Obituary: Sofka Skipwith

Sofka Dolgorouky, writer, translator, political activist: born St Petersburg 1907; married 1932 Leo Zinovieff (two sons; marriage dissolved 1937), 1937 Grey Skipwith (died 1942; one son); died Blisland, Cornwall 26 February 1994.

SOFKA SKIPWITH's extraordinary life ranged from childhood in the highest court circles of Tsarist Russia to Communist Party meetings in post-war Chelsea, and ended peacefully on a remote patch of Bodmin Moor. She appeared just six weeks ago on a Timewatch television documentary on Rasputin, recalling in a few moments' shots the pre-1917 Russia from which she had come so long ago.

She was born Sofka Dolgorouky in St Petersburg in 1907. Both her father, Prince Peter Dolgorouky, and her mother, Countess Sophy Bobrinska, were members of leading Russian nobility; she claimed descent on her father's side from Yuri, the founder of Moscow, and on her mother's from Catherine the Great, whom she surely resembled in dignity and character if not in looks; Sofka was a strikingly handsome woman.

Sofka's parents divorced when she was four, her enterprising mother preferring the study and practice of medicine to fashionable Russian family life; 'the Child' was left in the care of her grandmother, Olga Dolgorouky, lady-in- waiting to the Dowager Empress. She was taught by an English governess and played games with the young Tsarevich but preferred the company of the servants' children, thus earning her grandmother's sobriquet of 'little Bolshevik'.

On the eve of the Revolution Sofka's group of the nobility moved to the Crimea, and in 1919 some of them boarded HMS Marlborough and sailed to exile in Britain. They were hosted by the Duke of Hamilton, and Sofka completed her education in Scotland; in London in the Thirties she married, had two sons, divorced, remarried and had a third son (her second husband, Grey Skipwith, was killed, tragically, in 1942 on a bombing raid over Berlin); while her secretarial jobs included helping Laurence Olivier in his extremely demanding career.

When war was declared Sofka Skipwith journeyed to and from Paris to visit her mother, and after the German occupation of northern France was unable to leave. In November 1940, following an anti-Nazi demonstration in Paris all 'suspect elements' were rounded up and all women with British passports (Sofka and myself included) were transported to eastern France and interned in the Besancon barracks; there were about 2,000 of us plus some old men, White Russians or retired jockeys from Longchamp. Internment lasted from that December till August 1944, the numbers fluctuating. In June 1941 the internees were transferred to Vittel, where the hotels were an improvement on the barracks but prison conditions still prevailed.

The internment experience changed Sofka, as it changed and brought out the best (and sometimes the worst) in many of us, whose narrow domestic view of life was expanded into a broad social perspective. Sofka became a leading figure in the camp's life, starting and inspiring cultural initiatives, a library service (through the Red Cross), and others, public activities for everybody's benefit. In private, Sofka shared literary and political discussions with a small left-wing group, which later linked up with the French Resistance then led by local Communists. Sofka was able through these links to enable many prisoners on passage for Nazi death camps to escape and join the maquis.

Sofka Skipwith's ceaseless activity, on a very poor camp diet, affected her health and she emerged from Vittel exhausted and unwell; but her indomitable spirit soon restored her. She was re-engaged by Olivier and assisted the Old Vic in its post-war tours of shattered Europe; she joined the British Communist Party and helped run the Chelsea Branch; she set up the Progressive Tours agency for travel to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (taking tourists to visit her grandfather's mansion in a forbidden part of Leningrad, arrested and then feted by the guards). She opened up tours to Albania; and when mail from that strange land arrived in the Cornish village where she and her partner Jack had bought a tiny cottage for a quiet retirement the postmaster was firmly convinced that the couple were the exiled King and Queen Zog of


At last, in the Sixties she was able to settle down to writing: she produced a Russian cookery book, a grammar for beginners, various translations; more important, she completed and had published in 1968 Sofka: the autobiography of a princess. This enthralling book shows what Sofka could have achieved as a writer had she not had so many other lives to lead. It is a true self-portrait, through which we feel the strength of character, the warmth, humour and the indomitable energy which saved refugees, produced Chekhov and kept culture alive in that camp. A further volume of her memoirs has been put together by the publisher Francis Pagan and it is hoped that this may be published in the near future.

If there were an award for services to civilisation in the year of celebration of liberation from Fascism, 1994, Sofka Skipwith surely deserved to have it.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Principal Engineer – Biomass

£45000 - £55000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil