Delving into family history is now something of a modern obsession, but few people have relatives half as interesting as Sofka Zinovieff’s. As a direct descendant of Catherine the Great, as well as the first prince of Kiev, the founder of Moscow, and the closest adviser to Peter the Great, she was off to a good start. But the one she found most interesting was her grandmother, after whom she is named.
Sofka, or Moppy as her granddaughter knew her, was born Princess Sophy Dolgorouky, a child of the glittering aristocracy of imperial St Petersburg, just 10 years before it all disappeared in the Russian revolution. She would play with the tsar’s son, occasionally joined by Tsar Nicholas, and her grandmother was an intimate of his mother, “The Dowager Empress of All the Russias”. By the time Zinovieff got to know her grandmother, though, she was plain Mrs Sofka Skipwith, an elderly woman living in an isolated workman’s cottage on a windswept heath in the middle of Bodmin Moor. And she was a card-carrying communist.
“She was such a strong personality,” says Zinovieff. “She cut a swath through life, staying up all night reading poetry and drinking. And she claimed – quite matter-of-factly – to have had over 100 lovers.” Sofka survived the Russian revolution, two world wars, internment by the Nazis, undercover communist activity, great wealth and real poverty. She lived in three European capitals, spent several years as secretary to Laurence Olivier, was divorced and widowed, and had three sons. No wonder she fascinated her granddaughter, who has now written a book about her.
“My first memory of her, I was about six or seven, and she came on a rather brief duty call. When she came up from Cornwall, she would check everything was OK with the family before going off and having fun. But I really got to know her when I was 11 and my parents split up. I went to stay with her in Cornwall and she was the first person to confront me and ask me what had happened. I burst into tears. She hadn’t expected that and I still remember the look on her face. It said, ‘Oh no, what have I got on my hands, an awful snivelling brat.’ But she went on talking to me and it was good to talk. She knew all about broken families – they ran like a fault-line through the generations – and she was evidence that you survive.
“That was probably the meeting that pulled me very close to her. From then on she took a serious interest in me. I became a favourite grandchild and she’d load me down with books, especially horrendous books on the Holocaust. She also had a wonderful knack for giving you the right book at the right time.”
When Zinovieff was 16, her grandmother gave her an old leather volume – her diary from when she was interned by the Nazis in France. She was grateful but not very interested and the book went into a drawer. It was only recently, 10 years after her grandmother’s death and with two daughters of her own, that Zinovieff returned to the diary – and was drawn inexorably into her grandmother’s life.
“I knew her as an old lady,” Zinovieff says, “and it was thrilling to ‘meet’ her as a young person … She always went against the grain, and lived her life as she felt like, not as the age or convention dictated.” Her granddaughter admires her for that, and for her extraordinary ability each time her world collapsed, to pick herself up and start all over again. Zinovieff is less admiring of her grandmother’s role as a mother. For Sofka, family often fell into the category of conventional behaviour, something that made Zinovieff’s journey into her family’s history all the more emotional.
“Sofka always said – without shame – that she wasn’t interested in babies,” says Zinovieff. Sofka left her first husband and their two sons, Zinovieff’s father, Peter, and his baby brother, Ian, when Ian was just three weeks old. She was already deeply involved with Grey Skipwith, whom she later married, producing a third son, Patrick. This baby she left with the milkman’s mother-in-law while she went off once again to live her own life. All three boys were shunted from pillar to post for most of their childhoods, only seeing their mother when they could be fitted around the rest of her life.
This behaviour has been neither forgotten nor forgiven by the Zinovieffs, the family of Sofka’s first husband (the author’s long-dead grandfather). His brother and sister are still alive, now in their 90s.
“They were quite vitriolic about Sofka,” Zinovieff says. “Great-Uncle Kyril, to whom I am very close, didn’t think I should write the book. His side of the family have blackened Sofka’s name for 70 years. Such old memories are very fixed. They told me all sorts of stories, from her sleeping with the milkman-postman-window cleaner to the third child belonging to a Cossack dancer and that Grey Skipwith – the love of her life – joined the wartime RAF in a suicidal attempt to get away from her. Sofka did do some bad things, especially as a mother, but she wasn’t as bad as the Zinovieffs think.”
“[My research] brought some difficult times and some very tense conversations,” she says, especially as the project progressed and she became closer and closer to her grandmother. Her relationship with Great-Uncle Kyril has survived. Now she is hoping other relatives will understand why the book sometimes contradicts their memories. “It is a delicate business,” she says, “but in the end I had to tell my own truth.”
One thing everyone agreed upon was that Sofka was only following family tradition (or even genes). Her mother was a successful surgeon and a bomber pilot in the first world war, while her father ran off with a gypsy singer when Sofka was five, only reappearing occasionally to take her on wonderfully unsuitable outings. In the absence of her parents, Sofka was brought up by disapproving Granny, with whom she escaped the revolution, first to the family’s country estate in Crimea and then to England (leaving her parents in Russia).
Zinovieff visited Crimea, to see if there was anything left of her grandmother’s life there. Post-Soviet Russians are fascinated by their pre-revolutionary roots, and Sofka’s aristocratic name once more opened doors. With the help of local people she found the house and estate (now a state sanatorium) where Sofka always said the first seeds of her communism were sown. There she played with the lodge-keeper’s sons. They asked why she should have lessons when they could not even read. She sided with them, and Granny would accuse her of being “a little Bolshevik”.
It wasn’t until she was interned in France that Sofka actually joined the party, becoming deeply committed to a resistance cell known (ironically, given Sofka’s lack of familial commitment) as The Family. She remained a communist until shortly before her death in 1994, further enraging her White Russian relatives (“It was like a Jew from Germany becoming a Nazi!” insisted Great-Uncle Kyril) and unwittingly creating a remarkable resource for her granddaughter’s research.
“MI5 have hundreds and hundreds of pages on her,” Zinovieff discovered. “She was followed, her letters opened, phone tapped. I found it an extraordinarily emotional experience to sit in this little room [at MI5] going through all these bits of her life. It was the little intimate details that cut into me most, like a note of her meeting my father outside Peter Jones (the shop). It was haunting; a very strange way to get to know your own grandmother.”
At times she felt, “quite taken over” by her grandmother. And the effect went well beyond the book. “My father and uncles seemed to rediscover their mother on different terms. They had always looked on her from their own point of view – with all the pain that went with that – but in my father at least, I think I saw a transformation. He began to see her through her own eyes and be more positive about the times they had together.”
And there was an effect on Zinovieff’s attitude to her father – and mother. “When they split up, my youngest brother went with my mother and I stayed (along with my middle brother) with my father. I was left feeling like the little woman of the house. I cooked and shopped … My father took quite a few leaves out of his mother’s book. He has had a very complicated life and married lots of times. He ran a music studio in the bottom of the house (he claims to have been the first person to have a computer in his home) and it was ‘Oh, Pink Floyd are coming today’ so life was always lively and interesting. But he was not the easiest parent to have.” Nor was her mother, who, on reading the book announced, to her daughter’s surprise, that she saw a lot of herself in Sofka.
“I have been very critical of my parents – and they have done things worthy of criticism,” says Zinovieff, “but I saw some of the dreadful things Sofka did and yet felt understanding.” In justifying her grandmother, the author found, she could also better understand her parents. The book is dedicated to them.
“My grandmother used to quote a favourite Chinese curse,” says Zinovieff, ‘May you live in interesting times’. I suppose you could add, ‘May you live with interesting people’.” She pauses, but she can’t suppress the little bit of Sofka in her, adding, “But who would want to live with boring people!”