SOFKA: The search for one Russian identity and the (re)formation of another.
Biographies generally emphasise the expectantly hazy divide between an author and their subject. Especially when the author is the namesake of the subject, and their subject happens to be their grandmother. Biography is highly complex: there is a certain lived existence that begins to be acted out, a lived life lurking within those living now. The chase of one identity starts to blur the other, dispossessing the assumed boundaries of self we like to think that writers and journalists can somehow maintain. "Becoming her" is how Sofka Zinovieff puts it.
There are two Sofkas to consider: Sofka Zinovieff, born in 1907 to an aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, Russia; and Sofka Zinovieff, her granddaughter, born in the early 1960s in Swinging London, a PhD graduate of Cambridge, and a respected journalist. In front of me I have the latter, who decided to research and write a book about her grandmother's revolutionary life.
"She had given me her diary when I was sixteen years old. She had written in it in the 1940s when she was trapped in Paris by the Nazis….she wrote in the diary as if it was a love letter to her husband Gray…..there is a very immediate feeling of my grandmother and reading it so many years later after it had been given to me persuaded me to write the book".
Despite the fact that Sofka was a princess, her life seemed to spiral from tragedy to rare moments of vitality. The young princess fled Russia after the 1917 revolution, to become a citizen of England, then criss-crossed the European continent as a confused, entranced teen, who then married a fellow white-Russian emigree in London, who shocked the same emigrees by falling in love with another man and becoming a communist as an anti-fascist stance, who worked as a part of the Resistance in France trying to save the lives of persecuted Jews, who lost her husband during WW2, who worked as a private secretary for Laurance Oliver, and who took British workers to the Soviet Union on "Progressive Tours" in the 1950s.
As the above events can attest, Sofka led a life true to freedom, encouraging people to follow their desires and consciousness rather than the mores of society - a life constantly spent searching for the elixir of life. She is a truly admirable character, despite the certain, disconcerting details: abandoning three sons and appearing to be rather hedonistic in some parts of the biography. However, one can only appreciate the inclinations this woman had to live by impulse, to gallivant about as she wished, unbound by social trappings. In some ways, Sofka is a rather constructed image of 'Russianess': harking back to the Byronic myth of Pushkin, or a persona of extravagance straight out of Chekhov.
However, Sofka is rather pragmatic regarding her connections to these so-called 'Russian' tendencies of her grandmother.
"My Russia was quite an internalised reality…my Russian side was pleasant and lovely: eating Russian food, reading literature in translation….I was baptised as a Russian orthodox, I felt Russian; but not a part of the community. My Russianness was more part of a fantasy".
This revelation became more apparent for Sofka when she lived in Moscow from 1990-1992. Although it was the time of perestroika, of social transformation, Sofka's experience of Russia was rather dislocated from the sense of empowerment and joy that her grandmother enjoyed when coming back to her country.
"There was something obscene about being a foreigner at that time…one dish in a restaurant would be the equivalent of somebody's salary…living disconnected somehow in a foreign compound, KGB cars sometimes following us…". The reality of Russia at that time, the disproportionate standard of living between the powerful and meek, seems to have tainted somewhat Sofka's own idea of what it means to feel Russian in blood.
Interestingly enough, being the outsider and celebrating this feature somehow connects the author with her grandmother. Constantly feeling the foreigner seems to be symbolic in both women's lives. Of course it is central, as the permanent foreigner or itinerant traveller defy simplification. They possess roots which are rhizomatic, hence their continual search for the horizon.
After meeting Sofka's Russian-British-Greek daughters, I leave with a sense of wonderment. Who did I do the interview about? Which subject am I concerned with? Sofka writes a note to me in my copy of Red Princess which she has given to me:
"To Angelina…….another half-Russian, searching……"
Perhaps this interview was not only concerned with a story about a revolutionary Russian and her sprightly granddaughter who wrote it; but also, this author's journey too.
Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life was written in English and published by Granta.
The rights have been bought and the book is being translated in nine other countries.
"Red Princess" has been chosen as one of the best paperbacks for 2008 by the British newspaper, "The Observer".
by Angelina Saule
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