The twentieth century, with its two world wars, the Cold War, its revolutions, and its struggles, was an age of unimaginable technological advances during which the world saw totalitarianisms of various stripes come to be, leading to the suffering and exile of millions of human beings. What follows are the stories of three women who resisted absolutism and and whose destinies would take them around the world.
Totalitarianism, war, the Holocaust, and exile: these are the four phenomena that define the twentieth century.
With its enslaving ideologies, world wars and civil wars, dictatorships and totalitarianisms, the twentieth century spawned waves of refugees, who in some cases changed the ethnic makeup of the metropolises of Europe and the United States. Germans, Russians, Spaniards, Jews, and—more recently—Bosnians and Kosovars all at some point had to abandon their home countries in order to escape one horror or another.
The twentieth century exile has become one of the most fundamental examples of Europe’s civilizational crisis. Though in human history, “the exile” is nothing new: Moses and Joseph were exiles, as were Lot and his wife—that symbol of fidelity to one’s self taken to the extreme. Ulysses’ exile lasted ten years. Oedipus condemned himself to exile, and by blinding himself, condemned himself further still to an internal exile. Ovid was the first poet to be expelled from his own country and was the first example of a state denying someone’s right to artistic expression. Dante, among many others, would go on to follow that path as well.
The noted German essayist Theodor Adorno, who lived in the United States after fleeing the Nazis, warned his fellow refugees that if they lost their status as foreigners, they would lose their souls. Though many have preferred Seneca’s adage, “whole world is my country”, as being uprooted can prove enrichening.
The destinies of three twentieth century women, presented below, show what living under different totalitarianisms is like. The writer Irène Némirovsky fled Communist totalitarianism and then perished under its Nazi analog. The singer Lina Prokofiev survived Nazism and went on to be forever marked by Communism. The writer Svetlana Aliluyeva fled the unbearable legacy of her father, Stalin, in order to become a citizen of the world.
An Unfinished Suite
Irène Némirovsky professed no religious views, did not attend synagogue, and spoke Russian at home. Regardless, because she was a Jew, government officials both in her native Ukraine and then in Russia would not let her attend Russian schools. From that moment on, Irène was always conscious of the fact that she was not accepted by the world around her. When her family fled Russia after that country’s revolution in 1917, they first stopped in Finland, as many Russian immigrants thought that that nation could springboard them into the West. Even there, Irène noticed the suspicion of the parents of classmates she had tried to befriend.
The country that fascinated Irène was France, where she finally settled. France’s rational structure, prudence, respect for individual liberty, and sense of social justice soon seduced her, and she soon felt more comfortable in the company of Frenchmen than Russians.
In 1926 Irène’s father moved to the United States, and from there tried to convince his daughter to follow him, claiming that Europe was not a safe place, especially for Jews. But Irène, who by the end of the 1920s had achieved literary success, paid her father no mind, and instead opted for a future she thought would mean peace, security, and moderation. She was convinced she wasn’t even running a risk.
Némirovsky had a very high opinion of France: it was the land of revolution, of liberty, and of human rights. It was the country of the Enlightenment, and after the Dreyfus affair, would never again betray the Jews. Moreover, Nemirovsky was seduced by the cosmopolitan Paris of the 1920s, its streets bustling with life, with cafes and restaurants—such as La Closserie des Lilas and La Coupole—where one could hear American English, Spanish, Russian, and German, among many other languages. It was in that environment that Irène, at the age of 26, published her first novel, David Golder, “a masterpiece”, according to the respected and redoubtable critic for Le Temps. Other critics compared it to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and even Balzac. With things going so well, why pay attention to her father and the letters he sent from America, each littered with warnings?
However, in the 1930s France started to be taken with the idea that foreigners in general, and Jews in particular, represented a kind of infiltration, a threat to French identity, a barbarian invasion that caused unemployment and sullied the refined quality of French culture. But Irène lived in the world of arts and letters where these sorts of opinions were marginal, and continued publishing her novels Le Bal, Le Vin de solitude, and Les Mouches d’automne to great critical and popular success.
Suite française is her best known novel. In it, Némirovsky depicts the shock that came with the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, and the exodus that followed it. In the style of a documentary that was filmed live, Suite française depicts how people behave when they are suddenly thrust into this new situation, one without precedents or limits. It is in there that the most concealed parts of each character are revealed. Only a refugee could write a book like this about displacement—both physical and emotional—about waiting to flee and about the exodus itself.
“Suite française is her best known novel. In it, Némirovsky depicts the shock that came with the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, and the exodus that followed it. In the style of a documentary that was filmed live, Suite française depicts how people behave when they are suddenly thrust into this new situation, one without precedents or limits.”
As Irène’s works became more and more successful, anti-semitism in France, under the influence of Hitler’s Germany, became steadily more powerful. In the end, in occupied France on July 13th, 1942, as she was working on Suite française, Irène Némirovsky was detained and sent to Auschwitz, where she died a month later. The book was never finished.
Carolina “Lina” Codina
A Spaniard in the Gulag
There are people who embody the events of an entire century. That was the case with Carolina “Lina” Codina, the Spanish wife of the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, whose life exemplified the best and the worst of the era she lived in.
Lina was an authentically cosmopolitan woman: she spoke seven languages perfectly. Her mother, an opera singer, was Polish-Lithuanian nobility; her father, an internationally renowned tenor, was Catalan. Lina was born in 1897, in Madrid, and studied in Romandy and New York. It was in the latter city that she met the young composer who had fled the Russian Revolution. The couple settled in Paris, where Lina continued to study music and Sergei continued his career as a composer, pianist, and orchestra director. Prokofiev’s musical activity took them both to many European and American capitals. They soon became friends with many artists and intellectuals, including Picasso, Chaplin, Stravinski, Coco Chanel, Misia Sert, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff. The couple’s life bounced from music halls (Lina, a soprano, sang Prokofiev’s songs as he played the piano), receptions at embassies, vacations on seashores, and dinners with celebrity artists. But everything would change in 1936 when they decided to move back to the Soviet Union with their two sons. This was just as Stalin was launching his must cruel purges to date and the country was in a state of terror. Naturally, Russia would change their lives.
When the Prokofievs discovered the state of fear that reigned over Russian society, where secret police were daily detaining thousands of people who would go on to disappear, usually forever, in the dungeons of state prisons, or be executed, the family tried to return to the West, but Soviet authorities would not given them permission to do so.
In this frantic situation, Prokofiev, approaching the age of 50, left his family for a member of the Young Communist League who had been sent by Soviet authorities to destroy his marriage. After World War Two, Lina was kidnapped (while walking in public) and taken to jail. At a brief trial she was accused of espionage and taken to a labor camp north of the Polar Circle. Lina and Prokofiev would never see one another again.
“In this frantic situation, Prokofiev, approaching the age of 50, left his family for a member of the Young Communist League who had been sent by Soviet authorities to destroy his marriage.”
Stalin died in 1953 (coincidentally, Prokofiev died the exact same day), and three years later, Lina was released from the Gulag, after having spent eight years in various forced labor camps. Another 18 years would pass before Lina’s constant petitioning of the government to be allowed to leave was successful.
At the age of 78 Lina settled in London, where she started the Prokofiev Foundation, dedicated to the study of the late composer. She then moved to Paris where she lived an independent and active life until the age of 92.
Stalin’s Indomitable Daughter
What were the children of the twentieth century’s biggest dictators like? Hitler had none. Mao’s son, Anqing was mentally ill and taciturn. Two of Stalin’s sons died prematurely: Yakov in World War Two, Vasily of alcoholism. The only one we can take a serious look at is Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, who died three years ago. She would have turned 93 this year.
She was six years-old when she lost her mother. When she was little, she believed the official explanation that her mother had died of an illness. But at 16, while paging through foreign magazines—which, as a member of the political elite she had access to—she discovered that Stalin’s wife had committed suicide. This magazine noted the suicide of Nadezhda Alliluyeva like it was a well-known fact. Until then, Svetlana had been a spoiled child, and the apple of her father’s eye, with whom she played “master and servant”—where daughter gave orders and father had to obey. But in that moment she realized for certain something she had long suspected: that there was more to her father than that, that he was also a ruthless dictator, and that her mother’s suicide was related to precisely that fact.
Svetlana never forgave the USSR’s most feared leader. Nor did she ever forgive him for cruelly destroying the relationship between her and her first love. When she was 16, at a party commemorating the October Revolution, Svetlana danced with celebrity director Aleksei Kapler, 24-years her senior. A bond was formed between the two. From there, the couple started going to plays, movies, parks, and museums together, always followed by a KGB spy, assigned to them by Stalin. One day Aleksei managed to shut the door before the spy managed to reach his floor. That was too much for Stalin, who, enraged, condemned his daughter’s boyfriend to ten years in the Gulag.
Svetlana realized that her father, who had remained unmarried since his last wife’s suicide, was bitter, and that the frustrations of his personal life had turned him into an even more bloodthirsty dictator, one who saw enemies everywhere. Not even his daughter was immune from his fits of rage, and she feared that one day he would send her to the Gulag, as he had done with the majority of his family members. To get away from the Kremlin, and just out of rebelliousness, Svetlana entered two different loveless marriages; each spawning one son and one quick divorce.
Years later, in her forties, Svetlana requested permission to leave the USSR in order to bring the ashes of her third romantic partner, Indian translator Brajesh Singh, to his native land. She was given permission to leave on the condition that her children stay in Moscow. India, the first foreign country she had ever visited, struck her as the embodiment of liberty (and the nation of India adored her kindness and her cheery nature), but Indira Gandhi personally rejected her request for political asylum. Svetlana then found refuge in the American embassy in New Delhi.
Tensions rose between the world powers, still in the midst of the Cold War, as a direct result of Stalin’s indomitable daughter and her getaway. In April of 1967, after getting a visa, she landed in New York. JFK airport’s landing strip was flanked by journalists ready to report this incredible story: the arrival of Stalin’s daughter, who had become an avatar for all those who abandoned Communist paradise and opted instead for democracy and a free market economy.
By the end of 1967, after half a year under the dubious protection of the CIA, and after having published a memoir about life in the Kremlin, Twenty Letters to a Friend, which made a huge splash and turned its author into a millionaire, she became a professor at Princeton University. Soon thereafter, she bought a house with a garden to her liking and developed a number of friendships.
Still, after her escape and the abandonment of her children in Moscow, Svetlana couldn’t find peace of mind. After a few years, she traveled to the deserts of Arizona to join the Taliesin Fellowship, then under the tutelage of Frank Lloyd Wright’s authoritative widow.
“In April of 1967, after getting a visa, she landed in New York. JFK airport’s landing strip was flanked by journalists ready to report this incredible story: the arrival of Stalin’s daughter, who had become an avatar for all those who abandoned Communist paradise and opted instead for democracy and a free market economy.”
Svetlana soon married Wesley Peters, an architect and disciple of Lloyd Wright, whose many debts she paid, thereby losing much of her recently acquired fortune. Unwilling to continue living in an artist’s comune, after two years there she fled with her young daughter Olga (who she had had with Peters) and returned to Princeton. Incapable of feeling at home anywhere, fleeing the shadow of her father that followed her everywhere, and avoiding the gnawing question over Stalin’s very humanity, she bounced from place to place.
Svetlana passed away in a retirement home in Wisconsin. Before dying at the age of 85, she had stopped notifying her daughter about the state of her health and told her doctor to keep said daughter out of her hospital room should she arrive. This was her last rebellion, her final refusal to submit. Olga arrived at the hospital after Svetlana had died. After her cremation, she spread her mother’s ashes across the Pacific Ocean.