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Obituary: Sofka Skipwith

Tuesday 8 March 1994

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 Besançon 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 Albania.

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.