TLS review for Red Princess

Ian Elliot
March 23, 2007

 

Sofka Dolgorouky, born in 1907 to a life in the glittering palaces of St Petersburg, in old age fondly recalled playing with the heir to the throne in the final years of the Russian Empire. Yet even the atrocities committed by the Bolsheviks (which included the murder of the Tsar and his family) did not dissuade her from joining the Communist Party.

 

 

Inspired by the gift of her grandmother’s Russian diary – and her scandalous reputation -Sofka Zinovieff decided to trace her own roots. But the author’s great-uncle Kyril Zinovieff, a distinguished writer on St Petersburg and one of very few who remembers pre-Revolutionary life in Russia (“from Rasputin to Putin!”), strongly discouraged her from her project. Her grandmother had made his brother Leo very unhappy by marrying him; she had failed to look after their children and was very promiscuous – and “I mean the sleeping-with-the-window-cleaner-and-postman-sort-of-promiscuous”. When the subject of her Communist leanings came up, his Russian friends had called her “filth” for failing to realize that Stalinism was little better than Nazism. Sofka Zinovieff herself had doubts. She was not a professional historian, had only a “frail grip on Russian”, and was aware that both her grandmother and her great-grandmother had themselves written memoirs of their life and times. Yet she naturally wished to know more about her extraordinary family, and now not only the facts of her grandmother’s life had to be established, but also her motives. The result-ing book, Red Princess, delights on several levels: as a detective story, biography, family saga, with glimpses of high society in Russia and Britain, and vivid descriptions of the individual tragedies and desperate struggles for survival of those swept up in the storms of twentieth-century history. The photographs, too, are splendid. With admirable determination, Zinovieff pursued her grandmother’s trail in Russia, the Crimea, Paris and London, tracking down the houses in which she lived and the people with some direct knowledge, allowing a more accurate portrait to emerge. The accusation of promiscuity, however, is certainly upheld. The Red Princess herself admitted to more than a hundred lovers, but she set her own standards: “It doesn’t matter how many lovers you have …. Just don’t have more than one at the same time”. In trying to maintain these standards, however, she seems on occasion to have forgotten about her husbands. The shocking neglect of her children is also confirmed. They seemed to have found her fun when she was around, but that was not very often. And she was indeed a member of the Communist Party, albeit the Chelsea branch.

 

 

Zinovieff finds some explanation for this unusual behaviour in her grandmother’s own family history. Her mother, Sophy Bobrinsky, was a direct descendant of Catherine the Great’s illegitimate son by her lover Gregory Orlov; the baby was smuggled from the palace wrapped in a beaver fur (bobr) and later launched into society as Count Bobrinsky. At eighteen, she married Prince Peter Dolgorouky in the most brilliant wedding of the 1907 season, held in the Winter Palace and attended by the Romanovs.

 

 

His present to her was a fine car; she had already learned in secret to drive. She gave birth to Sofka just nine months after their Monte Carlo honeymoon. Prince Peter was content with life as an officer in the Horse Guards, enlivened by frequent visits to the gypsies, but Sophy wanted more from life than society normally allowed ladies of her rank. She published satirical verse in a fashionable journal, and discussed literature with her friend Anna Akhmatova, whose superb poetry was to record the coming tragedy more truly than most histories. She smoked opium with Prince Felix Yusupov, who in 1916 killed the hated Rasputin. She studied medicine and qualified as a surgeon, and in 1912 was the only woman to drive in the motor rally from St Petersburg to Kiev. Not surprisingly, Sophy grew apart from Peter, who fell in love with Anna Michaelovna, a beautiful gypsy singer, and moved out of the marital apartment. Despite his family’s disapproval, he married Anna, giving her some security when his regiment was suffering huge losses in the First World War, and had six children with her. Meanwhile, Sophy served with distinction in first-aid posts on the Polish and Turkish fronts, winning two St George Crosses, the highest award for valour. Having learned to fly before the war, she then qualified as a bomber pilot. Little Sofka enjoyed her brave parents’ occasional visits, but was brought up by her paternal grandmother, Olga. When (he Russian Revolution made Petrograd too dangerous, Olga reserved eight compartments on a train to Simferopol, and taking Sofka, followed her friend the Dowager Empress Marie (sister to Britain’s Queen Alexandra) south to the Crimea.

 

 

This is one of the points where the author returns to the detective story, introducing an enjoyable account of her own visit to the Crimea, now part of independent Ukraine, She successfully traces the family house in Miskhor where Olga and little Sofka spent two years while civil war raged in the Russian Empire. There is little attempt to place the family saga in its wider historical setting; for a description of General WrangePs final defence of the Crimea against the Red Army, readers should consult other sources {The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, by William Henry Chamberlin, first published in 1935 is still among the best). But we do learn that Wrangel’s children lived nearby, and that Sofka played with them. And her father, Prince Peter, makes another dramatic appearance, fleeing the Reds after participating in the defence of Yalta. He hides with them before escaping to Sebastopol and into emigration with other survivors of the White Army.

 

 

No doubt her parents* attitude influenced Sofka in her neglect of her own children. The seeds of her Communist views were also already planted. The footman Simyon told her secretly of his miserable, poverty-stricken childhood, and of his hopes that the Revolution would bring greater justice and equality. She ran wild with the lodgekeeper’s grandsons Vanya and Shura, whose father joined the village soviet; they too contributed to her Bolshevik education. Yet recent Russian histories record that some 50,000 of those left behind when tbe Crimea was evacuated were shot by (he Reds as counter-revolutionaries. The bitterness of Russian e’migres at Sofka’s Communist views is understandable. Sofka and her grandmother joined the party of the Dowager Empress on HMS Marlborough, after some delay in Constantinople and Malta they arrived in Portsmouth and were welcomed at Victoria station by King George V and Queen Mary.Sophy turns up again in London to see her daughter after two years absence, and arranges a “good school” for her. Then, brave as ever, smuggles herself back into Bolshevik Russia to rescue her second husband, Pierre Volkonsky, from prison. Amazingly, she succeeds, and together with Pierre and her awful mother-in-law, eventually escapes back to the West – as described in her own memoirs, The Way of Bitterness (published in 1931>. After living in poverty, driving a taxi in Paris and addicted to laudanum, Sophy finally opted for suicide. Sofka had found her father more fun, when Peter occasionally popped up to take her to the cinema or casino. But he died after an operation in 1925.

 

 

Sofka enjoyed life in British high society. She was close friends with the seven Douglas-Hamilton children, and was even employed as secretary by the eccentric Duchess of Hamilton. She later worked for Laurence Olivier, and always enjoyed literary and theatrical connections. She maintained her links with the aristocratic Russian emigration and, despite family misgivings, married Leo Zinovieff. There were two sons, including Peter, the author’s father, but loose living on a low income ended that marriage. Her second husband, Grey Skipwith, appears to have been the love of her life. Their son Patrick was to inherit the Skipwith baronetcy, but her three boys seem to have endured a miserable childhood with little parental care. Grey joined the RAF as a gunner and was killed in a bomber raid. Sofka herself was trapped in Paris by the German Occupation. Although interned, she had links with the Resistance, supplying information on the tragic fate of Jewish prisoners, and actually helping to save some of them. As one of the “righteous”, she was awarded a medal by the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Institute.

 

 

Back to the detective story: her biographer granddaughter discovered that, unknown to her family, Sofka had lived for three years after the war with David Rocheman, who was sixteen years younger than her. He wanted to marry her, but she told him “not to be silly”. Then the author impressively persuaded MI5 to produce Sofka’s Cold War file – phone taps, photographs, intercepted letters, but no really damaging conclusions. After the war, Sofka worked for Progressive Tours, taking trade unionists on propaganda trips to the Communist countries. Most idealistic Communists left the Party after Khrushchev’s secret speech and the suppression of the Hungarian Rising in 1956, but Sofka stuck with it. In 1957 she was the first Western travel agent to enter Albania.

 

 

She retired in 1962 to a run-down cottage in Cornwall, where she lived contentedly with Jack King, a Communist trade unionist from one of her Progressive Tours. Among their many visitors was the young Sofka Zinovieff, who, inspired by her grandmother’s extraordinary personality, decided to elicit the truth behind the scandals and the myths. Her extensive investigations and thorough weighing of the evidence have produced a convincing portrait. In the quiet, happier years before her death in 1994, aged eighty-six, Sofka wrote her memoirs and a successful Russian cookbook, but it is likely that she will best be remembered through her granddaughter’s fascinating account in Red Princess.