The Times review for Red Princess

Michael Binyon
March 24, 2007

 

IT IS ALMOST 90 YEARS since the Bolshevik shots that killed Tsar Nicholas II and all his family in a Siberian cellar. Yet the world’s fascination with the Romanov dynasty’s grisly end shows no sign of abating.

 

 

This is partly because of the melodrama of the event. It is partly because communist shame veiled the events in a secrecy and political taboo that quickly gave rise to myth. And it is partly because of the long campaign by a notorious fraudster, a Polish peasant named Fransiszka Schanzkowska, to prove that she was Anastasia, the Tsar’s youngest daughter, who had somehow miraculously escaped the slaughter.

 

 

Almost from the moment that she was pulled out of a Berlin canal in 1920 until her death in a Virginia hospital in 1984, Anna Anderson, as she was later known, stuck to the story that she was Anastasia, probably planted in her mind by a visitor to the hospital where she was taken. The mystery is why anyone believed her — she bore little resemblance to the murdered 17-year-old and was five years older, she seemed unable to remember details of life at court (although she was adept at picking up stories from others), and neither spoke nor understood Russian. But the word spread among gullible Russian exiles, and many were fooled.

 

 

Anderson made a fine living from their credulity, staying in their castles, spending their money and repaying their hospitality with a hauteur, capriciousness, paranoia and vindictive selfishness that seemed only to strengthen their absurd belief that this was royal behaviour.

 

 

A few, such as the son of the Tsar’s personal doctor, were good people who believed in and helped her at huge personal cost. None of the surviving immediate royal family, including the exiled dowager empresses and the Tsar’s sister, took her seriously. Dozens swayed one way, then the other, including the batty American millionaire Jack Manahan, who finally married her.

 

 

Frances Welch tells the story of the deranged and despicable Anna and her eccentric hangers-on at a rollicking pace and with dry wit: the endless lawsuits, the scenes, the Nazis, the press, the squalor, the publicity that fuelled Anna’s hypochondria, her eccentricity and her canny instinct for survival. In the end she probably believed her own myth. Only years after her death did a simple DNA test prove that she was a fraud.

 

 

Princess Sofka Dolgorouky was far from a fraud, although she was almost as eccentric. Her life, wonderfully researched and movingly retold by her granddaughter, mirrors the horrors and convulsions of the past century.

 

 

Born into an aristocratic St Petersburg family, she fled to the Crimea as a girl and, with her unstable mother, escaped the Revolution aboard the warship that George V sent to rescue the Tsar’s mother.

 

 

Parked with her impoverished refugee grandmother and a grumpy governess while her mother smuggled herself back into Russia to rescue her second husband from prison, Sofka was befriended by the insouciant family of the Duke of Hamilton, and was whisked off to Rome and Nice. She took a job in London as Laurence Olivier’s secretary, hung out with Bohemian Russians, drank, flirted and had affairs, making an improbable marriage to a Russian exile and falling for a dashing younger Englishman, before ending up in France as the Second World War began.

 

 

Interned in Vittel with the ennui of prim British women for company, she was devastated by the death of her lover who was in the RAF, witnessed the transit of Poles from the Warsaw ghetto to France and back to Auschwitz.

 

 

She survived on Shakespeare, Russian poetry and lesbian friendships. Liberated, she returned to drab postwar London, and briefly became a hedonistic socialite before embracing communism and atheism as the “Red Princess”. She took a thankless job guiding British Communists round Eastern Europe while MI5 compiled crass reports on her. She finally met a dour, younger British Communist and, after a life of flight, bedsits and affairs, settled with him in Cornwall to grow old in dishevelled defiance.

 

 

She bore three sons but preferred books and was a terrible mother. She was clever, cultured, hedonistic and brave. She moved between worlds and moved all those she met. Her granddaughter’s account is funny, honest, searing and tragic — a fascinating insight into a world where fate, war and human cruelty changed lives with a sudden, reckless indifference that seems centuries ago.