Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life

Review by Ann Skea

Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life.
Sofka Zinovieff.
Granta. 2007. 346 pp.
ISBN 978 1 86207 919 9.

Mrs. Skipworth, an old lady immersed in her books in rural Cornwall, fostering stray animals and walking Bodmin Moor in old gum-boots and scruffy clothes. And Princess Sophie (Sophka) Dolgorouky, a child attended by nursemaids, footmen and private tutors, playmate of the Tsarevich, and heiress to some of the greatest wealth in Russia. Two pictures which could not be more different, but this same woman was the grandmother of the author of this book. Her life was full of contrasts and her granddaughter's biography tells an absorbing story of a woman who did not just survive the huge political, social and military upheavals through which she lived, but who tackled every situation with exceptional determination, zest and courage.

Sofka Skipworth (nee Dalgorouky) seems to have inherited her individuality and her determination from her remarkable family, especially from her mother who rejected the usual roles expected of aristocratic women of her generation in Russia and chose a career and a path through life which was unusual for any woman at that time. In the early years of the twentieth century, Sofka's mother enrolled in medical school and qualified as a surgeon. She drove her own car and was the only woman driver in a motor rally in 1912; she was one of the first women in Russia to qualify for a pilot's licence and she became a bomber pilot in 1916. She was awarded two St George Crosses for bravery and she scandalized everyone by taking numerous lovers. This was the inheritance of her daughter (the subject of this biography), who displayed a similar free-thinking attitude to life and love.

Princess Sofka Dolgorouky's maternal grandfather was Alexei Brobinsky, who was a direct descendent of Catherine the Great, Empress of All the Russias, and her lover, Gregory Orlov. Her paternal grandfather also traced his origins back to Catherine's court, and to a favourite of Catherine's consort, Potemkin. This exceptionally beautiful woman, known as la Belle Greque, had been sold as a courtesan by her impoverished mother in Constantinople. Her aristocratic lover is reputed to have lost her at cards to a Polish Count Potocki, who married her. When she became a favourite of Potemkin's, the Empress gave her a pair of diamond earrrings, but Potemkin "topped this" by giving her the fine estate of Miskhor on the Black Sea which still belonged to the family and in which Sofka lived for some time as a child before the Russian Revolution.

In Red Princess, Sofka Zinovieff tells her grandmother's story from her journals, letters and other papers, and from interviews with family and others who knew her. Some of the most interesting parts of this book are accounts of the author's own travels to find places and people her grandmother knew. The palaces, the servants, the riches, all are gone: but people remember her grandmother and her grandmother's family and, for many of them, the name Dolgorouky still warrants respect and conjures strangely nostalgic memories of pre-revolutionary Russia. The Dolgorouky Mansion inherited from La Belle Greque has become a Medical Therapeutic Centre, but a local woman remembered the family well and was delighted to share memories and photographs. In other places, people were similarly helpful, especially one elderly woman who had been a lifelong friend of her grandmother's ever since their internment together during the Second World War as British passport holders in Germany.

Sofka Dolgorouky left Russia for England on the same ship as the Dowager Empress of Russia, whose son, the Tzar, together with his wife and children had already been shot by the Bolsheviks. She lived from then on in England and Europe. She was schooled briefly at a private girls' school in London where she became friends with Margaret Douglas-Hamilton. She later worked for the Douglas-Hamiltons before marrying a Russian Prince, Leo Zinovieff, by whom she had two children. She divorced Zinovieff to marry Grey Skipworth, who was the love of her life and with whom she had a third child. For a time, Sofka worked as a private secretary to Lawrence Olivier and his first wife Jill Esmond, and she and Grey lived a bohemian life in Chelsea, but life never ran smoothly for long. Wartime widowhood, internment at Vittel in Germany, hardship and poverty followed. Sofka never conformed to what other, more conventional people, expected of her. She chose her own way of life, was a somewhat careless mother, and lived according to her own standards. Her concern for Jewish prisoners during her internment led her to take risks which she thought inadequate but were later recognized by the Holocaust Remembrance Institute. After the war, she became a Communist (hence the title of this book) but the more she saw of modern Russia, working as a tour-guide and translator, the more she lost faith in Communism.

In her later years, Sofka and her companion Jack King, looking for a place in which they could afford to live, moved to Bodmin and settled into a quiet rural life punctuated by the visits of relatives and friends. Her granddaughter writes that Sofka eventually established real friendships with some of her grandchildren, but they had to earn it. Once earned, the rewards were great: memorable letters, inspirational reading lists and, in the author's own case, the bequest of a beautiful old diary in which Sofka had recorded some of the most fascinating parts of her life. It was this diary which eventually led Sofka Zinovieff to write her grandmother's biography, and it is clear that researching and writing it has been eye-opening and sometimes difficult experience, but the results are worth it. This is a well written, interesting and absorbing book about an exceptional woman.


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