Professor Simon Morrison *97's new book on the wife of composer Serge Prokofiev details a life of tragedy and resilience.
Professor Simon Morrison *97's new book on the wife of composer Serge Prokofiev details a life of tragedy and resilience.

When music professor Simon ­Morrison *97 set out to write a biography of the wife of composer Serge Prokofiev, he worried that gaps in the historical record would scuttle the project: “It was a real gamble for me.” The family granted him exclusive access to hundreds of Lina Prokofiev’s letters, but would these documents explain anything about the eight years she spent in the Soviet gulag — a harrowing ordeal of which she rarely spoke, right up to her death in 1989?

Morrison found, to his astonishment, that she had preserved many letters written from the hellish camps. “I couldn’t believe that they existed,” he says. “And they were completely terrifying. In that instant, I realized I could complete the book — including its shattering climax” in the gulag with its hunger, filth, and cold.

In Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Morrison’s protagonist emerges as a talented soprano who loved life and was impetuously eager for travel and adventure. Of Russian descent but raised in Brooklyn, she acquiesced when her husband suggested they move to the Soviet Union from Paris in 1936, against their friends’ fearful objections.

Their relationship crumbled amid pressures of life in the Stalinist state, where authorities fettered Prokofiev with trivial projects — not the grand commissions he had hoped for — and came to fear that Lina would tell the West of her husband’s unhappiness with the USSR. “No sooner had she relocated there, than she wanted out,” Morrison says. “They didn’t realize they were living in the darkest time of Russian history. They didn’t see the scope of the Stalinist terror until it was too late.”

Within a few years, Lina’s husband left her. In 1948, she was snatched off the street on trumped-up charges of treason and sent to the gulag — far from her two sons, who couldn’t even find out why she had been arrested. During four years of research, ­Morrison visited two of the bleak places in which she was incarcerated to get a vivid sense of what she endured: “I thought, if I’m in this privileged position of getting all this exclusive material, it was my obligation to her to get as close as possible to where she was.”

Eventually freed, Lina finally was allowed to leave the Soviet Union for London in 1974. When her grandson read the book manuscript, Morrison says, “He was pretty devastated by it. He called it ‘a requiem for a dream’” — his grandparents’ hopes for a ­better life, ruined by the totalitarian state.

The story is deeply tragic, but Morrison admires Lina Prokofiev’s resilience in the camps, her determination to survive. “There was nothing in her life that made her a hero — until then.”