Feb 1st 2007
LIKE a Jew becoming a Nazi, was how her relatives saw it. How could a brainy, sensitive woman, exiled from her homeland by a monstrous totalitarian regime that hounded her class and murdered her friends and relatives, become an unflinching supporter of its creed?
That is the puzzling life of the beautiful Sofka Dolgorouky. Born into one of tsarist Russia’s grandest families, she escaped from Soviet clutches only to spend the second world war in a Nazi internment camp. Sexually insatiable, she had two husbands and countless lovers, and neglected her children abominably. After all that, she ended up happily but squalidly in a cottage in a remote corner of rural England, defiantly communist to the last.
The story is told by her granddaughter, Sofka Zinovieff, who maintains an appropriate tone of slightly bemused sympathy with her captivating but repellent subject. She retraces her grandmother’s footsteps, in Russia, France and Britain, presenting an evocative mix of past and present, partly with her own acute descriptions, and partly from her documentary sources. These include the copious diaries and notes of Mrs Skipwith (née Princess Dolgorouky), the recollections (mostly caustic) from the rest of the family and some revealing files from the British security service, who tracked their exotic Russian target (“outstandingly intelligent, courageous and active”) through the shabby grey world of post-war London.
Like the men in raincoats, Ms Zinovieff fails in the probably impossible task of explaining how someone who had suffered so much from totalitarianism could embrace an ideology that upheld it. The horrors of Soviet policy at home and abroad, exposed time after time from 1917 onwards, gradually destroyed the hopes and convictions of sympathisers with the Bolsheviks’ experiment, even in the British Communist Party. But it left her grandmother’s faith intact. You couldn’t blame Christianity for Torquemada, and you shouldn’t blame socialism for Stalin, was her usual answer.
The easy explanation is that her judgment was scarred by the poverty she witnessed in the 1930s, and by living on the fringes of the Holocaust—the Jews in her internment camp perished in Auschwitz. But others who experienced the same horrors became ardent democrats; the princess after the war became an enthusiastic tour-guide to the countries of the communist bloc, even editing a magazine that glorified the Stalinist outpost of Albania.
A second puzzle is that someone so good at making friends was so careless with her relatives. Ms Zinovieff reluctantly concedes that her grandmother was not just chronically unfaithful but wildly promiscuous (“bedding” was her own word for casual sex); worse, her hapless children were left in strange hands for long periods, and then moved with a cruel abruptness that even the kindest biographer can hardly excuse. Her self-absorbed carelessness in that, and towards money, hygiene and much more besides, make it easy to see why her Russian in-laws loathed the turncoat princess. Yet anyone reading about her sizzling charm, guts and literary gifts can’t help thinking it would have been fun to know her.