Literary Review’s review for Red Princess

John Jolliffe,
March 2007

 

 

SOFKA DOLGOROUKY’S LIFE was polarised between two uniquely distant extremes. Her father’s family were the epitome of St Petersburg’s court grandees, though he himself was a charming playboy who dabbled in the theatre and was eventually remarried to a gypsy singer before dying at the age of forty-two. Her mother’s family, the Bobrinskis, were equally exalted, being descended from one of Catherine the Great’s many lovers, but her Bobrinski grandfather was an exceptionally cultivated archaeologist and collector, with a talent for versifying and for Edward Lear-like drawings. Her mother was determined to break away from a suffocating court life. She studied medicine and, having also learnt to fly at the Ecole Militaire d’Aviation at Chartres in 1913, acquired her own aeroplane. When war came, she was twice decorated as a nurse.

 

Sofka was an only child, and her incompatible parents separated after only five years of marriage. Her mother’s mother was a close friend of the Tsar’s mother, and little Sofka was given piggy-backs by the Tsar himself, and played many games of halma with the Tsarevich, who was too vulnerable, from haemophilia, to play any game in which he might be hurt.

 

Sofka ended her working life as a convinced communist, acting as a general manager to a Red travel company specialising in budget tours of great discomfort behind the Iron Curtain, before retiring to her first real home of her own, a small cottage on Bodmin Moor, accompanied by a retired athlete and trainer called Jack King (‘my devoted prole’). But a lot had happened in between. In 1917 she was one of a large party which fled from the Crimea with the Dowager Empress, who was a sister of Queen Alexandra, on board HMS Marlborough, and on reaching England Sofka was much befriended by the eccentric animal-loving Duchess of Hamilton, and spent many holidays with the family, leading a chaotic teenage life between Scotland, Wiltshire and Rome, where her grandmother had temporarily settled. But in 1931 she married Leo Zinovieff, from another ci-devant grand family, who were appalled by what at first was her very reasonable flirtation with socialist ideas. Later, as her brother-in-law commented, ‘Becoming a communist when you are a refugee is like a Jew from Germany becoming a Nazi. There is no difference.’

 

The couple had two sons, and it is hard to say whether Sofka was a worse wife or mother. Incurably promiscuous, she worked during the war with the Old Vic company (where she became for a time Laurence Olivier’s secretary, and remained a friend of his first wife), and admitted that ‘one was apt to find oneself in many beds with unexpected companions’. Her callous treatment of her eldest son undoubtedly had an unsteadying effect, though her second son Ian in due course became a bank manager with a successful marriage. Having remarried and produced a third son, she bundled him off at the age of nine weeks to be cared for by her milkman’s mother-in-law, before eventually sending him to Harrow, where he was miserable. Meanwhile she and her second husband, discovering that the lease of their cottage was up, moved off with a troupe of Cossack riders and ‘managed’ their appearances and stabling, from Maidenhead to Caithness.

 

On the other hand, in 1940 she slipped over to France to take funds to her destitute and far from grateful mother, and when the Germans arrived she was interned as a British subject first in a camp at Besanfon, then in a grimmer one at Vittel, where the conditions were appalling, and where quarrels and deceit alternated with camaraderie and humour. Through her friends in the British Foreign Office she was able to help a number of Polish Jews to be released, though this only became known many years later. This episode shows that she was capable of enormous courage and determination, though these qualities were more usually put to use for totally selfish and wildly misjudged purposes.

 

Then came a squalid postwar life in London, when she actually joined the Communist Party and was . proudly displayed as ‘Comrade Sofka, the People’s Princess’. She somehow believed she was ‘on the side of the angels, though without believing in angels’, and her travel company was infiltrated by (mostly futile) Soviet intelligence. Naturally, she combined this with persistent neglect of her children as they grew older, her second husband having been killed in the RAF, and her first in an accident in 1948.

 

The author is the daughter of Sofka’s eldest son, and in spite of this hazardous background she has made a successful career. Her well-written book is partly biography, partly family background, and partly a spirited travelogue in search of those who had known or known of her grandmother, and of the various places where the family had lived. It is written with a definite affection for her subject, who, in small doses, was obviously capable of enormous charm, before indifference and abandonment followed, usually rather quickly, often to be followed in turn by a new infatuation. There are many unattractive episodes in her book, bu’t also a few to respect and even admire, and certainly never a dull page.