Natasha Borovsky (1924-1982) and her parents, the great Russian pianist Alexander Borovsky and Maria Sila-Nowicki, were close friends of Sergei Prokofiev, his wife Lina Codina, and their sons Sviatoslav and Oleg until the Prokofievs left Paris for the USSR in 1937 , as has been described in articles 29-40 of The Chronicle of Moussia. In 2002/03, Natasha recorded her dreamed memories of that period, starting off with a poem. The sequel, the actual memories, follows below.
Sequel to the poem, “Call for Help.”
Igor is the name my dream substituted for that of my childhood friend, I will continue to use it until the denouement of this true story. If the story is vague in its dates and details, it is because it came to me in fragments, like a childhood memory or a dream.
We called him Bébain.
He was five years younger than me and his brother, Sviatoslav. Sviatoslav, a Della Robbia angel with blonde locks and I, the willful one with straight hair, were like twins.
We all lived together in a large and light apartment on the Rive Droite facing the Trocadéro. Before the Revolution, our fathers had been classmates at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. My father was the first to hear, as he was later to perform, the piano compositions of his friend.
Sviatoslav’s father spanked us —with good reason—and my French governess nicknamed him Papa Shliopé. In Russian, shliopa means a spanking.
I wasn’t the least afraid of him.
Ptashka— or lark—was the nickname for his gay and graceful little wife of part-Spanish descent, Linette. Linette sang; my mother, “Madame Récamier,” the romantic beauty, played the piano. Polyglot and daring both.
On a summer day, my fifth birthday, I see again a garden in Clamart.
All of us traveled a lot.
* * *
Towards the end of the nineteen-twenties, our families separated. Mine settled in Berlin.
Hitler and the subsequent breakup of my parents, brought my mother and me back to Paris. I renewed my friendship with Sviatoslav, my beautiful fiancé, and his younger brother, Bébain, also a towhead but without curls and precociously intelligent. (His father taught him to play chess at the age of five.)
The boys created a to-do nation-wide when they got lost in a quarry in the Midi. This time they got more than a spanking from Papa Shliopé!
Then, in 1937, I think, all four left for the Soviet Union. The father was never to return.
My own father, on tour, saw his friend in Moscow a year later—acclaimed and privileged but virtually a prisoner.
Linette was beside herself.
The boys were adapting as well as they could to Soviet existence when their father fell in love with a young communist and deserted them. But imagine their shock when, one fine morning, or rather, one fine night, their mother, Linette, was dragged off to prison. The gay songbird was to spend eight years caged.
Was it through fear or impotence that her famous husband kept quiet? Was it his means, by cutting his ties to the West, of bearing that life of Kafka-esque nightmare? Leaving his pretty, witty and spoiled little wife, the mother of his children, to rot in prison? A rather cowardly act of survival for a man reputed to be brave!
And his sons, what became of them?
Abandoned, hungry, at their wit’s end, they were rescued by a schoolgirl, Sviatoslav’s classmate and future wife.
Fifty years later in Moscow, in the very same small but attractive apartment where we sat, she told me of finding the neglected and desperate boys after they had been missing from school for several days. Here they remained under her care and here she continued to live with Sviatoslav after they were married. He became an architect, she a physician.
Long before, Linette, freed from prison and eventually rehabilitated, had escaped to the West with her younger son. For them, it felt like an escape although there were no great obstacles in their way once the tyrant was dead and his rule discredited.
By a curious coincidence, Serge Prokoviev died on the same day as Stalin.
* * *
Prokofiev’s Soviet marriage was not generally known or acknowledged in the West. Linette was greeted and accepted there as the composer’s only legitimate widow. She had ample money from his royalties to live on and to support Oleg and his children from two different mothers—it is time to give him back his real name and to return Igor to the land of dreams.
I saw Linette several times before she died, in Berkeley, London and Paris. Now round as a butter ball, she had a wicked tongue from which I was not spared. Yet she remained as close and dear to me as a second mother. Far from being crushed by her years in a Soviet prison, she seemed to have waged war with her jailers and emerged victorious. She detested the Soviet system but did not blame her late husband for having abandoned her to its mercy. She spoke freely of the great composer Serge Prokofiev and of the way in which she was feted as his widow. She did not like her English daughter-in -law nor her undisciplined English grandchildren. I was witness to the tense if not hostile relationship she had with the poor but proud son she supported.
* * *
I visited Oleg-Bébain in a suburb of London amidst the chaos of his growing English family. I felt towards this tall, blond, bohemian Russian in whom I saw the little boy with the high forehead, an immediate affection, an old intimacy as strong and mysterious as those that seized me ten years later in the presence of his older brother. Such is the power of childhood emotions, life’s first and freshest.
At this first meeting, he made haste to show me his semi-religious paintings of Russian subjects, which I liked. Later, he constructed abstract sculptures in wood. He wrote poetry I couldn’t understand, some of which he inscribed on his sculptures. Like his father, he had the artist’s egocentricity that isolated him from reality and lightened, if it did not erase, his sense of responsibility. In the case of Oleg, deprived of his mother as a young boy, fear of responsibility did not keep him from satisfying his need for a complacent and admiring wife—he had three.
We met several times, before and after my marriage to Stuart, (the British gentleman of whom the pitiless Linette approved) and the publication of my novel. In the course of our encounters, he spoke to me of his first wife, the German intellectual, of his own philosophy, his reading, his thoughts, but not a word about the father whom, as a child, he must have very much loved.
He was beginning to win renown as a sculptor, due, I suspect, to the paternal name rather than his own indisputable talent, when he died of a heart attack in his sixty ninth year. He did not write to me after my stroke. Did illness and death frighten him? He had lost one of his children to cancer, and he virtually lost his parents, while they lived, one to desertion, the other to imprisonment. He never alluded to that sad epoch which must have marked him so profoundly.
* * *
Why did he appear to me under a false name, so alive in his cell, a symbol of prisoners of conscience the world over? Linette Prokofiev, not Oleg, had languished in prison for eight years. Was it my conscience that gnawed at me, that demanded my brutal death?
Oleg was like a brother and so was Sviatoslav…But they are all my brothers, the incarcerated ones, whom I am powerless to free!
Yes, I am guilty. All conscious adults are guilty. And if from time to time, a bloody expiation be necessary for the honor of Humanity, for its survival perhaps, would I have had the courage I showed in my dream, to sacrifice myself?
I doubt it.
*Where did the name Igor come from? I puzzled over this question before the connection became clear. Prince Igor Constantinovitch Romanov was a childhood friend and intended fiancé of my fictional heroine, Tatyana, in my novel “A Daughter of the Nobility.” He and other members of his family suffered a slow and indescribably cruel death at the hands of the Bolsheviks
February 22, 2003