The author is the granddaughter of the so-called “Red Princess” of the title, Sofka Dolgorouky. The catalyst for the book was a diary which the grandmother gave to the author when she was a teenager, a metal-framed book with cherub-faced clasp and watered silk endpapers made in Russia 150 years earlier and designed for “the feminine musings of a privileged St Petersburg lady”.
That was the life the grandmother had been born into in 1907 as Princess Sofka Dolgorouky – a daughter of the St Petersburg nobility – and an only child. But history intervened and her life took a very different trajectory. She lived the last 30 years of her life on Bodmin Moor in England with her partner, Jack King, who had been born, raised and lived all his life in Shepherd’s Bush. Both were long-standing members of the Communist Party. The book is about what happened in the intervening period and the author’s efforts to track the tale.
Both Sofka’s parents were of courtier families, steeped in the trappings and importance of the Tsarist Court. However such advantages did not prevent her parents’ marriage having but a brief existence. Her uncourtier-like mother qualified as a doctor, worked at the front during the First World War and was a pilot. She palmed Sofka off with the imperious paternal grandmother with whom Sofka fled to the Crimea in 1917 after the Revolution and then in 1921, to England on the same British naval ship that rescued the old tsarist queen mother – the sister of Queen Alexandra.
Sofka appeared to settle well into English life, pursuing seriously her school studies, when she was plucked by the grandmother to live in Rome, then Nice and Paris. At all times her mother is a distant figure (with her effete, well-mannered second husband). In 1931, Sofka was back in London and married a Russian of similar noble birth to her own who is the grandfather of the author. This once-wealthy collection of grand personages were all then pulling the devil by the tail and keeping up appearances as best they could.
The author seeks to discover what drove her grandmother, who believed that life was to be lived and that the maxim applied equally to women as to men. She was well read, with a fascination for Shakespeare which was intensified by her working for Laurence Olivier and his first wife. Monogamy was of little relevance to her but it appears that she had two relationships which were of primary importance, namely that with her second husband, Gray Skipwith, who was killed in action in 1941, and then finally with Jack King. In the cataclysmic wars, revolutions and social upheavals of the first half of the 20th century, Sofka was but a small bobbing cork but she managed to steer a course of her own. Caught while in Nazi-occupied Paris and detained with a group of British passport holders, she was interned in Vittel, where she helped many Jewish prisoners. She wrote: “We failed either to suffer or to prevent the suffering” but “one owes it to them never to let oneself forget”. After her death in 1994, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance institute, recognised her work. Ensnared by an inheritance of immense privilege and all sorts of attendant restrictions, the fates gave Sofka an opportunity to create a life of her own. She embraced vigorously the opportunity and her granddaughter, with a critical pride, tells the story well.