The Observer review for Red Princess
Posted on 25 FEB 2007, by Shiona Tregaskis

She was born into White Russian aristocracy and died a Red on Bodmin Moor. According to her biographer granddaughter, Princess Sofka Dolgorouky’s life was ‘a dash across the 20th century … a seismograph of its great events and political movements’. This is a personal and emotional biography that explores the waves of impact that the Russian Revolution and both world wars had on Sofka and those around her.

After escaping Russia as a child, Sofka embarked on a ‘mad scramble’ across the Crimea, England and France. Her granddaughter fills in the gaps in her diary by collecting stories from family, friends and lovers. Through MI5’s extensive files on Sofka, Zinovieff is also provided with another perspective on her grandmother’s postwar activities.

Though she came to be defined by struggle and personal desolation, this book is not a depressing read. Zinovieff writes vibrantly about this hard-drinking, promiscuous, beautiful and scandalous bohemian. But the stories she hears are not always flattering. Sofka’s maverick spirit is seen, by her family, as ‘wickedness’, manifested in her politics, her adultery, her neglectful mothering. Throughout Red Princess Zinovieff maintains that Sofka was ‘complex and flawed … but fascinating and lovable’.

She was certainly complex. For all her nomadic habits and pagan wildness, she yearned for roots and security. However, she found family life challenging and perhaps only communism offered her the comfort of belonging, until she finally settled down. It is true that the lack of interest she showed her three sons as children cast a shadow on her socialist principles. But her efforts were significant. During her Nazi internment, she was instrumental in saving more than 50 Jewish lives.

One of Sofka’s favourite sayings was: ‘If you have enough money for two loaves, buy one and some flowers.’ Zinovieff has inherited her grandmother’s romantic outlook; there seems to be something poignant – and very often funny – on every other page of the book. It is moving to see that in the process of writing this book, Zinovieff not only gets to know her grandmother, but also finds that she better understands her parents and upbringing.