Historian uncovers Old Heathfield Russian connection

2nd September

This is the first in a series of articles kindly written by local historian, Hellingly resident and author of ‘Here Dead We Lie’ Nicola Walker

Whenever I’ve been wandering around the graveyard at All Saints Church, Old Heathfield looking for war graves or sometimes family, I’ve often noticed this gravestone and wondered about the story behind it.  

When I researched Marie Zvegintzov, I was surprised to find she was a Russian Princess!  Not what I expected in an East Sussex churchyard.

Princess Maria Ivanovna (Obelensky) Zvegintzov fled Russia in 1917 – fearing for her family’s safety in Bolshevik Russia following the revolution. Crossing Siberia in a cattle truck with her young children, she left behind a life of wealth and privilege to settle in Britain.

Her husband Colonel Dimitry Zvetgintzov had been second in command of the Russian Imperial Guard before the Revolution.  Afterwards he worked as a ‘liaison officer’ between Britain and Russia and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for his service.

Marie and Dimitry had five children and one of their sons – Ivan – is also remembered on this gravestone as he was a Second World War casualty.  He is listed on the Alamein Memorial in Egypt but not on the Cade Street War Memorial.

This is a colourised photo of Princess Maria dressed for a ball at the Winter Palace in 1903

It seems both were involved with the local community – the Colonel was involved with the Heathfield Home Guard in WW2 (probably a little different from the Russian Imperial Guard).  Marie often spoke at local community meetings about the politics, extreme poverty and high child mortality back in her home country.  Not an easy subject to discuss she told her audience as she had friends and relatives still in Russia. 

They lived at Bramble Cottage, Harley Lane, Heathfield.

Info from The Courier and the book ‘Trotsky’s Favourite Spy’.