I’ve always Felt a bond with my paternal grandmother Sofka – not least because I was named after her – and what I knew about her life, sounded remarkable. Born into an aristocratic Russian family, as a girl she had escaped to England with the Dowager Empress after the 1917 revolution, worked for the French Resistance and then, in a bizarre twist, become a Communist. In between. Sofka had also been Laurence Olivier s private secretary, survived We in an internment Cramp and fallen in love many times. After I started researching for my book about her, Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life, I became intrigued by the extreme views people held about Sofka, even 10 years after she died, aged 86.
Anyone belonging to her in-laws saw her as immoral: promiscuous, a bad mother, and a traitor. False rumours still held sway about nonexistent illegitimate babies, and according to a brother-in-law, she was a nymphomaniac – an affliction supposedly linked to Sofka’s descent, from Catherine the Great.
Almost as extreme were the views of Sofka’s loyal friends. She liad been, they said, warm, generous, a lover of literature and, above all, of freedom. And if she sometimes neglected her children, this was because she lived each day to its limit, whether that meant reading through the night, impulsively taking off with a Cossack performing troupe or working for the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to them, she had been principled, intelligent, brave and beautiful.
The first journey in my search for Sofka was to St Petersburg. I saw the apartment by the Neva where she was born in 1907, and the palace where her grandmother brought her up according to 19th -century etiquette: servants, elaborate dresses, carriage rides and visits to play with the young Tsarevich. Sofka’s parents, however, were both rebels. Her mother (born Countess Bobrinsky) rejected court life to become a surgeon, and was one of the first female pilots in Russia. Sofka’s father. Prince Peter Dolgorouky, was a fun-loving member of the Horse Guards, who caused a scandal by running off with a gypsy singer.
I travelled to Crimea, where much of St Petersburg’s high society had estates, to see if I could locate the house where Sofka lived for two years after the revolution began in 1917. Sofka’s grandmother had been lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress, and she had followed the Tsar’s mother to Yalta when the Bolshevik’threat became too much. In 1919, a British warship arrived tg take away the Dowager Empress, who was the sister of Britain’s Queen Alexandra. Accompanying her were 12-year-old Sofka, Sofka’s grandmother and her governess. They ended up in England, where they would wait until it was safe to return. No one imagined that ‘the Reds’ would stay in power for most of the century.
Sofka lived a peripatetic adolescence, following her grandmother around the Russian communities of Europe, but her most stable point of reference was with the family of the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton. They had seven children, and she often spent holidays with them. Later, she worked as secretary to the Duchess, who was president ofthe Animal Defence and Ami Vivisection Society; the house was filled with animals, only vegetarian food was served, and guests were asked which dog they’d like to take to bed with them.
Though Sofka felt at home in England, she enjoyed being with Russians, and her first marriage was to a fellow emigre – Leo Zinovieff They had two sons (including my father), but the marriage was doomed when, after only a few years, Sofka fell in love. Grey Skipwith was the eldest son of a baronet; he had recently left Cambridge and was taking Russian lessons in the -hope of joining the Foreign Office. His relatives recalled that he had been ‘snapped up’ by a ‘man-eating’ foreigner, though both Skipwth and Sofka believed they had found the love of their lives and married after her divorce. In 1937, they lived for some months in Laurence Olivier’s house in Cheyne Walk. Olivier gave the newly-weds a huge, seven-foot-square bed as a present, and their idea ofthe perfect Sunday was to get everything they needed (food, drinks, cigarettes, books) and stay there. However, their marital bliss was short-lived. In 1940, Sofka was interned in France by the Nazis; she had been visiting her mother in Paris and was trapped by the German invasion. It was at the camp, in Vittel, that she learned that Grey had been killed in action.
At first, Sofka willed herself to die, taking to her bed, but eventually she was nursed back to life. She was already an underground Communist, and worked with the French Resistance, some members of which had jobs in the camp. A year later, when several hundred Polish Jewish prisoners arrived, Sofka tried to do all she could to save than. What she never told anyone was that she had fallen in love with one of the Poles. ‘Darling’ (as he was known) was a handsome young widower with a daughter. The couple became inseparable, daring to hope for a future. After a year, many of the prisoners, including Darling, were removed to Auschwitz.
Sofka thought she would never love again, and, after the war, she put all her energies into being a Communist. 1 uncovered two MI5 files filled with police reports, phone taps and opened letters, which catalogued her movements in the 1940s and 1950s. Belief in a just, socialist future became her way of fighting for peace and, I realised, the memory ofthe loves she had lost. Working as a travel guide for Progressive Tours, a Communist-run agency, she took groups from Britain to the Soviet Union and Eastern-bloc countries. It was in 1957, while on a trip to the USSR, that Sofka met the last love in her life. Jack was 10 years her junior, had never married, and worked in a factory.So unlikely was the match between him and the older, cosmopolitan, Sofka that many questioned whether theirs had really been a partnership of love. However, having seen the letters Sofka wrote to Jack, I have no doubt of her ecstatic joy at finally, at the age of 50, finding someone she adored once more. Sofka and Jack left London for a cottage on Bodniin Moor, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Jack grew vegetables, walked their whippets and made gorse wine, while Sofka wrote, read and cooked Russian food. I used to visit them occasionally, and Sofka would show me old photographs, and reminisce about her extraordinary life.