February 10 2007
IT WOULD BE HARD TO IMAGINE A more publicly dramatic, never mind revolutionary, life than that of Sofka Dolgorouky’s. From playing with the children of the last Russian tsar (and her dread of the little haemophiliac prince Alexei falling over and hurting himself) as a little girl, to being honoured shortly after her death by Israel’s principal Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, for her help saving 50 Jews during the Second World War, she was not only touched by the great and terrible events of the 20th century; she was a significant actor in them.
But the motivation for her grand-daughter, also Sofka, to embark on an account of this life is personal. It was, she says, after reading her grandmother’s diary – written when she went to Paris to help her mother and stepfather at the onset of the Second World War – that she decided to right a few wrongs. For the diary reveals a personal aspect to an “official” tale Sofka Zinovieff had always been told about her grandmother – that she was a wild woman whose second husband, Grey Skipwith, had volunteered for the air force during the war just to get away from her.
It’s a motive most of us can sympathise with – gossipy relatives badmouthing one member of the family until the “truth” is finally revealed. Here, Sofka learns that her grandmother and Skipwith were, far from wanting to get away from each other, actually still deeply in love. It is against this perhaps mundane private detail that the public story of a remarkable life is set.
And what a story it is. Princess Sofka Dolgorouky was born to Sophy Bobrinsky and Prince Petya Dolgorouky in 1907. It was not a happy marriage – Bobrinsky was extraordinary for her time, training as a surgeon, becoming the only woman driver in a motor rally in 1912, contributing to subversive journals and even meeting Rasputin. When the First World War began she was allowed to fly bomber planes (she learned to fly in France in 1913) and was soon off attending to injured soldiers, earning two St George crosses in the process.
The tiny Sofka was sent to stay with her grandmother, Princess Olga, in the Crimea, at a large country house called Miskhor.
In spite of the war and the revolution, the young Sofka’s childhood seems to have been pretty idyllic until 1919, when she left with her grandmother and English governess, Miss King, for England to escape the Bolsheviks (she was greeted by King George V and Queen Mary on their arrival at Victoria station). Sofka’s mother would eventually rescue her own second husband, Pierre, from Russia in an extraordinarily dangerous trip and they would flee to Paris; as an adolescent, Sofka would thus alternate between her grandmother’s various homes in Nice, Paris and England, and her mother’s tiny flat in Paris.
Sophy Bobrinsky’s life was never the same again – she succumbed to drug abuse and died in her early fifties. Sofka, however, flirted with her Scottish friends, the Douglas-Hamiltons, before settling on another exiled Russian like herself, Leo Zinovieff, with whom she fell in love, married and had a child. The marriage was disastrous. Much to her husband’s horror, by this time Sofka was committed to the Labour Party, for whom she would canvass regularly, after witnessing terrible poverty in Glasgow (ironically she saw all this on the campaign trail for her friend, the eldest Douglas-Hamilton, Douglas, who was standing for Parliament as a Tory). Soon she was having affairs with other men.
It was at this time to that she began working for Laurence Olivier and his then wife Jill Esmond as a secretary to earn extra money, and was introduced to the theatrical circuit – parties with Noel Coward and Edith Evans in attendance were commonplace, which returned her to the glamorous lifestyle she had enjoyed as a child. But she was still working, and it was through her job as a private tutor that she met the man who would be her second husband – and possibly the father of her second child – middle-class Englishman Grey Skipwith.
Sofka left her husband and moved in with Grey, whom she married as soon as her divorce from Leo came through, although her children stayed with their father. With the onset of the Second World War, Grey volunteered for the RAF and Sofka headed for Paris, ostensibly to help her mother, but, her grand-daughter writes: “My suspicion is that her mother was an excuse; Paris provided an escape. With her bevy of Russian friends and admirers, Sofka was distracted from the gnawing anxiety about Grey and the bleak loneliness of long evenings in the London bedsit.”
But Paris was dangerous and Sofka got caught – as an enemy alien, she was interned first in the grim barracks at Besançon, then at the more comfortable converted spa at Vittel. It was there that she seems to have had a dalliance with another woman, and also heard that Grey had been shot down and killed. It would appear that only the support of the other woman got her through this period and it was at Vittel that she helped Polish Jews get false passports through her contacts in the Resistance.
After the war, Sofka returned to England and joined the Communist Party – her granddaughter describes the strangeness of reading MI5’s files on her grandmother; the agency would trail her every movement (most of which were fairly routine, innocuous trips to the local shops), as she attended Communist rallies and helped sell copies of the Daily Worker. Many of her exiled Russian friends refused to have anything more to do with her. Her granddaughter’s explanation for her allegiance to the Communist Party is simply that it stood for her, at that time, as the principal opposer of fascism.
It was through the Party that Sofka met her final “life” partner, Jack King, a bachelor and shop steward. She lived with Jack until the end of her life, in the relative peace and quiet of the English countryside. Sofka was a woman who went entirely her own way in life, who faced her century’s worst atrocities (she visited Belsen shortly after its liberation) and survived. Her story is a remarkable, and almost unbelievable one. Told by a sympathetic granddaughter, it becomes an intimate one, too.