By Elena Ragozhina
Sofka Zinovieff is a journalist and author of Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life and The House on Paradise Street. A detailed description of Sofka Zinovieff’s family history would take hundreds of pages. Her ancestors include Prince Yury Dolgorouky and Catherine the Great. Red Princess retells the life of her grandmother who was also called Sofka. As a child, Princess Sofka Dolgoroukaya played with the heirs of Tsar Nicholas II, and her relatives served at his court. Her family was founded by Alexey Grigorievich Bobrinsky (1762-1813), the illegitimate son of Catherine the Great and her favourite, Grigory Grigorievich Orlov. Catherine the Great was surrounded by favourites all her life, the most famous among whom were Grigory Orlov, Grigory Potemkin, Platon Zubov, and Alexander Lanskoy. Following the death of her husband, Peter III, in 1762, she originally considered marrying Orlov, but was advised against it by her inner circle. Paul I, shortly after ascending the throne, bestowed the title of count upon his half-brother, Alexey Grigorievich Bobrinsky.
Alexey’s great-granddaughter, Sofia Bobrinskaya (later, Her Highness Princess Volkonskaya) was an outstanding woman of her era. At an early age, she married Prince Dolgorouky, studied at medical school, and went on to work as a surgeon at military hospitals. During the Serbo-Bulgarian War she was awarded a medal personally by Peter I of Serbia for her work in a cholera camp. One of Russia’s first women drivers, she learnt to fly in the 1910s, and gained her pilot’s licence. Refused entry to the Russian air force during the First World War, Sofia Dolgoroukaya served as a sister of mercy at the front. It was only in the spring of 1917 that Alexander Kerensky, head of the Russian Provisional Government, finally authorised women to serve in the army. After the revolution she travelled to England, only to go back to Moscow in 1921, to rescue her second husband, Prince Volkonsky, from prison, and then return to London with him.
Her daughter, Sofia (Sofka) Skipwith, Sofka Zinovieff’s grandmother, whose life is retold in Red Princess, was arrested by the Nazis in Paris during World War II, and interned, before eventually making it back to London. While in internment, she saved a Jewish baby by smuggling him out to a Red Cross representative. Many years later Sofka Skipwith would be posthumously awarded a medal bearing the inscription “in the service to humanity” by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on behalf of the British nation. Despite her aristocratic background, Sofka became a staunch communist. In 1931, she married Leo Zinovieff, also a Russian aristocrat and his father was a former deputy of the Fourth State Duma with an English university degree in engineering. Leo and Sofka Zinovieff’s son, Peter – the author’s father – gained a Ph.D. in Geology at the University of Oxford, however electronic music was always his true passion. In 1966, with English heiress and composer of electronic music Delia Derbyshire and television composer and sound technician Brian Hodgson, Peter set up an organisation by the name of Unit Delta Plus, and went on to develop EMS synthesizers.
Is Sofka your full name?
Yes, it is. When I was in Russia, people called me Sofia Petrovna. My maternal grandmother was also called Sofka, which is strange as she was born in Russia, and I was named after her.
Did you spend a lot of time with her in your childhood? Did she tell you about your relatives?
Yes, we were very close. She did tell me about them but not so much by going through the family tree – she had lovely photographs of members of the family. I remember seeing photos of her grandfather, Prince Dolgorouky who was dressed in one of those strange costumes to go to a fancy dress ball at the Winter Palace.
Do you belong to the same family as the founder of Moscow, Yury Dolgoruky?
I think so
Did your grandmother tell you about the other branch of the family – the Bobrinskys?
Yes, Sofka’s mother, Sofia, was from that family. She was an interesting character, became a doctor, and it’s quite likely she was Russia’s first woman pilot. The Bobrinskys were a rather enlightened and more open-minded family, while the Dolgoroukys were a lot more formal. Sofia broke away from what was expected of her as young woman. She got married, aged 18, and then went on to become an educated woman. Marriage gave her freedom. She wasn’t interested in being at court in pretty dresses. She dressed simply, in a long skirt and blouse. She learnt to drive a car and was a very emancipated woman, which was very unusual for someone from that social background. Sofka lived more with the Dolgorouky family – a formal household where everything was meticulously organised every day. Her father, Dolgorouky, divorced her mother and married a gypsy singer. That caused a huge scandal – a prince and a singer were such an unlikely union! So, maybe Sofka inherited her rebellious streak from her father!
Sofia’s life wasn’t easy after the revolution, was it?
She went back to Russia to save her second husband, Prince Volkonsky, and was at great risk. Luckily, Maxim Gorky and some other well-connected people helped her. She was lucky. And strong – she walked from Tallinn, disguised as a schoolteacher, had all her things stolen along the way. Both Sofia and Sofka wrote books: Sofia’s was The Way of Bitterness, andSofka’s – Sofka: The Autobiography of a Princess. When writing my book Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life, I found a lot of details that Sofka didn’t put in her book that make it a fascinating read. Sofia lived in great poverty and hunger after the revolution. She was given a place to live by Anna Akhmatova – it was a room in the House of Artists that Akhmatova didn’t need.
Your grandmother, Sofka, spoke Russian – how about your parents?
Father didn’t speak good Russian. He was brought up by his paternal grandparents, the Zinovieffs, who spoke to him in English, even though their English wasn’t good. So his Russian in the end suffered. Father’s uncle, Kyril Zinovieff, who’s now 102, helped me to write this book. He’s still as sharp as a razor. He can remember walking in St Petersburg with his nanny and her once pointing out a bearded man in a carriage – it was Rasputin. Kyril jokes that he’s lived from ‘Rasputin to Putin’! His family hated Sofka – she behaved badly, she was a communist, had lots of love affairs, and wasn’t a good wife. I felt divided, trying to understand his point of view, yet loving her. I feel sometimes I’m defending her. But if you look at it, the people she mixed with in England at the time, in the 1930s, the people of the upper classes, had nannies and governesses, whom they’d leave their children with and go off on long trips. So, we can’t judge her by the standards we have on parenting nowadays. But I think there was another side to her, and that she really longed to make these amazing journeys, have love affairs, write books, and if the children were looked after, she was fine with it. I realised it’s never black and white in life – people are so complicated with their endearing parts and parts we back away from. Maybe, the fact that she wasn’t my mother but my grandmother helped me look straight-on at the negative parts and at the same time appreciate the goodness in her.
All the women in your family had difficult family relationships. Sofia, Sofka, and your mother’s divorces had a huge impact on the children in the family. Sofka had three marriages and her children were brought up by her first husband’s mother. Did you find your parents’ divorce difficult?
Yes, and I stayed with my father. I had to grow up fast. I’ve gone to the opposite extreme with my daughters, keeping a constant eye on them, which isn’t too good either. I’m still married, my daughters are now 16 and 19, and so maybe I’ve broken that line of conflict.
On your father’s side, you have the Volkonskys and Dolgoroukys, and on your mother’s, you have some interesting stories involving Lord Berners?
It is an extraordinary story for those times! Lord Berners was a composer and writer who led a very colourful and active social life in the 1930s. On top of it, he was gay. The young man who lived with him was my grandfather, Robert. Everybody called him ‘Mad Boy’. So, one day Mad Boy went and got married and the three of them lived in Berners’s beautiful house in Oxfordshire, and then my mother was born. This story brings in so many people, like Stravinsky, Salvador Dali, people from English high society like Cecil Beaton – if only those walls could talk! I’m telling these stories in my new book, Lord Berners, Mad Boy, My Grandmother and Me. I only met my grandfather, Robert, when I was 17, and we got on very well. He still had that incredible house and I inherited it at the age of 25,which was a big shock as he made it clear it was not going to my mother. It’s rented out now.
What was your mother’s relationship with him like?
They didn’t get on but she loved her mother dearly. It was probably a mystery for her why these people got married. But it was during the Second World War, and people were doing crazy things, knowing that they might die at any moment. And they both were wild characters and had adventurous lives with love affairs, going to nightclubs.
What does your mother think of your books?
She is very supportive. But for her these stories have been a source of pain all through her life. As the next generation, it’s easier to look at these tragedies and even see a lot of comedy in them. Also, times have changed – in the 1930s, people knew of homosexuality but not a word was said. Comedy is tragedy viewed from far away, they say.
How about your husband – what does he do?
He’s Vassilis Papadimitriou – he’s Greek and works in politics. He is an advisor to the former prime minister, George Panandreou, who was leader of the Greek Socialist Party. After graduating from Cambridge, doing my doctorate and studying Greek, I decided to go to Moscow because I wanted to trace my Russian roots. I was writing articles about Greeks in the Soviet Union – the Greeks who first decided to go to their original motherland. I went to interview the Greek consul but he didn’t turn up. Vassilis, my future husband, was working at the Greek Embassy at the time, and noticed me hanging out in the yard of their building. I went to live with him in Russia and later we married and lived in England and then Italy. I took some Russian language classes, in Moscow and though I’ve never got fluent in it, I can still get by.
Do your daughters consider themselves Russian, English, or Greek?
The short answer is they’re half-English and half-Greek. Their first language is English, culturally they feel Greek. By blood, they’re a quarter Russian, and I’m very glad about it. I read them Russian fairy tales when they were little.
And their plans for the future?
My older daughter is 19, and she’s studying music – electric guitar at Guildford, and is going to come to London in September.
Is this something she’s inherited from your father?
Probably, as he developed synthesizers, and, apparently, was the first person in the UK to have a computer at home. In the 60s, he built an electronic music studio at home and worked with pop bands and singers like Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and various avant-garde composers. My younger daughter is torn between painting and politics and hopes to do a degree combining both, but she’s not sure where yet.
What does your husband think about the situation in Greece?
He’s optimistic by nature. He hopes Greece will find a way out of the crisis and will be able to rebuild itself. That will happen if the younger generation have different living standards. Let’s not forget that democracy is new there – before the 1980s, they had a military dictatorship. Changes can’t happen overnight. One can see parallels with Russia here.
Looking through your family history, it occurred to me that this amazing story could be made into a series as compelling as Downton Abbey, couldn’t it?
I’ve always felt a film should be made of these stories. And I think my book Red Princess has many scenes that would be great for a movie I think such extreme characters adapt perfectly to the big screen
What’s your new book about?
It’s called The House on Paradise Street. It’s my first novel. Its main character, Antigone, is Greek, and a member of the resistance movement against the Nazis during the Second World War. After the Greek civil war she was forced to leave her three-year-old son behind. She headed for Russia, like many partisans during the war, and returned 60 years on for her son’s funeral. It’s a story about love and loss, political convictions and families, Greece and Europe.