Mail on Sunday review for Red Princess

Frances Welch
March 11 2007

 

Stories of princesses becoming paupers after pampered childhoods at the pre-Revolutionary Russian Court are always popular, and Red Princess has all the vital ingredients. Born into the Russian nobility, this little girl had nursery companions that ranged from child-sized talking dolls to the young Tsarevich. Her old age was spent tending five dogs in a small cottage on the Cornish moors.

 

But the life of Princess Sofka Dolgorouky, 1907-1994, here told by her granddaughter, does not follow the conventional format. Through the Twenties and Thirties, the newly impoverished Princess Sofka became increasingly unsympathetic to the plight of her fellow aristocrats.

 

Far from condemning the Communists, she sympathised with their ideals. ‘Stalin’s evildoing cannot be said to detract from the basic idea of socialism,’ she proclaimed. In the Forties she joined the Communist Party; her horrified White Russian friends turned on her, calling her ‘filth’.

 

With feeling and wit, Zinovieff records the experiences that shaped her grandmother’s beliefs. There have been many rosy depictions of the pre-Revolutionary Russian peasant, happy and devoted to his landlord.

 

But Princess Sofka used to tell a different story. Her governess warned her dust would be thrown at her while visiting the family’s dacha. A forthright footman, Simyon, explained: ‘Wouldn’t I hate those who made me work and didn’t pay me enough?’ When Simyon told the princess that people were starving, she, passed on her share of biscuits.

 

Before she fled from the Crimea in 1919, aged 12, Sofka befriended a lodge-keeper’s grandson; his reasoning seemed to clinch it for her. He was, he explained, more intelligent than her, yet he was barefoot and uneducated. ‘Why should the Ivanovs have cakes when others had no bread?’

 

Sofka spent her subsequent years, mostly in England, flouting convention. Her sexual mores gave rise to comment; after proclaiming herself a Communist she was watched closely by MI5 and labelled ‘over-sexed’. But perhaps most controversial was her disregard for the norms of motherhood.

 

She left her first husband to run off with another man just weeks after the birth of her second son. Shortly after the birth of her third son, she and her second husband ran off to join a Cossack circus.

 

She found herself in an internment camp in France during the Second World War but turned down the chance to return to her sons in England. She took the Communist Party’s view that she was of more use in the internment camp. There is no doubt her three sons suffered as a consequence, but it turned out that the Party was right. Sofka is now recognised as having saved the lives of at least 50 Jews.

 

Red Princess presents a beguiling mixture of biography and travelogue, as the author revisits the scenes of her grandmother’s life. In Russia, she comes across people who are nostalgic both for the Tsarist and the Soviet eras. They have managed to convince themselves that their ‘little father’ Tsar was replaced by another caring overlord.

 

These complexities and contradictions reach a sort of apogee in Sofka’s time in the Crimea, where the surviving Romanovs fled after the Revolution. While Lenin was launching his Red Terror, tennis and tea parties carried on regardless.

 

The Bolsheviks eventually forced Sofka and her grandmother to dig up vegetables, but months later the Bolsheviks themselves were ousted by the Germans and the tennis and the tea parties resumed.