Review: Simon Morrison and Anne Applebaum

Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, by Simon Morrison (2013)
Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (2003)

Cross-posted at Fluid Radio.

If anything the pages of Lina and Serge turn too quickly, the story is too familiar. We speed through Lina Prokofiev’s eight-year hell in the Soviet gulag like visitors on a short, cozy tour. Author Simon Morrison extracted what he could from the historical documents, but silence at both the individual and national level malnourishes the last two of this twelve-chapter biography.

The opening of the book reads like romantic historical fiction. Serge Prokofiev is an aloof genius, a master performer and composer; Carolina Codina–“baffling, compelling, disdainful, exasperating, flirtatious, humorous, stubborn and high-spirited”–admires his musical ability from the beginning. Carolina (“Lina”) never should have gone anywhere near Prokofiev, both on the face of things and in retrospect. Their marriage is ill-fated, their move to Russia disastrous, but even before that he was remote, arrogant, uninterested in commitment. “His lack of basic human feeling could be shocking.” As a suitor he was rude and unfaithful, and enjoyed emotional chess as much as he did the more conventional kind. By the birth of his first son, the reader is nearly numb to Prokofiev’s indifference, until an accident throws the three of them from a car. The addled composer frets, but for the lost manuscripts, not his injured family.

A reversal of the Quixotic journey takes the Prokofievs to Stalin-era Russia, where they expect windmills but find giants. The intrigue of 1936-1948 makes for quick, anxious reading. Compositions are banned, citizens vanish, phone calls are monitored. (Neither does this amount to the paranoia of a musical savant and his cosmopolitan bride. Morrison recounts an instance of an operator disconnecting a call and then stating flatly: “You were perfectly audible, I just decided to cut you off.”) The Joseph Stalin of Lina and Serge is a complicated villain: both amateur clerk and veteran enforcer. Morrison notes that naive economic ideology dries the Soviet Union of goods but not money, yet when Stalin briefly catches Lina’s glimpse at the Moscow Conservatoire, “His look was so piercing that she flinched.” Years later she will realize during her appeal for release that the case file contains only her sentencing record. History’s quintessential bureaucrats? Not so much. (Writer Lev Razgon would make similar remarks about his own file.)

Meanwhile the wartime bread lines return, and the dazzling, exotic Lina is reduced to single motherhood and ration cards.

The final quarter of the book details Lina’s investigation, sentencing (all fifteen minutes of it) and detainment. Anne Applebaum’s account goes into much more detail; as mentioned, the state’s silence and Lina’s own reluctance to speak of her eight lost years necessarily leave huge potholes in Morrison’s narrative. By all means there are some heartbreaking passages to be had: Lina is feverish on the day she is processed, but is nevertheless forced into a cold shower with anti-lice shampoo. Next she is beaten and deprived of sleep, then later tossed onto an icy floor. She wears used undergarments and employs fishbones as needles. Her estranged husband and mother both die during her imprisonment.

In consequence Gulag: A History is the perfect companion work. Instead of leaving a dictionary on hand while reading Lina and Serge, keep Applebaum’s 2003 documentary book nearby. Each leaves the other whole: Morrison follows Lina from birth to death, while Applebaum does not once mention her name, or that of her renown husband. Lina and Serge spends a brief introduction and two full chapters discussing the Soviet labor camps, where Gulag devotes its entire length to the subject. Throughout the former, personalities rise and recede. In the latter, even names like Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky are lost among the multitudes.

Choosing only a few anecdotes in the interest of space does Gulag a disservice, but the review of a 700-page account requires a bit of selectiveness. Where Lina parented her adult children by letter, Applebaum offers a full discussion of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood within the confines of the gulag. That chapter includes a devastating tribute to a baby named Eleonora, born to a lonely political prisoner who was only desperate for a companion. Applebaum introduces Thomas Sgovio, who was arrested for simply visiting the American embassy. (It is telling that, of Lina Prokofiev’s two most serious crimes–allegedly passing a letter to a foreign diplomat and actively attempting to leave the Soviet Union–the latter was considered more treasonous.) Sgovio would spend ten years in the Kolyma camps and recount the events in his 1979 biography. Similarly Alexander Dolgun, a junior employee at the American embassy, was skilled at ducking his surveillance tails and imprisoned for eight years because of it.

Even the discussion of simple statistics is a challenge. Take the NKVD documents citing 1.9 million gulag prisoners on January 1, 1941. Applebaum notes the meaninglessness of the figure, as “Prisoners left because they died, because they escaped, because they had short sentences, because they were released into the Red Army, or because they had been promoted to administrative positions.” (The emphasis is mine, although Applebaum emphasizes the point elsewhere: “In 1938, more than half of the administrators and nearly half of the armed guards in Belbaltlag…were former or actual prisoners.”) She estimates that 28.7 million people were put into forced labor, and nearly ten percent of them–2.74 million–died as a result. To be fair, “In certain periods, life in the Soviet Union was also horrible, unbearable, inhuman, and death rates were as high outside the camps as they were within them.”

How many prisons within the archipelago? Applebaum cites “at least 476 distinct camp complexes” each “consisting of thousands of individual camps.” She devotes entire chapters to “Arrest,” “Punishment and Reward” and “The Dying.” The gulag system was vast enough that its recount offers 25 pages to the discussion of “strangers;” that is, foreign prisoners picked up in foreign occupancy, as opposed to those foreigners lifted from the streets of Moscow.

In time the madness subsides. By 1954 the economic fitness of the system is in serious doubt. Sustenance costs, strikes, empty camps and the almost cartoonish bureaucracy might have closed the gulag system on their own, without any internal party discussion surrounding simple justice. Mass releases were the result. Applebaum writes: “Prisoners who had expected to spend another decade behind barbed wire were let go on a day’s notice.” Lina expected twelve more years, but she was freed in 1956 and finally left the Soviet Union in 1974, largely putting the experience behind her over the next fifteen. She was always reluctant to tell her story and, in her dying moments, sadly believed the hospital staff to be “guards and wardens in disguise.” By this measure, “she never escaped the Soviet Union.”

Morrison has written a lively, loving, at times tragic biography, and Applebaum, the labor camp system’s authoritative history.

-C.E. Alexander (@CAlexanderRun) for Fluid Radio. His fiction debut The Music and the Spires is available now through Zidi Publishing.

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