She had a soul as open as a shirt
11 Feb 2007
Ruth Scurr reviews Red Princess: a Revolutionary Life by Sofka Zinovieff
I began Sofka Zinovieff's Red Princess sceptically. There is a genre of writing about Russia's vanished past – "books with regretful titles such as Lost Splendour, Once a Grand Duke, or A Russian Princess Remembers, as Zinovieff characterises it. There is also a well-worn route in ancestor tourism for aspiring authors in search of a subject. At first, Red Princess seems a hybrid of these two tired publishing ideas.
On her 16th birthday, Zinovieff's grandmother and namesake gave her an old diary. She put it in a drawer and read it properly only a decade after her grandmother's death in 1994. Born in 1907, Princess Sophy (Sofka) Dolgorouky inherited the grand gold-edged notebook from her own great-great grandmother, took it into exile in Europe, and finally wrote in it in 1940, during the occupation of Paris.
The diary kept the past alive in scenes that echo Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. During the frantic evacuation of Paris, Zionovieff's grandmother recorded: "People fainting, people ill, children screaming, women sobbing, girls giggling, others reading, sleeping, eating, just staring. People, people, people… the stench defies description."
Unlike Némirovsky, Zinovieff's grandmother was not Jewish, survived the war, joined the Communist Party in London, and published an autobiography in 1968 called Sofka: the Autobiography of a Princess. But after reading the diary, Zinovieff decided there were still many unanswered questions. Red Princess attempts to answer them. Zinovieff sets off in search of her grandmother's birthplace in St Petersburg. No sooner has she arrived in her rented room on Bolshaya Morskaya (Greater Maritime Street) than an old man "with a long Tolstoyan beard looked down at me, framed by the window like a 19th-century portrait".
Ten pages later, she rings the bell at number 70, the English Embankment, where her grandmother's parents lived, and "a polite man with a Trotsky beard" appears. Stopping to explain that one of her Dolgorouky ancestors founded Moscow in 1154, Zinovieff records her conversation with the polite man, calling him simply Trotsky: "'Russians, Russians…' Trotsky laughed bitterly." At this I nearly gave up.
I cannot pinpoint the precise page on which the transformation occurs. But like an out-of-focus image, hazy and irritating before it becomes piercingly sharp, this book improves dramatically. It evolves into a story of feminine inheritance. Zinovieff's grandmother's own mother turns out to have been an extraordinary woman: one of the first women to learn to fly at Chartres in 1913 and a practising surgeon who kept a human skeleton in her drawing room. Never destined for conventional family life, she divorced her first husband and married a second because he was the only man she had met more intelligent than herself.
After the revolution in 1917, the family left Russia on HMS Marlborough with the murdered Tsar's mother, Empress Marie. In London, young Princess Sofka did her best to fit in at school, but was most comfortable running wild with her friend Margaret Douglas-Hamilton on the family's country estate. By contrast, she dreaded visits to elderly Russians in exile who "shed salty tears into their weak, lemony tea".
Sofka's education was hopelessly disrupted as she followed her disparate family round Europe. High-spirited and unashamedly promiscuous, she had had three sons and two husbands by the beginning of the Second World War. Risking a visit to her mother in Paris, Sofka got trapped on the wrong side of the Channel from her children, and was interned at Vittel. Here she witnessed the harrowing persecution of Jewish prisoners and did her best to use her social connections to inform the outside world of what was really happening in occupied France.
After the war, Sofka became a Communist, to the great disgust of other Russian émigrés. MI5 reports from the 1950s describe her as "a fanatical Communist, but intelligent and charming". Earthy, practical, hopeless at housework, Sofka estimated the number of her lovers in triple figures: "My contention is that [as one gets older] it is more important to have someone to help with the laundry than someone writing sonnets to your eyebrows."
Zinovieff approaches her subject intimately. Sometimes she hazards opinions and guesses when there is no evidence as to what her grandmother thought or felt. But she does so deliberately and with the overall intention of rescuing Sofka's life from the blanket disapproval of contemporaries such as Uncle Kyril, who branded her a nymphomaniac with no sense of morals: "Just the kind of person who joins the Communist Party."
A more sympathetic Russian friend remembered: "Sofka had a 'soul as open as a shirt' – dusha na raspashku… And she was great fun." Zinovieff's book vindicates this judgment. It also highlights Sofka's more serious side in helping to save more than 50 Vittel deportees from Nazi concentration camps. "One owes it to them never to let oneself forget," she insisted for the rest of her life.