The still fresh reek of Russia
Sara Wheeler enjoys Sofka Zinovieff's memorial to the courage, cruelty and exotic life of an aristocrat in exile, Red Princess
Sat 17 Feb 2007
Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life
by Sofka Zinovieff
346pp, Granta, £16.99
Sofka Zinovieff's grandmother was a White Russian aristocrat in flight from the political upheavals of the 20th century. Like many exiles for whom tomorrow is a hostile land, the eponymous Red Princess – also known as Sofka – lived life with the gusto of the desperado. Her biography, as a result, is a union of comedy and tragedy infused with the heady romance of a vanished Russia.
Sofka was born Princess Sophy Dolgorouky in 1907. Hers was one of the great old Russian families, and her parents' wedding was among the most brilliant of the season – long, slim engines crunching up to the Winter Palace with bat-wing canopies sheltering bejewelled beauties swaddled in furs. But the couple divorced when Sofka's father ran off with a famous Gypsy singer, whom he subsequently married. Come the revolution, little Sofka was bundled down to the Crimea with her grandmother and her grandmother's friend, the dowager empress. They were close to Yalta when the events of Ekaterinburg unfolded; Dr Botkin, shot with the tsar and his family, had been the Dolgoroukys' doctor in St Petersburg. Exile was inevitable. Sofka sailed from Yalta in 1919, arriving in London aged 11. Granny sold her pearls, and Sofka was installed at Queen's College in Harley Street, suffering what Nabokov called the "animal aching yearn for the still fresh reek of Russia".
Sofka's mother, Sophy, had remarried a homosexual prince, and when he was imprisoned in Russia, Sophy sneaked back to the motherland with a small bag containing a torch, a lethal dose of morphine and a bottle of Guerlain scent. Her husband got out, and in 1921 the couple fled to Estonia. Who can blame them? Akhmatova did. "I am not with those who abandoned their land / To the lacerations of the enemy," she wrote in a bitter poem. Well, what would you have done?
Zinovieff – named Sofka after her grandmother – paints a vivid portrait of the peripatetic years that followed, as the fragmented family criss-crossed Europe along with so many émigrés. In 1931, Sofka married Leo Zinovieff in London. The Depression politicised her, and, to the keen horror of her in-laws (who didn't like her anyway), she became a communist. The Zinovieffs had two sons, the second of uncertain male parentage; Sofka's subsequent marriage produced a third son. She was a terrible mother. During the second world war she went to Nazi-occupied Paris to visit her own mother, who had settled there. It was a city in which Russian counts waited at table and surgeons drove taxis. "You see that poodle sitting by the door?", one man asked another in a Left Bank restaurant. "In Russia he used to be a Great Dane." But of course, it wasn't funny.
The author draws on a rich source of primary material, from grandmother's moss-green velvet diary to her autobiography, published in 1968, and she quotes judiciously. Herself Orthodox, but non-Russian-speaking, Zinovieff pursues the trail from St Petersburg to the Crimea, where she tracks down the Dolgorouky estate at Miskhor.
For better or worse, she tells the story in the first person. It is notoriously difficult to breathe life into the rickety and overworked search-for-roots format; on the whole Zinovieff does a good job, and it's a marvellous story. One wishes perhaps that beards were not inevitably "Tolstoyan"; and statements such as "It is still a romantic place" (of St Petersburg, no less) might have worked better if cast as suggestive description.
Sofka's ravenous promiscuity helps to maintain the book's narrative drive (at least one of her affairs was with a woman). "It doesn't matter how many lovers you have," she advised the young author. "Just don't have more than one at the same time." If all else failed, she drank. When a daughter-in-law complained of a poor sex life, Sofka recommended half a bottle of vodka before the event, a remedy presumably based on the premise that however bad coitus proved to be, one wouldn't remember it. After many adventures – Sofka worked as a tour guide to eastern Europe for most of the 1950s, and was involved with the British security services – she spent the last three decades of her life gardening around a stone cottage on Bodmin Moor with three whippets and a short trade-unionist tool-maker she called her "devoted prole". She died in 1994, aged 86.
Zinovieff identifies with her subject. "All four generations, from Sofka's parents onwards," she writes, "lacked a conventional family environment, and in its way, it provided us all with a salutary training." She loyally gives grandmamma the benefit of the doubt. "Few mothers would have gone abroad at this stage in the war," she writes when Sofka abandons her children yet again, "but, given her mood and her character, the prospect of full-time rural motherhood with three young children, rationing and tense, sleepless nights would scarcely have appealed." Whether it appealed or not is hardly the point. But Sofka had great strengths. Late in the second world war she was interned in Besançon and then Vitell, and learned what it was like to be a PoW. Decades afterwards, Yad Vashem honoured her posthumously for risking her life to help Jews during the Holocaust.
In short, a life of eccentricity and excess; of loss and exile; of courage, and of cruelty that reverberated down the generations. Red Princess is a small memorial to all the lives dislodged by the shifting sands of modern history.