17th February 2007
Few twentieth-century women can have had more interesting lives than the Communist Princess Sofka Dolgorouky. As a child in St Petersburg she was thought a suitable playmate for the Czarevitch, and when the Russian Revolution overtook her in the Crimea she was carried off by the British Navy with the Empress Dowager. After that she was always more or less penniless, but in the 1930s she was employed as a secretary by Laurence Olivier, and enjoyed the life of the theatre. Her first marriage with an equally destitute emigre, Leo Zinovieff, ended after five years, and she then married an Englishman of no less ancient lineage but more progressive politics, Grey Skipwith. who was killed in action in 1942. By these husbands she had three sons. In 1940 she went to Paris where her mother was drug-addicted and desperately poor. She was promptly interned for three years. sometimes under extremely harsh conditions, and later with Jews awaiting deportation, some 50 of whom she helped to save. She had already lost any lingering beliefs in Christianity, and became a Communist and a passionate champion of Jews. Back in England she became a Communist Party member and had a Jewish lover. She later joined a Communist travel agency, conducting tours around Eastern Europe. On one of these trips she met atoolmaker 1O years her junior, who became her partner for the rest of her life. She retired with him to a remote cottage and supplemented their meagre incomes by writing an autobiography, Sofka, and Eat Russian, a cookbook.
Her personality was a mixture of fortitude, idealism and irresponsibility. Its contradictions can be traced to her parentage. Both her parents belonged to the highest rank of Russian nobility, but the Dolgorouky’s were old-style aristocrats, pleasure-loving and deeply conservative, whereas her mothers family, the Bobrinsky’s, were liberal and intellectual: in English terms, it was an alliance of High Tory and Whig. By 1,913 her mother had studied medicine and learnt to fly. Serving as an army doctor in the first years of the First World War she won the highest decorations for courage, and then passed through the army flying school with her own aircraft in 1916′. But she achieved these feats with the help of opium and many lovers, and was a cold, neglectful mother. Sofkas father was more affectionate but left to marry a gypsy singer. It is not surprising that, with these models, she abandoned her own children and claimed more than 100 lovers.
Sofka’s life has found a perfect chronicler. Her granddaughter Sofka Zinovieff has had access to her memories as well as all her papers. She draws freely on Sofka for her grandmother’s early life: but having obtained from Cambridge a First and then a doctorate in anthropology, she is a critical reader. She searched out people with recollections of Sofkas life in St Petersburg, the Crimea and France, and even used some ancestral charm to unlock the files of MI5.
As a result she not only fills in gaps in Sofka, but sometimes alters the picture it gives of the author. It passes over her appalling shortcomings as a mother. Zinovieff” shows sympathy for her grandmother but not blind partiality; she speaks perhaps as a Bobrinsky when she says that “interesting work, political commitment and sexual excitement” seem to add up to “marvellous times’”, but she also quotes the severe judgements of the Zinovieff family. She presents her material with such smooth skill that this intelligent book is a very easy read.