The Herald review for Red Princess

17th February 2007

 

When the Soviet Union began to crumble in the late 1980s, droves of Russians sped their way west, Britain was a popular choice for exile because it was already home to longstanding communities of political refugees. Over these last two decades the flow has continued as Russian dissidents, despots and the criminally decadent have emigrated here in their tens of thousands. The majority have settled in Londongrad, as they affectionately refer to their adopted capital city. Amid the high-profile minority of super-rich ex-Soviets are the remnants of older communities who survived the hell of Soviet revolution and European wars.

 

Princess Sofka Dolgorouky was one of these refugees. Born in Tsarist St Petersburg in 1907, she lived a rich, scandalous life. Her privileged childhood, complete with personal servants and sunken marble baths, was curtailed when she was evacuated to the Crimea during the 1917 revolution. Young Sofka was placed in the care of her draconian grandmother, Olga. After two austere years in Crimea. Sofka and Olga joined a shipload of Russian royalty, including the mother of the murdered Tsar, and sailed to exile in England. Sofka described this voyage as “the end of my childhood”. She was eleven. Princess Sofka’s granddaughter, Sofka Zinovieff, has spent years tracing the personal and political history of this wayward princess and her immediate family The princess’s own mother, Sophy, was a talented surgeon who railed against convention. Sophy divorced her first husband, bought her own aircraft, volunteered as a fighter bomber during the First World War and was awarded the George Cross. She also worked as a surgeon in the carnage-strewn frontline trenches and was almost suicidally courageous. But she completely neglected her own daughter: as a child Sofka rarely saw her mother and grew up independent of parental affection. It was a pattern of neglect she in turn inflicted on her own sons.

 

Zinovieff weaves the stories of Sophy and Sofka together during the first part of this book. Both women were extraordinary, but Sophy the more so: she rescued her second husband, who was gay, from prison in Moscow, then smuggled him to Paris, where she became a chronic opium addict. I couldn’t quite understand why Sofka was the focus of this biography as opposed to her insatiable mother.

 

In England, young Sofka was educated at Queen’s College, London, where she livened up the school magazine by describing Bolsheviks torturing while Russians (“in Odessa they slowly put the prisoners into boiling oil, drove splinters under their nails or tied a number together and threw them in the sea”). But her grandmother couldn’t settle and they continued travelling. After living in Italy and France. Sofka returned to England, She married, left her husband for another man. bore three sons, then returned to France alone, where she became trapped in Nazi-occupied Paris. She spent the next four years interned in Vittel camp. The author is obviously enthralled by both her grandmother and this turbulent era of history. It’s impossible not to like Red Princess because Zinovieff writes with so much passion, especially in the second half of the book. But she litters her narrative with mundane details (shoes, bathing habits and household minutiae) that clog up this already complex story. She doesn’t relax into her full literary stride until around page 150, which is a real shame because from then on she’s a wonderfully evocative writer. Her descriptions of Vittel internment camp in particular are raw and heartbreaking. Sofka also carne into her own in Vittel: she worked for the French Resistance, risked her life to save a group of Polish Jews and made a lifelong political commitment to communism.

 

After internment. Sofka returned to England, but still wasn’t ready to settle down. She became a prominent member of the British Communist Party, and spent years working as a tour guide for its affiliated travel company Progressive Tours. She believed Soviet oppression came not from the communist regime itself, but from “the historical paranoid fear of dissent that has dogged Russian rulers through the centuries.” Sofka debated, drank and loved in excess. She proudly told her final partner, an Englishman called Jack, that she had enjoyed more than a hundred lovers throughout her life.