Only after Sofka, my Russian grandmother, died and I read her diary was I inspired to write about her. Naturally, I already knew that she led a remarkable life – the princess whose existence was shattered by revolution and yet who grew up to become a British Communist. I was named after her, and when I was young I would go to stay with her and her partner, Jack, in their remote stone cottage on Bodmin Moor.
She would show me the old photo albums, starting with her pampered childhood in St Petersburg, cocooned by nursemaids, footmen, an English governess and too many toys; she used to play with the young, haemophiliac Tsarevich at the Winter Palace. The subsequent pages were an exciting dash across the 20th century, her life a seismograph of its great events and political movements.
When I was a teenager, Sofka would give me Jack’s home-made elderflower wine and her advice: ‘It doesn’t matter how many lovers you have’ (she claimed more than 100, I later discovered) ‘just don’t have more than one at the same time.’ She also recommended sitting on the pavement in crowded streets for its persuasive power on boyfriends who don’t comply with your wishes.
I was 16 when Sofka gave me a beautiful old diary. It was 1978 and she was 70. Covered in dark curlicued brass and soft moss-green velvet, the diary had been made for her great-grandmother. The pages should have contained descriptions of carriage drives along Nevsky Prospect, invitations to the next ball and tender feminine secrets – the world my grandmother was born into a century ago as Princess Sofka Dolgorouky.
But by the time she used the book as a diary in 1940, everything had changed. She was Mrs Sofka Skipwith, a British citizen, Europe was at war, and her life would soon be violently dislocated by world events for the second time. It was seeing things unfolding in the diary that provoked me to write Red Princess. I couldn’t have imagined how my journey would evolve into a strange game of grandmother’s footsteps: trips to Russia to find her family homes; meetings with old friends, fellow internees and even a former boyfriend; unearthing secrets and lies; and confronting the intense reactions of people who hated her and others who adored her.
In 1940 Sofka was visiting her mother in Paris. She had intended to stay a few weeks, but was trapped by the Nazi occupation, and the diary became her confessional. She described the evacuation of the city, and the lack of food, but above all, she poured out her passionate feelings towards her second husband, Grey Skipwith. I was fascinated to encounter Sofka as an emotional young woman, before the cooling of time and her characteristic irony could straighten the tangle of events and emotions into tidy stories.
The couple had been married for only three years, and both knew they had found the love of their life. Sofka had divorced her first (émigré) husband, Leo Zinovieff, my grandfather, to be with Grey, who had originally been her pupil for Russian lessons. A boyishly handsome, intelligent 23-year-old, Grey had hoped to join the Foreign Office after Cambridge and had already learnt French and German. His conventional family was scandalised by his marriage to Sofka, believing that he had been ‘snapped up’ and ruined by a ‘much older’ (actually by four years), married, and even worse, foreign femme fatale.
Sofka and Grey had been living in Cookham Dean, Berkshire, with their baby son, Patrick. Peter and Ian, her two older sons by her first marriage, were already living with their father. Sofka found motherhood challenging, and though she had agreed to take all three boys to live in the countryside ‘for the duration’, she had been flung into despair and loneliness after Grey joined the RAF. Using her mother as an excuse, she fled – her well-tested reaction to troubles ever since escaping Russia aged 12. Leaving Patrick with the milkman’s mother-in-law, she managed to cross the Channel in a troop ship in April 1940.
Sofka had numerous friends in the large White Russian community in Paris. Many were familiar from St Petersburg or the Crimea, where she and her grandmother had moved in 1917, and from where they escaped two years later on a British warship, along with the Tsar’s mother, sister and other Romanovs. Few Parisian Russians had much money; they tended to live a faded existence of lost hopes. Sofka’s mother and stepfather, Prince and Princess Volkonsky, were not alone in clinging desolately to the wreckage of old, exiled St Petersburg. It didn’t matter that Sophy, Sofka’s mother, worked as a night taxi-driver; what counted was that she had been born Countess Bobrinsky (a direct descendant of Catherine the Great) and that she was married to His Serene Highness Prince Pierre Volkonsky, once a brilliant diplomat.
Actually, Sophy had been much more than just someone with fancy titles and money. A successful surgeon (she won medals for bravery during the First World War), she had been one of the first women pilots in Russia, drove rally cars and published poetry. After escaping the revolution, she secretly returned to Petrograd and, helped by Gorky, rescued her husband from Bolshevik prison. The couple survived near-starvation and persecution before abandoning their country for ever. It was Sophy’s old friend, the poet Anna Akhmatova, who wrote: ‘But to me the exile is forever pitiful/ Like a prisoner, like someone ill.’ Indeed, Sophy was already addicted to morphine, which after the war drove her to suicide.
By December 1940 a Russian friend of Sofka’s organised her escape back to England, but two days before the planned departure a gendarme knocked at the door. She was ordered to bring things for 24 hours, and then packed on to a train with hundreds of other women carrying British papers. Leaving the Gare de l’Est (from where many of the 70,000 French Jews were deported to their deaths), few guessed that they were headed for several years of internment. The first camp, in Besançon, in eastern France, was appalling. The women were crowded into damp dormitories with bed bugs; their food consisted of mouldy bread and inedible soup. Many died of dysentery and it took six months of British pressure before the 2,000 women were moved to Vittel, 50 miles away.
Before the war, Vittel had been an exclusive spa resort for the rich and unhealthy, but the Germans turned it into what they considered a model camp. Sofka was interned there for three years, from May 1941 until the summer of 1944. It is now a Club Méditerranée, and I went there with a friend of Sofka’s, a fellow inmate known as ‘Rabbit’. Now in her eighties, Rabbit described the unusual female population in the camp: 48 nationalities of all ages, including dancers (there were some Bluebell Girls who escaped), artists, writers, musicians, teachers and governesses.
Rabbit was 18 when Sofka began teaching her English and Russian. Like many internees, Rabbit was French but had British papers – in her case, on account of a long-gone English father. ‘Sofka taught me everything,’ Rabbit said. ‘She knew about different countries, other ways of life… and her memory was so perfect that she could recite poetry for hours. We read so much together – every-thing from the Bible to Lenin.’
The 33-year-old Russian and her student would sit under Sofka’s fur coat in the freezing garret she had managed to appropriate (away from the noisy dormitories, which were full of ‘awful English women who moaned about everything,’ according to Rabbit), boiling up tea and cooking things from the precious Red Cross boxes that now arrived: Klim milk powder, tinned fish, powdered eggs, dry ‘dog biscuits’. Some inmates hoarded their supplies and one recorded a Christmas menu of ambitious proportions: ‘Soupe à la Vittel, saumon à sauce blanche, cornbeef de l’espoir, tarte de la victoire, café de triomphe, cigarettes de rêve et de l’oubli.’
Sofka missed Grey desperately. The suspense of waiting for his two letters a month was agony (‘My darling, darling girl… Don’t let anything worry you because I’m quite safe…’). Still, she kept busy. Enterprising prisoners offered all kinds of classes, from cooking to painting, languages and music. Sofka lectured on Russian poetry (much of which she remembered and translated herself) and started a dramatic society, drawing on her six years of experience as private secretary to Laurence Olivier during the 1930s. (She and ‘Larry’ had been the same age, shared an enthusiasm for parties and passed through painful divorces in close succession. He had ordered a giant bed from Heal’s with linen to fit as a wedding present for Sofka and Grey – their finest Sundays were spent not getting out of it.) Sofka later said that the sound of Olivier reciting Shakespeare was one of the things she longed for most during internment.
Some elements of Vittel’s bizarre microcosm were portrayed in a 1944 film, 2,000 Women, which was based on the camp. Given the British film’s propaganda function, however, certain aspects of internee life were not made explicit; in particular, there was no reference to the love affairs. Some inmates were already established lesbians – Parisian tolerance had long provided a haven – and certain couples were well known throughout the camp. Rabbit recalled a hefty Englishwoman nicknamed ‘Monsieur Huntley-Walker’ (sporting a man’s haircut and coat and carrying a whip) who adored the feminine Lady Bradley, and everyone liked ‘the Peewits’, a quiet, music-loving pair. Sofka claimed in her memoirs that she had once tried ‘lesbianism’, but discovered that she was ‘definitely “hetero” ‘ and was never tempted again.’ Another former inmate told me about Sofka’s affair with ‘Stanley’ – a fresh-faced English gym teacher with cropped hair, a beautiful smile and wonderful legs (she always wore shorts). She gave me a photograph of Sofka (shown above) in a tangled heap of women, sprawled around a bed. Lying with her bare legs in the air, leaning on a beaming Sofka, is Stanley.
The other women in the photo were members of what became la Petite Famille – a group of dedicated Communists. For Sofka their evenings discussing the forbidden subject of Marxism ‘at last seemed to answer those questions about the in-equality of society that had so disturbed me all my life’. She had lived through poverty during the Depression, but she had also experienced luxury and privilege even as an émigré; the Duchess of Hamilton had ‘adopted’ her as an adolescent and later employed her in her Society for Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection.
Sofka had been close to the Douglas-Hamilton children and moved in their high-society circle. In joining the underground Communist party, she turned her back on that side of her life as well as the Russian community. But she didn’t care; she never let go of the inspiration founded in these hidden, female conversations. Through la Petite Famille, she established links with the Resistance, largely via local men who entered the camp as maintenance workers; they would whisper news, supply wire cutters, and take out messages and sometimes inmates to a passeur.
In 1942 Sofka was informed by the camp authorities that Grey had been killed in action. She was so distraught she wanted to die. All hope had been brutally crushed and it was one of the few times in her life when she was unable to flee. After taking to her bed and refusing food, she was hospitalised and then gradually nursed back to health, chiefly by Rabbit, who sat with her through the night, soothing her when the growling drone of Allied aircraft en route for Germany made her hysterical.
Almost a year after Grey’s death, about 300 un-usual-looking prisoners arrived in Vittel and were isolated. It emerged that they were Polish Jews, among the last survivors of the Warsaw ghetto, who had managed by chance, influence or ‘Aryan appearance’ to escape the round-ups.
Most had recently acquired dubious visas to Latin American countries or Palestine and lived in hope of getting there, but Sofka and Rabbit immediately realised how precarious their situation was. ‘For the first time we heard the dread names: Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau…’ Sofka wrote. And when she and Rabbit gave the Poles English and French lessons to help if they escaped, they observed how the strangely quiet, emaciated children drew pictures of Nazis throwing people from tall buildings.
Rabbit told me all about these prisoners. She had eventually married an Auschwitz survivor whom she met in France after the war and spent years working for an academic magazine about the Holocaust. Sofka, too, retained a lifelong interest in the Holocaust that sometimes verged on obsession. But what neither woman ever revealed was that Sofka had fallen in love again. I found a reference in a letter, picked up some details from another internee and then Rabbit confessed. ‘He was known by everyone as “Darling”. He was a very beautiful young man of about 30, with lovely blue eyes – very, very sad eyes – and dark hair.’
Like Sofka, Darling had been recently widowed, and he was accompanied by his mother and young daughter, Visia, whom he cared for with great tenderness. Rabbit admitted that Sofka and Darling had been inseparable: ‘They clung to each other,’ she said. They were able to be together in the camp until curfew, and I pictured them clinging literally: a bodily expression of the terrible things they had suffered; a defiance of death by making love.
Using a mapping pen, Sofka wrote down the names of all the Jewish prisoners on cigarette papers, rolled them into capsules and sent them out with a passeur to the Red Cross and to British authorities. Although she later found out that the capsules had reached their destination, there was no response. A year later, in 1944, trains with boarded windows arrived in Vittel – and the Poles immediately understood their significance; some tried to kill themselves, jumping from windows, taking poison or cutting their wrists, while the guards tried to reassure people that the Jews were ‘merely being transferred’. By chance, Darling was not taken, but everyone was now panic-stricken. Sofka redoubled her efforts to contact the outside world and plead for British intervention in ‘this matter of gravest importance’.
One month later, a second boarded-up train arrived. Rabbit showed me where she and Sofka sat in terror on a bench in the picturesque gardens near the commandant’s house. Darling was going to be taken. Sofka begged him to go to her attic or the cellars where he could hide with several others who had escaped. There was a last chance. But it was an unenviable choice: what life could Darling have if he abandoned his daughter and mother to their fate? Voluntarily, he walked back to the guards. This time, even the attempted suicide cases were carried to the trains, and the prisoners were taken away to Auschwitz.
Sofka described her sense of hopelessness in her memoirs, but she never revealed her lover. After this, she believed she would never love again, and was plagued with guilt and fury that she (and the Allies) had not been able to stop these horrors. It was little comfort that she and Rabbit had saved a newborn Jewish baby, who had been overlooked in the camp hospital. He was sedated, put in a Red Cross box and Rabbit showed me where she and Sofka cut the wire in the perimeter fence and passed the infant over to the Resistance in the middle of the night. He was cared for until after the war, when he was sent to Israel.
After her repatriation in August 1944, Sofka threw herself into Communist party activities. Nobody in London guessed her internal anguish; to her numerous friends and lovers she was ‘fascinating, intelligent, poetic, extraordinary’ – a sensualist who loved parties as much as literature. ‘Sofka’s Saturday Soups’, held in her basement flat in Chelsea, became hugely popular gatherings for bohemians and left-wingers. She helped set up Progressive Tours, a Communist travel agency, and took groups to the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries, with the idealistic hope of preventing war through international friendship.
Sofka often spent months on end travelling; with her minimum-wage salary, rented bedsits and a man in every port, she was as rootless as she had ever been in her early émigré years. I was shocked to discover extensive MI5 files about her, which revealed an unexpected perspective on this era – Sofka was described alternately as a ‘flamboyant creature… who wears rather outré clothes and looks a typical Chelsea bohemian type’ and ‘a brilliant linguist with vast contacts in all spheres… This woman is outstandingly intelligent, courageous and active.’
Six-year-old Patrick came back to live with her when she returned in 1944; her older sons remained with their paternal grandparents. She found it difficult to look after Patrick while picking up the pieces of a demolished life; he was shunted around to various people and then sent to boarding school. Family ties were not a great priority with Sofka, and her sons inevitably suffered from her absence. Although Peter, my father, was not very close to her while I was growing up, he vividly remembers the times he did spend with her as being inspiring and exciting. All three sons are still alive: Patrick is living in France; my father and Ian are here.
Sofka met Jack in 1957 on a tour of the USSR. He was a self-educated man, and a bright spark, but the 50-year-old widow’s life must have appeared implausibly complex to the 40-year-old toolmaker, who had never married or moved from his home in west London. I don’t think either suspected that what began as a casual fling would turn into the last great love of both their lives.
After all the pain and dislocation in her life, Sofka ended up with what she had been longing for – a house in the country with a garden, plentiful books and a love that she could rely on. Above all, she began to lose her fear that everything would be taken away. I sometimes wonder what she would think about Red Princess. I have written about things that she left out of her memoirs, and while I loved and admired her, there are times when I have had to admit she could have behaved better – her lack of dedication as a mother left a painful legacy for my father and his two brothers.
But Sofka always insisted that it was the searching and seeking that should be the most important thing in life. And I sometimes wonder if, when she gave me her diary, she fleetingly imagined that one day it might provoke me to search and seek for myself.