23 February 2007
PRINCESS Sofka Dolgorouky was born into a life of luxury and privilege in Imperial St Petersburg before World War I. As a child she was a playmate of the last Tsarevich, who with the rest of his family was murdered at Ekaterinburg in 1918.
After the Bolshevik takeover of Russia she found refuge in Britain, married a fellow émigré from the Tsarist aristocracy, and had three children who she abandoned.
During the second world war she was interned by the Nazis, worked for the French Resistance, risked her life to save Jews from the death camps and later returned to Britain. Despite her background as a White Russian she became a lifelong Communist.
She ended her days in a humble cottage on Bodmin Moor, living a quiet life with a trades union activist. In between, she ran a literary salon; enjoyed — by her own rough estimate — at least a hundred lovers in a dozen European countries; and was spied on for decades by MI5.
The word bohemian might have been invented to describe her not so much unconventional as anti- conventional life and manner.
This beautifully written, fastpaced book by her granddaughter, Sofka Zinovieff, is part biography of an extraordinary woman, part loving memoir of a relative.
years before her death in 1994 aged 86, the older woman gave Zinovieff a heavy, velvet-bound volume containing the diaries she had kept since 1940 while a prisoner of the Germans in France.
Zinovieff did not look at them for a long while, but then realised she had been handed a wonderful story on a plate. She races through Dolgorouky’s early years of ease in St Petersburg, her escape through the Crimea and her vagabond education in Britain, Paris and the South of France.
In addition to the pain of exile, Sofka was also abandoned by her mother — a trait among the women of her family. She was brought up by a stern grandmother whose views would have been out of date even in the late Tsar’s court.
Dolgorouky settled in London, married a White Russian in a ceremony covered by the Fleet Street gossip columnists, and landed a glamorous job as secretary to Laurence Olivier. She left her husband when her third child was a few months old for the baronet’s son ‘Grey’ Skipwith. Her children were farmed out to family friends.
When France fell, Dolgorouky was on a visit to Paris to see her mother. As a British subject she was interned in Vittel, North-Eastern France, where she heard that Skipwith, a fighter pilot, had been killed in action.
Trapped as a prisoner with groups of Jews who were in transit to the concentration camps, Dolgorouky was an agent for the Resistance until she was sent back to Britain in 1944. Her efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust earned her a place at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel.
The war radicalised her. She joined the Communist Party, becoming one of its most prized assets. The ‘Red Princess’ tag was a powerful propaganda weapon for the party in the years after the war. A passionate rather than beautiful woman, Dolgorouky embarked on a series of casual affairs, seeing her children occasionally during their summer holidays. She tried to make amends by building new relationships with her grandchildren, including Sofka Zinovieff.
She worked for years as a guide for Progressive Tours, a CP offshoot that took Leftist groups on guided holidays to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
She was praised on visits to the Soviet Union, where she took great pleasure in showing tourists the palaces once owned by her ancestors. Zinovieff went to St Petersburg, the Crimea, a French internment camp, the MI5 archive, and across Europe in search of her grandmother. The result is a wonderfully dramatic account of a fascinating, if monstrously selfish woman.
Zinovieff tries perhaps a little too hard to clear her grandmother’s name of charges that she was a hard-hearted nymphomaniac and a lousy mother.
One feels Dolgorouky herself, in the grand aristocratic manner, would not have cared what people said. Nevertheless, this is a hugely enjoyable read.