayevich’s mission on behalf of Mariya Grigoryevna was not to be realized. Ill-fortune plagued the money sent by Prokofiev for this purpose: It was cruelly stolen, wrongly claimed by greedy landlords and doctors, and seldom reached her. Bashkirov’s love of the roulette table, which Prokofiev disrespected him for, soon became obvious and, as reflected in the pages of the composer’s diary, they became estranged, their relationship tension-filled. The enthusiastic, uniformly structured sonnets that Boris Nikolayevich, a graphomaniac, began to send to Prokofiev did not interest the composer and did not stem the deterioration in their relationship.
The moment she died is merely noted in the diary, but finds reflection in the composer’s letters in the form of dark confusion. Boris Romanov (43), with whom Prokofiev corresponded about his ballet Trapeze, opened an envelope that had come to him from Prokofiev to find a piece of paper concerning the funeral arrangements. In the turmoil, Romanov misdated the agitated letter he sent back to the composer, putting down December 2 rather than the correct date of January 2, 1925.
The photograph of a great beauty in Prokofiev’s autobiography leaves a strong impression.
Yekaterina Aleksandrovna Rayevskaya, married name Ignatyeva (1881-1943), was a deep-thinking, subtle individual. She graduated from the Smolnïy Institute, and was a good singer. Besides teaching Prokofiev the social graces (he had come to St. Petersburg from the provinces), she familiarized him with Aleksey Apukhtin’s poetry.
After a complication with typhoid fever that affected her ears, she began to lose her hearing, an irreversible process. She and Yekaterina Aleksandrovna lived a difficult life in Penza. The dampness in Katya’s room caused the ceiling to collapse. She ran a school for deaf children in Mertovshchina, a village far from the city. She herself had founded the school in 1919. Her work consumed everything; she practically lived in the school. The poetic upbringing of a St. Petersburg girl of the Silver Age gave Katya a deep religious sense and a mystical outlook.
In her letters to Prokofiev one can hear the echoes of previous disagreements. In 1927, however, she was excitedly awaiting the arrival of her cousin:
She was arrested in late January or early February 1928. The specific reasons are unknown, though in the Rayevsky family it was believed that it concerned her contacts with foreigners. It is possible that the freedom she allowed herself in conversation was a cause. When later in 1931 she was hoping to be assigned to a sanatorium for the deaf, she wrote to Prokofiev to the effect that she “did not want to go there, where they resent me, but to the Crimea.”(46) The mention of resentment suggests that her arrest in 1928 might have stemmed from a denunciation. In the sphere of the Soviets denunciations were effective means of self-regulating the rosters of employees and even structuring the population.
Yekaterina Aleksandrovna was exiled to the North, to the city of Kadnikov near Vologda. Something incredible happened following her arrest. On the way from Penza to Kadnikov she ended up in Butïrskaya prison, where she “accidentally” met Shurik, who was serving his sentence there. The episode has all the features of a successful adventure tale, especially if one imagines the endless crossing paths, vaulted ceilings, and all of the might of the Butïrskaya facility, a true Russian version of the Château d’If. Of course she looked for and found her brother, and their meeting was by no means accidental.
Yekaterina Aleksandrovna suffered her unemployment, and the feeling of uselessness depressed her. On one occasion she decided to breed chickens, and turned for assistance to a specialist: Sergey Prokofiev. She was entirely correct in thinking that her cousin could send her the latest scientific thinking in the West about poultry cultivation. He himself had gone through a brief but intense period of fascination with chickens, trying to raise them in Ettal. The chicks did not hatch well, as Prokofiev documented statistically. He made a table with different rubrics concerning their breeding. The entry labeled “retired” makes a particularly terrible impression, especially taking into account its inadvertent Soviet associations. A man who was arrested, exiled, and shot was said to have been “retired,” and about this no questions could be asked. In OGPU [Obyedinyonnoye Gosudarstvennoye Politicheskoye Upravleniye, or Joint State Political Directorate—Ed.] parlance the word “retired” is found everywhere.
Prokofiev’s venture nonetheless served as inspiration for Yekaterina Aleksandrovna.
Katya’s poultry initiative met with little success.
Yekaterina Aleksandrovna died in complete loneliness, various illnesses closing in on her at the same time. The tomb of her mother was the center of her empty life. “Write an elegy for her,”(52) she asked Prokofiev. And at the end of the request, “for piano.”(53) Her cousin was the one bright spot in her life.
In those places where people were exiled, food was of extremely poor quality. Money from the Bolshoi Theater was often late in arriving, and what could actually be bought in Kadnikov during the time of collectivization?
Katya wrote that, with Prokofiev’s help, she had convalesced to the point that “I can recognize my own face.”(60)
Her receptiveness to the process of Bolshevik reeducation was never more effective: Her letters were ideologically impeccable. If she forgot to write something “political,” she would make additional notes at the end of the letter or in the margins. The censors were disappointed: She did not provide them with manifest evidence of criminal intent.
On one occasion, catching herself, she adds a note at the very top of the page about the murder of Kirov: (62) “Thus the ranks of the Party need to be increased and the defense of our great Union increased all the more!”(63)
In March of 1935: “Tomorrow afternoon is an especially joyous day for me... On March 8th the new Soviet woman is celebrated! There’s a pile of newspapers and journals on my table. In two hours I’ll be running off to a celebratory gathering in the club of railroad workers named after Lenin.” (64)
Oh, immortal internal censor! For people of Yekaterina Aleksandrovna’s generation it arose from the acquisition of tragic life experience. For those born later it was practically innate. For me and those dear to my from my generation this internal censor was an integral part of our mindset.
The fact that Soviet power was the best and most fair system for world order was to be considered indisputable no matter what. The truth of the tenets of communism was unshakeable; it was the sacred establishment of our childhood and adolescence, our Creed. Its postulates were especially immutable to those families affected by repression. Having lived in fear their entire lives, parents instilled the correct ideology in children with particular zeal. My parents told my brother and me about the repression of our relatives in 1931 only in the years of perestroika, and by no means immediately.
It is unknown when Yekaterina Aleksandrovna finally left Kadnikov. Misfortune and illnesses left their imprint on her. Svyatoslav Prokofiev commented that “her overall situation was quite difficult, she had to move from place to place, living in poverty. In the last years of her life [she] suffered amnesia and died in 1943 in a mental hospital.”(65) Prokofiev’s older son did not mention that she had been repressed when I interviewed him in 1990, nor did he include this detail in an article about his relatives for the inaugural issue of Three Oranges.(66) He was unaware of Kadnikov when I told him about it. This is quite natural: It was safest for children not to know about their repressed relatives.
But then Svyatoslav Sergeyevich remembered Yekaterina Aleksandrovna “tossing” him and his younger brother Oleg into the air in their childhoods. His aunt was “cheerful, active, and extremely caring,”(67) even “optimistic.” This last word was so surprising to me that I did not commit it to the transcript of my interview with him: How could one remain optimistic, having lived such a life?
Perhaps Yekaterina Aleksandrovna found support in her religion, and perhaps “tossing” the boys brought her a huge, albeit rare joy. She certainly made them happy.
42 Boris Nikolayevich Bashkirov (1891-?)—poet who wrote under the pseudonym Boris Verin.
43 Boris Geyorgiyevich Romanov (1891-1957)—choreographer and founder of the Russian Romantic Ballet.
44 “Well, how shall we meet?”—the first line of Aleksey Apukhtin’s popular lyric “With the Express Train.”
45 Letter of January 14, 1927, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XIV 34-37.
46 From a letter of June 19, 1931, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XXVII 139.
47 October 22.
48 The composer was unable to travel to the USSR in 1930 and 1931. He did not return until November 1932.
49 Prokofiev’s fourth ballet Sur le Borysthène / On the Dniepr.
50 The production was revived on November 13, 1929.
51 Letter of October 8, 1930, from Prokofiev to Ye. A. Ignatyeva, SPA XXV 166.
52 From a letter of November 29, 1929, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XXII 343-348.
54 Letter of April 14, 1931, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev SPA XXVI 424-425.
55 Letter of January 21, 1931, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XXVI 77-82.
56 In March Prokofiev took out a subscription to a medical journal published in Berlin by a doctor known to Katya (Dr. N. A. Burlow).
57 The premiere of the ballet Sur le Borysthène / On the Dniepr occured on December 16, 1932.
58 The premiere of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 in B Minor was postponed a day to April 25, 1931.
59 Letter of February 2, 1931, from Prokofiev to Ye. A. Ignatyeva, SPA XXVI 148.
60 From a letter of February 12, 1931 (received February 19), from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XXVI 181-184.
61 From a letter of October 13, 1934, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XXXVIII 139-142.
62 Sergey Mironovich Kirov was murdered at the Smolnïy Institute of Leningrad on December 1, 1934.
63 From a letter of December 5, 1934, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XXXVIII 322.
64 From a letter of March 7, 1935, from Ye. A. Ignatyeva to Prokofiev, SPA XXXIX 239-242.
65 Svyatoslav Prokof’yev, “O moikh roditelyakh,” 213-14.
66 “Little-Known Facts about People Close to Prokofiev.”
67 Svyatoslav Prokof’yev, “O moikh roditelyakh,” 213.