THE MYSTERY OF OLGA CHEKHOVA
by Antony Beevor
Deutsche Übersetzung, here
Ольга Константиновна Чехова
(1897 – 1980)
She had to go to Moscow
T. J. Binyon reviews The Mystery of Olga Chekhova by Antony Beevor
Antony Beevor's new book opens in May 1945 when, to celebrate the German surrender, the Moscow Art Theatre put on a performance of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The part of Ranevskaya, the beautiful widow with a lover in Paris, was taken by the playwright's widow, the 77-year old Olga Knipper-Chekhova: she was well acquainted with the role, having played it first at the play's premiere 41 years earlier.
When she took her bow, she was dumbfounded to see, in a front row of the stalls, her niece, also named Olga Chekhova (her first husband had been the writer's nephew, the actor Mikhail Chekhov, who ended his days in Hollywood, teaching the Stanislavskian "Method" to, among others, Gregory Peck and Marilyn Monroe).
Dumbfounded, because Olga had left Russia for Berlin in 1920, and had become - she was extremely beautiful - one of Germany's best-known film actresses, starring in films such as Rene Clair's An Italian Straw Hat and the first, risque version of Moulin Rouge. Hitler, a dedicated film buff, had taken a great liking to her, and they often met: a famous photograph shows them sitting side-by-side at a huge diplomatic reception in May 1939, while during the war he would send her Christmas hampers.
She also made a big impression on Goebbels. In his diaries he calls her "eine charmante Frau" and might have made a pass at her: not for nothing was he was known as "the goat of Babelsberg". What her aunt did not know was that Olga was also a Soviet agent, working for Beria. She had been summoned to Moscow, when the war ended, to be debriefed, and was soon be flown back to Berlin, where SMERSH - the Soviet counter-intelligence agency - provided her with a large house guarded by three sentries, repaired her cars, and supplied her with food, coal and money.
Her double life soon became known: "The Spy Who Vamped Hitler", shrieked an English Sunday newspaper headline that October. A month later the story - sensational and almost wholly inaccurate - was recycled by a German paper, which claimed that "the Queen of Nazi society" had received a decoration from Stalin for her intelligence services. It was forced to print a grovelling apology.
Olga, who went on, after the war, to found a successful cosmetics company in Munich (possibly financed by Soviet intelligence), had originally been recruited as an agent by her brother, Lev Knipper. An officer in the White Army during the civil war in Russia, he fled the country after its defeat. When he later returned to Russia he worked for the secret police, became tennis champion of the Crimea, and a composer.
Attached to the propaganda department of the Red Army, he composed patriotic songs and trained troops in mountain warfare. After the outbreak of war, he was given the task, together with his wife, also an agent, of assassinating Hitler, until Stalin, thinking the West might unilaterally make peace with Germany if the operation were successful, called it off.
Why Lev, who, according to Beevor's narration, had no practical experience of assassination, should have been chosen in preference to one of those many agents who were elbow-deep in gore, is left unexplained.
Though the subject is fascinating, the material is sparse. There are, Antony Beevor remarks, "a considerable quantity of documents on the case which have not seen, and probably never will see, the light of day". He has thus had to bulk out his narrative with accounts of the trials and tribulations of a host of other members of the Chekhov and Knipper families, of the actor Kachalov and his family, of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, the two founders of the Moscow Art Theatre, and others.
And it is surprising, given the author's virtuosity in handling an immense mass of evidence in his works on the battles for Stalingrad and Berlin, that his account of what appears to be a simpler subject should be at times confusing and stuffed with irrelevant detail. In the end The Mystery of Olga Chekhova remains an unsolved mystery.
T. J. Binyon's 'Pushkin' is published by HarperCollins.
Russian sites on Olga Chekhova: O O O O O
The spy who danced through
Anne Applebaum reviews The Mystery of Olga Chekhova by Antony Beevor
At the beginning of May, in 1919, a group of travelling performers from the Moscow Art Theatre set out on a tour of the provinces. The group's director was the legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky; among its performers was the equally legendary actress wife of the late Anton Chekhov. Unfortunately, the tour was not a success. Although the group was billeted in an abandoned hotel in Kharkov which "still retained an air of pre-revolutionary elegance", the city's ambience was somewhat lacking. "Nobody had told them that the civil war had erupted again," writes Antony Beevor in his description of this ill-fated trip. Within days, the troupe found itself cut off from Moscow, on the wrong side – the White side – of the front line in the bloody Russian civil war.
Wending its way south through war-torn Europe, the troupe wound up in Yugoslavia. Some of its members, Chekhov's widow among them, did eventually return to Moscow several years later, only to find that other members of their family had already left to make their lives as far away as possible from the chaos in Russia. Olga Chekhova, the niece of the great writer's widow, was one of them.
This story illustrates the wild unpredictability of the era in which Olga Chekhova lived. From one day to the next, borders shifted, regimes changed, and rules were overturned. Stanislavsky's troupe, once famed for its realistic interpretations of classic Chekhov plays, was forced, in the excitement following the new revolution, to put on proletkult productions for the masses. When political taste shifted again, the troupe quickly reverted back to Chekhov. In that kind of situation, it took special skills to survive, particularly for artistic celebrities whose every utterance attracted attention.
Olga Chekhova was one such survivor. Like her famous aunt, she was forced to make dramatic decisions in the middle of political chaos. Unlike her aunt, she initially chose what seemed set to be a more comfortable life. Instead of remaining in Moscow, she went to Berlin, where she played up her famous surname, lied about her experience and landed a part in a silent film. She eventually became one of Nazi Germany's most famous actresses, a special favourite of Hitler, and a byword for betrayal of the Soviet motherland.
Recruited by her brother, an avant-garde musician who had chosen the same path, Chekhova used her status in Germany and her secret-police connections to bring out her daughter, her mother, her sister and her niece. All lived together in splendour – or as much splendour as could be had in wartime Berlin – paid for by Chekhova's largesse.
But who was she really? According to Beevor, she was even more adept at changing her identity to fit the circumstances than outsiders believed. Although she had deserted Soviet Russia, it seems she hedged her bets and became a Soviet spy. For someone used to seeing borders shift and regimes change, it was a logical decision. If Germany had won the war against the Soviet Union, she would probably never have been discovered. Since Germany lost, she was able to return to Moscow like royalty, in a secret-police plane, and even saw her aunt perform in one of her final productions of The Cherry Orchard.
After the war, Chekhova remained in Berlin, where Soviet secret police apparently stayed in contact with her. In her later years, myths about her life grew more elaborate, partly enlarged by her own penchant for storytelling. All through her life, she falsified her biography and glamourised her recollections. Others did the same, even linking her with the Amber Room, a Russian treasure that went missing during the Second World War and has never been found. By the end of Beevor's book, it becomes clear that Chekhova's myth-making was a key part of her survival technique: the stories helped obfuscate her true loyalties, if she had ever had any.
Beevor has clearly enjoyed picking through the legends, and his fascination with Chekhova's story shines through. Regular readers of his wider-ranging historical works may at first be puzzled by the seeming narrowness of this story's focus on a single person. But, by the end, it becomes clear that Chekhova's story represents the reverse of Beevor's books on Berlin and Stalingrad. Instead of a story of cataclysmic events, it is a tale of how an unusual person managed to dance, sing and act her way through them.
From Russia with Lev
Antony Beevor tells the remarkable story of an actress and a Soviet spy sent to assassinate Hitler in The Mystery of Olga Chekhova
Saturday May 15, 2004
The Mystery of
by Antony Beevor
300pp, Penguin, £16.99
Predicting the death of aristocratic Russia, if not the Russian revolution itself, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is arguably the greatest play of the 20th century. Certainly its production history puts it close to the events it seems to anticipate. It was playing at the Moscow Arts Theatre on the day of the revolution. During the 1919-20 civil war, the town of Kharkov shifted from Red to White army occupation during a single evening performance, condemning the Moscow Arts touring company to three years of exile. And the play was chosen as the theatre's contribution to the celebrations of Soviet victory in May 1945.
During the curtain call, Anton Chekhov's widow, Olga Knipper-Chekhova, who had first played Madame Ranyevska at the play's opening in 1904, looked out into the auditorium and was shattered to see her niece - a star of the Nazi cinema and favourite of Goebbels and Hitler - sitting in the front row. What Knipper-Chekhova didn't know was that her niece had been a spy for the Soviet secret police since the 1930s.
The Cherry Orchard runs through Antony Beevor's engaging and revealing memoir of the junior Chekhovs. Beevor can be credited with single-handedly transforming the reputation and commercial performance of military history. In his remarkable books on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin, he managed to combine high strategy (the maps-and-chaps tradition) with the more democratic and fashionable view-from-the-tank-turret style of military writing, to paint a vivid picture of how the Nazi-Soviet war looked to the high command and how it felt to the common soldier. Taken together, these two great books present a vast and tragic action: the Red Army, which heroically defended and then liberated Stalingrad against seemingly impossible odds, goes on to burn, pillage and rape its way across eastern Europe, to take the German capital with massive cruelty (particularly against German women civilians) and profligate loss of life.
Beevor's skills as a military writer are on display in The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, as his characters live through and survive the great war, the Russian revolution, and the events of 1939-45. (His description of the cause and course of the post-revolutionary civil war is particularly compelling.) But there are other skills on display. Technically, he has to deal with the bewildering family tree of the Russian Chekhovs and the German Knippers (as complex as a Chekhov cast list). So after the playwright Anton's marriage to the actress Olga, the playwright's nephew Mikhail (aka Misha, later Michael, a noted actor, director and Stanislavski disciple) marries and later divorces the actress Olga's niece (also an actress and also called Olga), whose thrice-married brother Lev aka Lyovushka finds time to be a White Guardist, Soviet composer and indeed Soviet spy. Add in the complication that Olga's niece Olga's daughter is also called Olga (though thankfully known as Ada), and you have the makings of a biographical nightmare.
After explaining the epic logistics of the eastern front, Beevor has little trouble with these complexities. He tells the parallel stories of sister Olga and brother Lev with clarity and panache. For Olga, the story is of a failed marriage to the dissolute Mikhail, single motherhood, exile to Berlin in 1921 and the building of a film career which brought her to the attention of Goebbels and Hitler, with whom she conversed and was photographed, and from whom she received a Christmas parcel of luxuries in 1940.
Parallel to Olga's life is that of her younger brother Lev, who joined the counter-revolutionary army, was rehabilitated by the Soviet secret police, and became a loyal Soviet composer and spy. With his second wife he was groomed to assassinate Hitler should Hitler have visited Moscow after a military victory over the Soviet Union; when this risk faded he was instructed to defect to the Germans and conduct a suicide Hitler-assassination mission in Germany itself. This plan relied on the collaboration of his sister, whom the Soviet composer appears to have recruited in the 30s as a sleeper, to report on the likelihood of the Nazi leadership planning to invade Russia. Blissfully ignorant of the assassination plan, Olga was flown to Moscow for interrogation (and theatre visits) at the end of the war, before being repatriated to a life of Soviet-subsidised comfort in postwar Germany.
Under the dangerous circumstances of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, Olga and Lev's survival was a kind of miracle, and Beevor's evocation of Stalinist Russia (and, to a lesser extent, of Nazi Germany) is effective and informative throughout. The use of these parallel stories as a way of telling the story of the times through which Olga and Lev lived goes some way to overcoming the problem that neither seems to have been particularly important as spies; we don't know what Olga reported, and Lev's great mission to assassinate Hitler in Moscow proved unnecessary (and in Berlin, inopportune - Stalin decided that if Hitler died the Allies might make peace with his successor and thus forbade any attempts on the Führer's person). And while Lev's personality comes across clearly, Olga's remains a little opaque (and the "deep but hidden scars" of her experience, advertised on the dust jacket, remain undescribed in the book).
Beevor points out that Olga built her career in Germany on the completely fictitious claim that she had acted at the Moscow Arts Theatre, but insists that she loathed Nazi anti-semitism, and helped a Jewish actor and his family (although she prudently demanded that her family provide her with a false certificate of racial purity, as her husband's mother was Jewish and her daughter at risk). But despite her many failings, "particularly her relationship with the truth", Beevor insists that Olga Chekhova "remained a brave and resourceful woman whose main priority was to protect her family and close friends".
The bravery and resourcefulness are not in doubt (after the dangers and dramas of the war years, Olga built up and sustained a successful cosmetics company, albeit with Soviet financial backing). But somehow she seems smaller than her story, and it's tempting to wonder what she would look like in the hands of a writer who could indulge in more speculation and extrapolation than the historian can allow.
Despite this caveat, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova remains as engaging a read as Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945. It is full of insights into the ironies as well as the contradictions of revolutionary Russia (the fact that the politically ruthless Lenin admired the delicate nuances of Chekhov, and had little time for his more politically moderate minister of education's policy of adapting high art for the needs of the proletariat).
The picture it paints of the Moscow Arts Theatre and its quixotic leader Stanislavski is sensitive and strangely moving: dispossessed of his family firm by the revolution, the maestro seems to have genuinely supported its ambitions. Beevor's insight that artists and their lives tend to be more important in dictatorships than democracies is demonstrated by the story he tells.
David Edgar's most recent play is Continental Divide
What did you do in the war?
THE MYSTERY OF OLGA CHEKHOVA
QUICK, name the two most mendacious professions. As far as I’m concerned, the answer is easy: actors and spies. The first group make a living by pretence; the second are masters of subterfuge for whom truth, in the form of exposure, can be deadly.
Imagine, then, trying to write a book about actors who freelanced as spies. How does one ever discover the truth? This was the task facing Antony Beevor when he attempted to reconstruct the story of Olga Chekhova, Hitler’s favourite actress and, as it turns out, a woman who used her access to the Führer to spy for the Soviet Union.
Chekhova, born in 1897, was the beautiful niece of Anton Chekhov. Her aunt was Olga Knipper-Chekhova, one of the foremost Russian stage actresses of the 20th century and an original member of the Moscow Art Theatre. Founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky (the inventor of ‘Method’ acting), the theatre revolutionised Russian drama in the years before the First World War.
Anton Chekhov supplied the plays and the rest of the family supplied the actors. It was a cosy arrangement which at first seemed immune to the turmoil caused by the First World War. The family’s wartime service consisted largely of putting on performances of The Cherry Orchard to ever more proletarian audiences. The Chekhovs acted while Russia burned.
But then came the revolution and, virtually overnight, the Moscow Theatre’s once radical productions seemed staid and bourgeois. Some members of the troupe immediately offered their services to the Bolsheviks by producing earnest productions in praise of the revolution. Others were not quite so nimble. The composer Lev Knipper, the brother of Olga, bet on the wrong side during the revolution and very nearly found himself in front of a Bolshevik firing squad. For the rest of his life he struggled to erase his White Russian past.
At the age of 17, Olga married Mikhail Chekhov, her cousin and also an actor. (This family was nothing if not incestuous.) That marriage went sour within three years. With life in post-revolutionary Russia growing ever more precarious, Olga decided to escape to Germany, where the Knipper side of the family originated. She left Russia dressed in peasant clothes with a diamond ring hidden under her tongue (or, according to another story, sewn into the lining of her coat).
On the strength of her name, not to mention her beauty, Olga landed work in the vibrant German film industry. Before long, she was a star, with a palatial home, a chauffeur-driven car, queues of young lovers and crowds of fawning admirers. In 1928, she starred in the original Moulin Rouge, in the part later reprised by Nicole Kidman. By this time she had already attracted the adoring attention of Adolf Hitler, an obsessive lover of films.
In Stalin’s Russia, a family with the resumé of the Chekhovs should not have lasted long. Lev’s service in the White Russian armies and Olga’s friendship with Hitler should have doomed the entire family to a long spell in the gulag, if not a firing squad. But the Chekhovs were survivors. Lev quickly figured out how to ingratiate himself to the state by offering his services to the secret police. He managed to draw in his sister Olga, whose friendship with the Führer was instantly transformed from liability to asset.
Having straddled the two most untruthful professions, Chekhova naturally does not make the most reliable witness to the events of her own life, especially since she could seldom resist making a mountain out of a molehill. Beevor packs his book with wonderfully colourful anecdotes from Olga’s memoirs, but virtually every one carries a health warning: this story might not be true.
Yet to whom can Beevor turn for the truth? Rather rashly, he gives credence to the testimony of Pavel Sudoplatov, the notorious secret service agent who supposedly oversaw the espionage activities of Olga and her brother. But that’s like asking a pickpocket to guard your wallet. The KGB used to be the most tight-lipped organisation on earth. But ever since 1992, ex-agents have fallen over themselves in their efforts to peddle tales of Stalinist intrigue. Unfortunately, the marketability of spy stories is determined by their drama, not by their veracity.
Russian spies were the unsung heroes of the revolution. As long as the Soviet state remained intact, they derived anonymous reward from silent service. But now, ever since the object of their devotion collapsed in ruins, they have been desperate to gain recognition for what they supposedly helped the USSR to achieve. Sudoplatov is one of many former spies to have discovered that a bit of harmless exaggeration (especially when it pertains to well-known names) is the best way to secure a lucrative book contract. Beevor seems too intelligent and canny a writer to be taken in by Sudoplatov. Granted, his book does not rely exclusively on the testimony of the Russian liar-in-chief. But finding the truth when every character in one’s book is either a spy, an actor, or a delusionist (as in the case of Knipper) is a tall order which challenges the discretion of any writer, even one as gifted and perspicacious as Beevor.
In truth, this problem need never have arisen. Beevor painted himself into a corner by marketing this book as a spy story. It’s subtitle, ‘Was Hitler’s favourite actress a Russian spy?’, encourages expectations which aren’t entirely satisfied. As a tale of espionage it’s rather tame. Granted, Lev and Olga might once have been involved in a plan to kill Hitler, but since the plan itself was incredibly far-fetched and never had a chance of reaching fruition, it’s hardly likely to make the reader’s heart race. Besides, the list of people who plotted to kill Hitler is very long.
The espionage material is interesting, but should not have been marketed as the focus of this book. Beevor’s work is, above all, the fascinating story of an extraordinary family living through extraordinary times. On those grounds alone it’s a great read. Families, as so many novelists have discovered, provide a wonderful window into the past. In this case, the family in question consisted of a remarkable group of high achievers whose talent gained them access to the highest echelons of power and fame - people as wideranging as Hitler, Charlie Chaplin and Elvis Presley.
This is much more than a book about the Chekhov clan. The glimpses it offers into how Russian bourgeois society adjusted (or didn’t adjust) to the advent of the Bolsheviks is enough by itself to keep any reader riveted. Beevor tells the story with seemingly effortless grace and it reads like the very best novels. He is a gifted writer and this is an enthralling tale.
The historian is supposed to look for truth, no matter how elusive. But the Chekhovs made a living out of pretence and had to rely on deceit in order to survive. The book doesn’t really solve the mystery of Olga Chekhova, or at least not completely. But that hardly matters. In times of overwhelming dishonesty, lies are as fascinating and revealing as the truth.
Gerard DeGroot is Professor of Modern History at St Andrews University
The good wife
She was Hitler's favourite film star - and also a Soviet spy. But, as Antony Beevor reveals, Olga Chekhova's early life in Russia, escaping a disastrous marriage and surviving the revolution, was almost as dramatic
Monday May 3, 2004
During the confused years which followed the collapse of Communism, I was always fascinated by the role of Russian women. While their menfolk sought consolation in the vodka bottle, the women kept things going. It is no exaggeration to say that without their courage, Russian society would have disintegrated. They demonstrated a strong sense of humour in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.
In 1996, my research assistant Luba Vinogradova showed me an article in a woman's magazine. It was entitled: "Shall we pretend to obey our husbands?" The basic idea was that Russian men were either bastards and successful, or else they were idealists and hopeless. Luba told me a number of stories from the experience of friends to back this up.
Some five years later, when we were researching the extraordinary story of Olga Chekhova for my new book, I suddenly remembered the article. It seemed to sum up the tragedy of Olga's calf-love marriage in 1914 to a brilliant young actor, who was a hopeless idealist as well as maddeningly egocentric. It struck me that Olga was a great example of the toughness and grace that Russian women have so often had to call upon.
Nobody could have been more innocent of the world than Olga Chekhova, yet she survived the revolution and civil war in Russia, and then became a movie star in Germany overnight. In fact, as Hitler's favourite actress, she was invited to all the major Nazi receptions. What he did not know was that she was a Soviet agent - and neither the Nazis nor the Western Allies ever found out. Viktor Abakumov, the head of SMERSh (the Soviet counterintelligence organisation), sent an aircraft from Moscow to bring her back from Berlin while Soviet armies fought their way into the centre of the Nazi capital.
Olga Chekhova was born in the Caucasus in 1898, where her father, Konstantin Knipper, directed the Tsarist railway system. Her aunt was Olga Knipper-Chekhova, the great actress of the Moscow Art Theatre and Anton Chekhov's wife. The Knippers, in this story of confused allegiances, were of German origin. The playwright frequently teased his wife about this. He found her family so bourgeois and organised in comparison to the chaos and emotional incontinence of the Chekhovs.
Olga was sixteen when she met Mikhail Chekhov, her first cousin by marriage. She was a beautiful and naïve girl, a dreamer who had wasted her time at school. Her artistic family never took her seriously. Misha was a brilliant young actor chosen for great things by Konstantin Stanislavsky, the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre and the man who revolutionised drama at the turn of the century.
Misha was a charismatic leader of the revels among the younger generation of Chekhovs and Knippers. He had an extraordinary gift for mimicry, both facial and vocal, while his mesmerising eyes and haunted face allowed him to play old men convincingly even before he was twenty. "He was short, thin and moved restlessly", wrote his first cousin, Sergei Chekhov. "He dressed carelessly in a shabby velvet jacket and, horror of horrors, he did not just lack a starched collar, he wore no collar at all. But he had a captivating tenderness about him. He was warm and had a sweet smile which made one forget that he was not handsome."
The innocent young Olga adored him. She had no idea that his charm and great talents concealed a disastrous irresponsibility and an incipient alcoholism, probably inherited from his father, Aleksandr Chekhov, the playwright's eldest brother. Misha had also inherited a compulsion to seduce, although mercifully in a rather more romantic fashion than his father, who was notorious for his crudeness. "From my earliest youth," Misha wrote later, "I found myself in a constant state of falling in love."
Misha and Olga, whatever the exact details surrounding their decision to marry so young, undoubtedly acted on the spur of the moment, without telling anyone. They knew that if they did ask for permission, it would be refused and Olga would be taken home to Saint Petersburg immediately. So early one morning in September 1914, soon after the outbreak of war, Olga packed a small suitcase with her passport, wash-bag and a new nightdress and slipped out of her aunt's apartment on Prechistensky bulvar. It must have taken considerable courage.
Olga took a drozhky to join Misha and together they drove to a small Orthodox church at the other end of Moscow. Misha, saying that they did not have much time, handed their passports to the priest, a very old man with a wrinkled face. The priest clearly did not want to be hurried, and kept shaking his head in disapproval. The bride and groom each grasped a flickering candle and two bystanders, engaged by Misha, held the crowns over their heads. The fact that Olga was a Lutheran does not appear to have been a problem. By Orthodox standards it certainly seems to have been a simple, short ceremony. Even so, Olga claimed later that Misha was constantly looking at his pocket-watch, afraid of being late for that afternoon's performance.
For Olga, the enormity of what they had just done sank in only after they had returned to Misha's apartment. They sat down to drink some tea from the samovar in his bedroom. The bed was so small that she wondered where she was supposed to sleep. And they had to share the apartment with Misha's old wet-nurse as well as her mother-in-law, Natalya Golden-Chekhova, who lay prostrate in her darkened bedroom next door. She had collapsed in shock and grief at discovering that her adored son had married without telling her.
Olga received little support from Misha, who was appalled by the family scandal they had unleashed, and clearly felt sorrier for himself than for his seventeen-year-old bride.
By the following summer, Olga was pregnant. "It is so nice not to be doing anything", Misha wrote to his aunt, Masha Chekhov, in Yalta. "Although we are all three in town, we are still in a very peaceful mood. My Kapsulka [my little capsule, ie the pregnant Olga] isn't particularly happy to be stuck in the city with Mama. She was dreaming of sketching somewhere in fields and forests. But what can I do? She shouldn't have married me. She could for example have married Volodya [Chekhov, another first cousin]. But she preferred to share my fame with me than to be the wife of a provincial judge."
For the heavily pregnant Olga, relations with Misha's possessive mother had become unbearable. To make matters far worse, Misha was drinking heavily. He poured vodka into his beer for what he called "deep effect", claiming that he was "a true Russian", and drank until he collapsed. At night he would wake suddenly and cry out: "Paper! Pen! Write, Olinka! Write! Great thoughts have come to me."
Olga soon realised that the marriage was a farce. When she had told Misha that she was expecting a child, he had avoided her gaze, shrugged his shoulders and left. She claimed later that she had tried to terminate the pregnancy with hot baths. One day she returned to the apartment and found their bedroom door closed. She heard a giggle. Misha had brought one of his girlfriends home.
Moscow that summer was oppressively hot, so finally Misha rented a dacha. Olga described it as a "small, utterly primitive little place, which one would only take for the shortest possible time." She distracted herself by painting while Misha, when reasonably sober, played tennis at a nearby court with a succession of girlfriends, one of whom would become his second wife. In August, as the birth approached, she returned to Moscow. Olga was just over eighteen years old when their child, a baby girl, was born on 9 September 1916.
Olga suffered a nervous collapse soon after the birth, presumably a form of post-natal depression exacerbated by the state of her marriage. Another source states that she went down with meningitis. Any romantic illusions she still had were finally crushed by her experiences during the course of that year and the next. Misha showed no interest in their daughter and was drinking even more than usual. Olga found herself forced to reassess everything. She was married to a self-destructive drunk, trapped by responsibility for a baby daughter. And it was not just her marriage that was falling to pieces. The whole of Russia and the secure existence that she had known since childhood was starting to disintegrate as the armies facing the Germans and Austrians collapsed. Talk of revolution spread in the streets.
In May 1917, Misha had to abandon rehearsals of The Seagull due to nervous depression exacerbated by drinking. In late November, just after the Bolshevik coup d'etat, Olga left him. She moved her possessions and the baby to the Knipper family apartment in Moscow at 23 Prechistensky Bulvar, near the Arbat. The shock of being poor for the first time in her life was considerable, and undoubtedly contributed to the determination and ambition she was to display later in life.
Conditions in Moscow rapidly deteriorated, so the Knipper parents departed for Siberia, where Olga's father's expertise as a railway engineer was in great demand. They took Olga's little daughter with them, as she stood a far better chance of survival in the countryside. Olga stayed behind in Moscow with her sister Ada. Early 1918 was cruelly cold. There was no coal. Foraging for firewood was outlawed, but almost everyone was desperate enough to take the risk of being shot by Red Guard patrols to bring home boughs from a tree or a plank from a step. The two sisters were reduced to burning their father's books from his library in a little iron stove. In an attempt to retain some body heat at night, Olga and Ada even built a tent out of a Persian carpet over a mattress on the bedroom floor to keep them warm.
Olga and Ada soon found more and more strangers billeted on them by the local Soviet housing committee. They often had four or five people to a room. The house was also used as a billet for soldiers and the sisters seem to have narrowly escaped rape at the hands of two sailors. "Every day, my sister Ada and I", wrote Olga later, "were prepared for the worst."
In 1920, after the collapse of Admiral Kolchak's White Army, the Knipper parents returned to Moscow with Olga's little daughter, who no longer recognised her mother. She refused to allow Olga to kiss her or to hold her hand because she did not consider her to be her "real mother". It was also the last time that Olga ever saw her father.
She was thinking of leaving Russia, at least for a time. In the "hunger years", survival itself had been degrading. Olga wanted to try her luck in Berlin. In 1920 the twenty-two year-old Olga left her daughter with her mother and set out from Moscow's Belorussky station. She looked like a young peasant woman. Her head was wrapped in a large headscarf, and she wore valenki felt boots and a bulky overcoat. Her few belongings were stowed in a bag made out of an old piece of carpet Concealing her most valuable item, a diamond ring to turn into cash in Berlin, under her tongue, she pretended to be semi-mute. She knew she would have been arrested if the ring had been found at one of the many control points. The export of jewellery was strictly forbidden, in order to prevent "former people" taking anything of value out of the Soviet Republic where all such items were now forfeit to the State.
Once in Berlin, Olga, through a stroke of luck, met Erich Pommer, the German movie mogul, and the director Friedrich Murnau, who needed a leading lady for his new silent film, Schloss Vogelöd. Shamelessly exploiting the Chekhov name, Olga even claimed to have been a member of the Moscow Art Theatre and that Konstantin Stanislavsky himself had trained her. This was a complete invention. Olga, who hardly spoke any German, had to work from a script in Russian. She admitted later that she had little idea of what was happening. But the film became a great success, and she was hailed as a star.
Olga seized the opportunity. She learned German and worked tirelessly at the Babelsberg studios. She was soon making up to eight movies a year. But she avoided emotional entanglements. Her experiences with Misha had convinced her that she did not want to depend on a man ever again.
In the intervening years, her brother Lev had become an avant-garde composer. He had returned to Russia after fighting as a White Guard officer in the civil war against the Bolsheviks. To save himself from prison camp or even execution, Lev was forced to work for Soviet intelligence, and was sent to Berlin to spy on emigres. There he recruited Olga as a "sleeper". Her reward was to take the form of four exit visas: for her mother, Baba, for her own young daughter, and for her sister Ada and her little girl Marina. So part of the family established itself in Berlin, housed and paid for entirely by Olga, who had been so patronised as a girl. This matriarchy, with Olga as bread-winner, their mother as the controller of the house, and Ada as book-keeper worked most effectively.
Perhaps the most satisfying touch for Olga came when Misha Chekhov turned up in Berlin with his second wife. They were refugees, because Misha, the idealist, could not stomach the new Stalinist dictates of socialist realism.
Olga found an apartment for them close by so that Misha could see their daughter frequently. She also obtained a part for him in the film, Troika, in which she was the star, and she directed him in another, suitably called The Fool of Love. Misha would later take Stanislavsky's system to Hollywood, where it became known as method acting.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of all their stories is that Olga, her brother Lev and Misha all managed to survive the most dangerous and murderous era of history. For Olga, like most Russian women, the determination to survive was neither political nor purely selfish. She simply knew that she needed to find the necessary strength to preserve her family.
Antony Beevor is the author of Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin 1945. The
Mystery of Olga Chekhova is published this week by Viking Penguin at £16.99.
A Player on History's Stage
By Andrew Meier
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page C11
THE MYSTERY OF OLGA CHEKHOVA
Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Russian Spy?
By Antony Beevor
Viking. 300 pp. $24.95
The British historian Antony Beevor, author of the best-selling "The Spanish Civil War," "The Fall of Berlin 1945" and "Stalingrad," has peerlessly mined the wars of the 20th century to become a bankable star, in the league of John le Carre. Now he has ventured into le Carre's turf of espionage but with a historian's pen. Beevor has trudged back to the prewar days of Soviet intelligence to bring us the story of Olga Chekhova, Hitler's favorite actress and the beguiling niece of Anton Chekhov.
"The Mystery of Olga Chekhova" is ostensibly the life story of one woman's secret service to the Soviet state, but it is not a biography. Chekhova's life, told solely in its implausible zigzags, may have been more aptly served up in a Vanity Fair profile. With only "a smuggled diamond ring," she escaped Bolshevik Moscow, re-created herself as an actress in Weimar Berlin and gained fame in the margins of the Nazi elite before suffering through -- or perhaps enjoying, a question about which Beevor lets us wonder -- brief but telling encounters with the chief henchmen of Stalin's secret police, the NKVD. To his credit, and the book's favor, Beevor lays bare the limits of Chekhova's consequence. By his tale's end, shorn of myth, his protagonist is revealed to be an opportunistic actress, a flagrant embellisher and a spy of dubious accomplishment. Beevor, however, adroitly elevates his material, setting an ungainly life against the most spectacular turns of Europe's past century. The result is a gem, a small tale spun large, a familial epic freighted with historical drama.
From the start, there is more here than meets the eye. Beevor reveals little interest in Chekhova's film oeuvre but is careful to note that she falsely claimed to have studied under Stanislavsky at the famed Moscow Arts Theater -- the house Chekhov built and the beloved stage of his wife, Olga Knipper-Chekhova. Chekhova, Beevor writes, ascended in large part on her uncle's name.
The book opens with a cast list of dramatis personae enumerating no fewer than 17 members of the two Chekhov and Knipper clans. But the sufferings of Chekhov's widow, who survived him by 55 years, form one of the narrative's richer threads. Rarely does the text marry the family and national histories so well as when this grand dame of Moscow theater appears. Consider a passage by Knipper-Chekhova exposing the sad ironies of the early Bolshevik regime: " 'I was playing patience late into the night, looking up from time to time at the row of brightly lit confiscated mansions on the opposite side of the bulvar and the reflection of brightly lit windows in the liquid mud. It was rather like being in Venice.' The young commissars had wasted little time in expropriating the grand houses of those they had dispossessed in a show of high moral outrage."
Or, on the Nazi bombing of Moscow, hear how the playwright's widow, then 72, "lectured newcomers on how to deal with incendiary bombs: 'One has to take it by the fins,' she told them, 'and throw it out of the window into the sand [piled outside]. It is very simple.' " One wishes that Knipper-Chekhova could own center stage and not be forced, in successive cameos, to steal it.
At the heart of Beevor's tale, however, is the question of Olga Chekhova's espionage. He rightly discounts her own memoirs to offer piquant scenes -- a Nazi reception here, an NKVD rendezvous there -- placing Chekhova in the company of the reigning rogues of the day. He tells of the gift basket the Fuehrer sent her on the last Christmas before he turned against Stalin, and how in July 1941, weeks after the Nazi invasion, Magda Goebbels rang her "to invite her to a Sunday lunch." ("The charming Olga," Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels called Chekhova in his diaries.)
By then, Chekhova was likely already working for Moscow. Beevor draws out Chekhova's links to Stalin's secret policemen, admirably sifting the plausible and probable from the known. Beevor rightly highlights the telling moments in a confounding life history. One came in Berlin in November 1940, when Olga met a top NKVD boss, Vsevolod Merkulov, at a Soviet embassy dinner. Hitler was absent, but feasting in the marble hall on "silver confiscated after the revolution," the Russian-born actress of German ancestry sat amid German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. And "at some stage," writes Beevor, "Olga Chekhova was drawn aside . . . to be introduced to Merkulov," a rising star who had already helped oversee the mass murder of Polish officers in the Katyn woods. But even though Beevor makes superb use of memoirs, interviews and documents, without the NKVD files, he admits he cannot gauge what good this well-placed source did for Stalin. He does suggest, however, that "she certainly appeared to be in a good position to assist the two main priorities for Soviet intelligence" -- Stalin's hunger to learn "Hitler's source of strength" and to identify "influential people in Germany who opposed the idea of an attack on the Soviet Union."
Still, time and again, Beevor tamps down expectations. At one point he calls Chekhova "just a 'sleeper.' " At another, he derides the British paper that splashed a headline after the war, attacking her as "The Spy Who Vamped Hitler." He may, however, overdo it on the historical impartiality. There is no need here to hedge; the question mark that anchors his subtitle -- "Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Soviet Spy?" -- seems more like marketing bait than a bow to decorum. Beevor concedes that the record is incomplete, but there can be no question that Chekhova served, in some fashion, Soviet intelligence. One telling fact is that although Moscow meticulously persecuted Soviets of German descent, "no member of the Knipper family was touched." Indicative, too, of a cozy NKVD relationship was Olga's sudden return, after 25 years, to Moscow at the war's end. Even more revealing was the gift she received after her brief stay: a mansion, under NKVD protection, in the Berlin district of Friedrichshagen.
The ballast that lends Olga's story both gravity and expectancy is Beevor's military history. His Nazis do not just slog on Napoleon's footsteps to Moscow; they advance gravely, with suspense and precision. So fine is his historical drama that at times it threatens to overshadow his heroine's life. The result: What little we know of Olga is in danger of seeming like even less.
Part of the trouble is the residual Soviet cult of official secrecy. Beevor resorts to safe ground in deciding whether she had been an "adventuress," as Chekhov's widow believed, or a dedicated Soviet agent: "As is so often the case, neither alternative tells the whole truth. Olga Chekhova had accepted the invitations to Nazi receptions, partly to safeguard her career and partly out of curiosity. She was neither a Nazi nor a Communist." He concludes simply that she "had been a determined survivor, prepared to make whatever compromises were necessary."
In the end, "The Mystery of Olga Chekhova" is not even a spy story, but a tale, like the best stories from the Soviet century, of struggle and survival. Therein lies Beevor's achievement. This book depicts the hardships, and hard choices, all Russians faced under Stalin. As such, he has offered a small gem, far more compelling and lasting than the saga of a sad actress caught between two totalitarian states -- a miniature of a century of turmoil and tragedy.
Sunday, September 12, 2004
Siblings torn between tyrannies
Reviewed by Dana Kletter
The Mystery of Olga Chekhova
By Antony Beevor
VIKING; 300 PAGES; $24.95
"The Mystery of Olga Chekhova," the latest from British military historian Antony Beevor, is not quite the book of intrigue its title intimates. It is, in fact, much better than that: both the chronicles of a family's fortunes across three decades of war and revolution, and the story of war and revolution in the context of a family's narrative. Anton Chekhov's extended clan manages to survive the two most murderous regimes in modern history despite or perhaps because they are neither heroic nor noble. They lie, murder, betray and collaborate, and their story is all the more thrilling for it.
In 1901 the actress Olga Leonardovna Knipper (Olya) married Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, as he was rapidly losing ground to the consumption that would kill him three years later. The Knippers were good German bourgeoisie, musical and artistic but stuffy. The Chekhovs were wildly eccentric and one generation removed from serfdom. The aligned families proceeded to intermarry, producing the book's most compelling triangle, Aunt Olya Chekhov (widow of Anton) and her niece and nephew, the siblings Olga (a Chekhov by marriage) and Lev Knipper.
Lev, a composer and musician, was a favorite of his Aunt Olya's, a surrogate son, the child she and Chekhov never had. Olga was living with her Aunt Olya when she met the man who would make her a Chekhov, her cousin by marriage Misha. She fell completely in love and eloped with the charismatic actor, alcoholic and serial seducer of women, who reputedly won her in a coin toss with another cousin. In her ability to weather their disastrous union, Beevor finds the source of Olga's talent for survival.
Across revolution, civil war and world war, Beevor traces the movements of the Chekhov-Knippers as they traversed continents, oceans and loyalties. After the Revolution, Olga was abandoned by her husband and reduced to poverty. She set off for Germany disguised as a peasant woman. Lev joined the anti- Bolshevik "White" army to fight in a civil war that resulted in 8 million dead. He was soon forced to retreat, with his regiment, to the Gallipoli Peninsula. Aunt Olya, trapped with the rest of the traveling company of the Moscow Art Theater, directly in the path of the war, fled to the Balkans. The Chekhov- Knippers remain at all times in harm's way, at all times in the direst of circumstances.
The Guardian has credited Beevor with "single-handedly transforming the reputation of military history." His other works, "Stalingrad," "Berlin: The Downfall 1945" and "The Spanish Civil War," succeeded in making huge events of great military complexity interesting and decipherable to civilians. The story of the Chekhov-Knippers is practically whimsical in comparison, but seems to require an understanding of strategic troop movements to recount, so often do the characters decamp, retreat and advance. In turn, battles are marked not only by where they were fought but also by the proximity of each family member to them and how they were affected. Beevor is obviously in love with this tale and has fun telling it. This allows him to leaven what could be, and should be, mired in tragedy.
Lev and Olga eventually become allied with two opposing totalitarian states. Olga's success as a film star carried her through the rise of the Third Reich, and she was greatly admired by Hitler and a frequent visitor at the Goebbels' country home. Lev switched allegiances and became a devoted Bolshevik, mastering the jargon and composing songs for the Red Army. Aunt Olya kept the memory of Anton Pavlovich alive by writing positively Chekhovian letters to her sister-in-law Masha about her longing for Moscow and the price of butter in the Crimea.
It is Lev Knipper who emerges as the spy of the family. He was recruited by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB), and, using his musical career as a cover, traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East on training assignments. Eventually he was charged with slipping into Germany and assassinating Hitler, presuming he could obtain the help of his sister Olga.
Whether Olga aided Lev with his mission remains unknown; an opportunity never presented itself, and he went back to Moscow. Olga lived through the defeat of Germany, founded a cosmetics company and wrote a tell-all memoir that Beevor regularly assaults throughout the book. So, was Olga Chekhova a spy? In "The Seagull" Chekhov wrote, "Life must be represented not as it is, but as it ought to be; as it appears in dreams." If the book has a weakness, it is its effort to make Olga's story sexier by assuming there was any complexity to her allegiances. Beevor is never fully convincing that she is more than just another Aryan "It" girl -- Leni Riefenstahl without the camera, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf without the voice -- who is, by her actions and associations, complicit with the Nazis' monstrous regime. The real great mystery is how Olga Chekhova survived at all.
Dana Kletter is a Massachusetts writer.
Saturday, Oct. 9, 2004
What Olga knew
By GERRY HOPSON
The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Russian Spy?
By Antony Beevor
Viking, 300 pages, $36
Like most arts, literature is to some extent a scavenger, and will turn up savoury bits from even the most catastrophic miscarriages of the human enterprise. A time of failed or failing states and insurrectionary chaos, for example, is particularly favourable to the survivor story (memoir, roman à clef, popular biography). If there is something shameless about the reader's need to know just how bad it was, how desperate the suffering, the simple fact of bearing witness can carry a life-affirming afterburn through even the most harrowing chronicle. And, of course, long after their actors have shuffled offstage, certain eras of historical cataclysm continue to be mined for their veins of passion, betrayal and improbable if not always heroic triumph. The French Revolution was a favourite in the 19th century. Our own time has yet to slake its fascination with the deep pit of the years 1914-45.
Traversing the whole of the latter period, Antony Beevor's The Mystery of Olga Chekhova falls toward the chatty end of the spectrum that links testimony to gossip. But very good gossip it is. Beevor draws his cast of characters from the constellation of extended family joining the immediate relatives of playwright Anton Chekhov to a large clan of pre-revolutionary Germanic intelligentsia, the Knippers.
One strand of Beevor's complex narrative follows Chekhov's wife, Olga Knipper-Chekhova, a founder-member of the Moscow Art Theatre, through the maelstrom of revolution, civil war, terror and German invasion, to her emergence in the postwar years as a grand dame of Soviet theatre and a holder of the Order of Lenin. A parallel narrative traces the even more hair-raising career of her niece, Olga Chekhova, daughter of Knipper-Chekova's brother Konstantin, and briefly wife of Chekhov's nephew Misha, also a member of the Moscow Art Theatre.
Unlike her aunt Olya, who sticks things out with Stanislavsky's famous troupe in Moscow, the other Olga follows the path of exile during the worst years of the Russian civil war of 1918-21, ending up as a screen actress in Berlin. If the family connections wax at times a little tortuous, notably with the introduction of assorted cousins-by-marriage, nieces, nephews and grandchildren, things never get more complicated than in the average large Russian novel -- and Beevor never falters in driving his story forward.
At the bottom of this raffish and meaty family chronicle lies an intriguing subtext, which Beevor is at pains to ferret into daylight wherever possible. He wants to know the role of the Soviet security organs in a variety of this talented family's sometimes amazing feats of survival. Of special interest in this respect is the émigré cinema actress of his title.
This formidable woman rose quickly from emigrant penury to the heights of movie stardom in the twenties, working with directors as diverse as F. W. Murnau, René Clair and Max Ophuls. Struggling against typecasting as the lady of rank she so often managed to play in real life, Olga made the difficult transition to talkies and even had a crack at Hollywood, though Dietrich and Garbo had pre-empted her in the niche of sultry European temptress. As the thirties wore on, she also became a fixture in the social circle of the Third Reich's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, and was even photographed escorting the Führer himself to the theatre. In Beevor's view, this represented Nazi fascination with famous names, particularly with film stars, more than it reflected Chekhova's interest in the Nazis.
According to Beevor, the key to Olga's subsequently remarkable trajectory through the ruins of Berlin, into the hands of Soviet secret police chief Lavrenti Beria's most notorious henchmen and back into prominence in Germany, where she continued to make films into the 1970s, lies with her brother, avant-garde composer Lev Knipper.
The author of several masterful popular histories, including Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin 1945, Beevor is adept at meticulous research married to what can best be described as fruitful speculation. In this case, his trolling among former KGB operatives and their relatives produces a convincing argument that Lev was, from early in the Soviet regime, an operative with the state organs. Members of the intelligentsia, especially those connected to "names" like Chekhov, were prized by the secret police. The exact ramifications of this connection are at times murky, but may help to explain stunning instances of survival among the Chekhovs and Knippers when nearly everyone around them was being arrested or shot.
Among the piquant revelations in a tale layered with love affairs and exotic Mitteleuropean skulduggery are the desperate plots hatched by Stalin's secret service in the darkest days of the German invasion. It seems Lev Knipper was to defect to Berlin in order to "activate" his sister, the movie star, in one of several operations to assassinate Hitler. Astonishingly, it remains unclear whether Olga ever knew she was supposed to be used in this way. The several volumes of her memoirs tend, Beevor points out, to be outrageously misleading.
In fact, what Olga Chekhova knew of the machinations of the NKVD -- or of the inner workings of the Nazi hierarchy -- continues for the most part to be tantalizingly out of reach. In this sense, the mystery of Beevor's title only deepens with the telling. What remains most strongly in the reader's mind from this fascinating journey through the murderous interstices between fame and totalitarian brutality is the impression of a set of players who knew how to calculate the gravest ambiguities and make someone respond even when life itself stood quavering in the balance.
Gerry Hopson is a freelance writer, reviewer and poet who nurses an unhealthy passion for the Soviet period. He lives on Galiano Island.
November 28, 2004
The erasure of Warsaw
RISING '44: The Battle for Warsaw
By Norman Davies
Pan paperback BP9.95
The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Russian Spy?
By Antony Beevor
This thickest of all paperbacks by Prof. Norman Davies, held to be the historian most romantically attached to the Polish people, was rushed out to mark the 60th anniversary of the abortive uprising against the Germans in August 1944, when the Polish underground army believed that liberation was at hand. Inspired by the liberation of Paris, the Poles, who had the biggest resistance army in Europe, believed they could hold parts of Warsaw while their leaders negotiated Stalin's assistance.
The battle raged for 63 days while the Russian armies stood fast on the east bank of the Vistula. Some 200,000 Poles lost their lives and Warsaw was razed. The Russians crossed the Vistula only on January 17, 1945.
But Rising '44 is also an account of Poland's tragic history between the two world wars and what happened when the country was divided between the Third Reich and Soviet Russia. It also offers a brief account of the heroic stand of the last Jews in Warsaw's ghetto two years earlier and mentions Jewish survivors who fell fighting the Germans in the city's second uprising.
A wry curiosity is a Russian document dating from 1945, pointing out the high percentage of Jewish communist survivors in municipal and government executive posts, evidently a source of deep concern to the Russians.
Caught for centuries between two mighty powers and savaged by a third (Austria), Poland was always a bone in the throat of the Prussians and the Russians, who had long tried to dismember the country. Stalin was only too glad to let Warsaw bleed to death before he dealt with the Wehrmacht.
However, the story of the unfolding of the tragedy of the rising was not all black and white, as Davies shows. And he tries to be fair by showing that the western allies were not in a position to do very much to save the capital of the country on whose behalf they had declared war on Germany.
Davies's blow by blow account is, however, marred by several idiosyncratic gaffes. The recollections and accounts of events by individuals are printed in different type and awkwardly sandwiched into the narrative, constantly diverting the reader's attention. Further, Davies, a Polish-speaker who believes that Westerners cannot read Polish names, identifies hundreds of Polish protagonists only by their nicknames or initials, with a key to them all in an index. A silly idea, which just makes everything so much more difficult for the reader.
IF THERE is a real mystery about the survival of Thirties film star Olga Knipper Chekhova at the hands of the NKVD, author Antony Beevor fails to solve it. But in The Mystery of Olga Chekhova he does unveil a fascinating account of the survival of the family Knipper.
Olga was the beautiful niece of the great Anton Chekhov, who had married into the Knippers, a talented family of Russian actors without a drop of Russian blood in their veins.
The ethnic German Knippers all spoke fluent German; and all but Olga remained in Russia. But Olga made a long career in Germany as a highly successful stage and screen actress and was much admired by Hitler. A photo of her and Hitler seated side by side in a theater, reproduced on the cover of this book, suggests a social relationship that Beevor claims never existed, but the powerful image of the beautiful lady and the rapt dictator likely had a profound effect on both Nazi and Red officials and helped secure her survival; that and the magic of her name. That she was a spy for the Russians seems doubtful.
Oddly enough, there is much more about her multi-talented family in this account than there is about Olga herself. One of her brilliant brothers was a White Guard who became a super-Red patriot and fighter; and later a Red propagandist. In essence, this book is about survival in Germany and Russia between the Twenties and Fifties. A fascinating and informative read.
Saturday, Nov. 27, 2004
The Globe 100
Of all the year's writings, few meet the test. Here are the books our reviewers
Compiled by MARTIN LEVIN and H. J. KIRCHHOFF
Saturday, November 27, 2004 - Page D3
Reviewed by Peter Steele
The Mystery of Olga Chekhova:
Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Russian Spy?
By Antony Beevor
Viking, 300 pages, $36
Olga Chekhova, niece of the Russian playwright, fled to Germany during the revolutionary period, and became a film actor in Berlin. She also became Hitler's favourite film star, and appeared with him frequently at public functions. Beevor's thesis is that her brother, composer Lev Knipper, was a Soviet spy, and that she could have been one as well; in fact, that various Soviet intelligence agencies took an active interest in Anton Chekhov's many relatives. A "raffish and meaty family chronicle . . . piquant revelations in a tale layered with love affairs and exotic Mitteleuropean skullduggery."
Antony Beevor: The History Man
Antony Beevor's books have sold in huge numbers, recalling the popular success of a select band of historians down the ages. As he brings out his latest work, Boyd Tonkin asks him about the value of history - and those who write about it
04 May 2004
Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley have walk-on parts. Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Goebbels play decisive minor roles. Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler hover in the wings, taking a close personal interest. And, at the centre of the plot, the relatives of playwright Anton Chekhov enact an extraordinary drama of exile and espionage, celebrity and concealment, against the corpse-strewn, war-torn backdrop of the two most vicious dictatorships in human history.
"At times, I got the feeling I was writing a novel rather than a work of history or documentary biography," Antony Beevor says about his new book, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova. "If one did write it as a novel, people might find it far-fetched."
So the best-selling historian and former officer in the 11th Hussars was not surprised that the presenter Andrew Marr, before recording yesterday's Start the Week for Radio 4, asked him for an assurance that he had not fallen for a spoof similar to the one the novelist William Boyd engineered when he invented a well-connected artist called Nat Tate.
With its tall tales of survival rather than slaughter, Beevor's new book offers a little respite for the armies of readers who have come to see him as a sort of literary Angel of Death. The early military histories by this former tank commander, who wrote four far-from-successful novels after leaving the Army, had won the experts' applause but made few waves beyond a specialist audience.
Then Stalingrad, in 1998, single-handedly revived the genre of popular battlefield history, with its moving and dramatic portrayals of individuals caught in the worst place, at the worst time, in history. Two years ago, Berlin: the Downfall 1945 confirmed Beevor's matchless ability to tell the gripping human story within the wide and bloody sweep of modern mechanised warfare. Indeed, his singular ability to make huge historical events accessible to a general audience recalls the golden age of British narrative history, whose giants include Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle. In his histories, the novelist's focus combines explosively with the strategist's vision.
And Andrew Marr was reassured: the improbable Olga Chekhova - actress, Nazi film star, Soviet agent and survivor of Lenin's Russia and Hitler's Germany - did exist. Born into the "prodigal and disordered" Bohemian circles of late-tsarist Russia in 1897, she died a grande dame of the German screen in 1980.
A lifelong chameleon, Olga became a woman who "could change her face at will for each part", in the studio and outside it. "In those terrible, turbulent times, she had managed to put a roof over her family's head and feed them," says Beevor, who has painted wartime trauma on an epic rather than domestic canvas in Stalingrad and Berlin: The downfall 1945. "It was very much the Russian notion of family, and the protection of the family."
For Beevor, the appeal lay "not so much in the spy story; was she or wasn't she?" The most convincing answer would run: "Yes, she was an agent, but not remotely as significant as her awestruck Soviet debriefers believed in 1945.
"For me, the interest of the whole story is much more this family saga. With the Chekhovs split between their German side - the Knippers - and their chaotic Russian side, I felt it was a wonderfully illustrative picture of that dangerous fascination between Germany and Russia."
Olga was related twice over to the great playwright. The teenage niece of his actress wife Olga Knipper, who came from a German family long settled in Moscow, in 1914 she briefly (and disastrously) briefly married Anton's nephew, her cousin Misha. The hard-drinking, self-pitying but fitfully brilliant star of the Moscow Art Theatre, Misha wound up in Beverly Hills. There he gave lessons in the legendary "method" of his mentor (and Olga Knipper's), Konstantin Stanislavsky, to the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Gregory Peck.
Beevor came across Olga and her family's stranger-than-fiction trajectory when his Russian research assistant, Lyuba Vinogradova, reported back from a speculative trip to the Chekhov Museum outside Moscow. The Chekhov papers there included the records of Olga's interrogation in 1945 by Smersh (Soviet military intelligence), released to her cousin Vova in 1990 at the height of glasnost.
A more crucial debriefing, by Lavrenti Beria's NKVD agency, remains firmly locked in the former KGB's Lubyanka archives. But from the family papers, other archives, and interviews, Beevor pieced together the amazing tale. Olga Chekhova had managed to flee the mayhem of the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, as did her equally protean brother Lev, a composer, mountaineer and more assiduous spy, and very much the co-star of the book.
After a string of hair-raising adventures, Olga settled in Berlin with her mother, daughter and sister. She broke into the movies as the Ufa studios boomed during the Weimar Republic, first as a siren of the silent screen, then a maturely glamorous icon of German talkies.
Olga appeared in René Clair's An Italian Straw Hat and in an early Hitchcock movie, Mary. She starred in the first film of Moulin Rouge (in 1928); in Max Ophuls' Liebelei; and in Willi Forst's Bel Ami, on the eve of war in 1939. Her filmography runs from 1917 to 1974. Beevor's wonderful selection of stills reveal striking, handsome but oddly hard-to-define features, marked by her "chameleon mobility".
He says: "She was a real professional. She obviously had a presence. And she was a hell of a woman". In her mid-forties, she attracted fighter-pilot lovers nearly 20 years her junior. And, like every other German star during the Third Reich, Olga had either to accept or resist the attentions of the goatish propaganda minister, Goebbels. She charmed him, but resisted. Another photo shows a regal Olga enduring the starstruck-gaze of a small, nervous, smitten fan in a white dress uniform. The adoring fan is Adolf Hitler.
Approved screen idols such as Olga, says Beevor, "gave an air of respectability and sophistication to a regime that was basically a red-necked, clod-hopping, provincial organisation". Olga became a "state artist" of the Reich in 1936. At that time she had probably acted for several years as an informant and "sleeper" agent for Soviet intelligence.
Here the hypotheticals kick in, because much of the "mystery" remains in those Lubyanka archives. Her brother Lev, who would have recruited her, had joined soon after the civil war. As a former anti-Soviet White Russian officer, he had little choice but to co-operate. Besides, as a composer, he craved the agent's privilege of international travel and communication.
"For him it seemed to be an easy little quid pro quo," Beevor says. "He didn't realise, I think, to what extent he was selling his soul." Back in the Soviet Union, Lev went in for serious betrayal. In Berlin, Olga swanned around Nazi high society (though seldom close to the Führer) as a potential Soviet asset, ready for a call to action that never quite arrived.
Most dramatically, an aborted plot in 1943 aimed to stage Lev's fake "defection", then use Olga's prestige to get her brother near enough to Hitler to assassinate him. Was this ever a serious proposal? "It was serious at the time," Beevor says. But "they were hatching lots of these sorts of plans. This was Soviet desperation: When you are prepared to sacrifice operatives right, left and centre on the off-chance that one torpedo will hit the target".
As the war ended amid the blood and fire of spring 1945, Olga was whisked back to Moscow for interrogation by Smersh and by the NKVD (soon to become the KGB). Afterwards, she returned to a luxurious villa with armed guards - and her latest twentysomething boyfriend - in the Berlin suburbs.
"You think this is someone who must have come up with some really important material to be treated like a princess by Smersh, when White Russians were being shot out of hand in Berlin," Beevor says. Yet Olga no doubt exaggerated her spying role like the fine old trouper that she was; and, by and large, Stalin's henchmen applauded her consummate performance.
Soon, the myth-making began. In October 1945, Olga featured in a rumour-stuffed article in The People as "the spy who vamped Hitler". She published two volumes of memoirs, in 1952 and 1973. Beevor dismisses them as "heavily romanticised", "exasperatingly disingenuous" and full of "compulsive embroidery".
He discounts the wilder Russian tales, one that Olga had passed to the Soviets details of German formations before the great tank battle of Kursk in 1943. "That's a load of old codswallop. Because by then the Russians were getting all the Ultra intercepts via [their British informant John] Cairncross. They knew perfectly well what was happening, and they didn't need an actress in Berlin".
In fact, the spying game serves as a sideshow in Beevor's book. For the most part, it focuses on the tender-but-tough Chekhov clan and their staggering powers of endurance and survival. We experience a melodramatic soap-opera set in two circles of hell: Stalin's and Hitler's. "Torn between two totalitarian regimes, there was only one loyalty," Beevor says. "That was to yourself and your family."
As in the Stalingrad and Berlin books, though in a less deeply tragic key, Beevor's new work brings home to younger readers what he calls "the fate of the individual within the mass" during Europe's age of tyranny, genocide and total war.
His earlier military histories - on the fall of Crete, the Spanish Civil War, and a survey of the British Army in which he had served at the height of the Cold War - had sold solidly, to buffs more than to general readers.
Then, as he began research for Stalingrad, came the 50th anniversary of the end of Second World War in 1995. "There was a huge number of books on the subject; all remaindered," he says. "One felt all interest had disappeared. That was why there was such genuine astonishment on my part, and my publisher's part, when Stalingrad took off the way it did."
His explanation? "There's always a question of self-judgement." Stalingrad, thought likely to sell around 5,000 copies, rapidly sold 500,000 and uncovered a vast untapped market for the history of modern warfare written to a human scale. He believes readers today want to ask: "How would I have performed? Would I have executed prisoners? Would I have shot civilians? There is also an element of vicarious suffering."
Beevor says: "People do want to understand what it is like to be there at the time, because it is actually beyond their imagination. And I do not think that either the education system nor - in many cases - television and cinema have helped in that way." Most filmed drama, he thinks, does "a major disservice to history" with its stock repertoire of legend and cliché. Add to those screen delusions the weakness of history teaching in schools, and "nobody has any idea how one period relates to another" these days.
Beevor even suggests that Hollywood has unwittingly followed in the misleading footsteps of the Third Reich. "It is, in a way, what Hitler managed to achieve, by putting image before fact; by making image trump fact." Olga Chekhova, to preserve herself and her beleaguered family, made image trump fact through a long, elusive life. In her fifties, aptly enough, the well-protected star gave her name to a cosmetics firm in Germany.
Her Soviet admirers, reports Beevor, presented this outfit as "a perfect cover for contacts with wives of Nato officers". He thinks this "a prime example of Soviet intelligence trying to glamorise itself retrospectively. The truth is that we don't know either way".
Yet for every unsolved riddle in Olga's career, Beevor unearths a solid chunk of equally outrageous reality. In the late 1950s, a US Army recruit in Germany came calling on a young Munich actress, who had caught his eye. The actress was 19-year-old Vera Chekhova, staying with her grandmother, the unsinkable Olga. And the famous GI whom Olga welcomed to her house was Elvis Presley. Still a magnet, still a mystery, she had come through a deadly era of suspicious minds.
The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, Viking, £16.99
BEEVOR'S CHRONICLES OF WAR
The Spanish Civil War (1983)
A pioneering work in its breadth, clarity and balance. Showing a command of sources from all sides, Beevor's meticulous study dispels the fogs of myth and ideology that often surround the conflict.
Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (1991)
Tragedy, confusion and farce combine in this account of one of the strangest of battle theatres. After it fell to the Germans, the island became the stage for a romantic resistance struggle with a cast of prime British eccentrics.
Paris after the Liberation 1944-1949 (1994)
Co-written with his wife Artemis Cooper, this panorama of Paris as occupation gave way to heady freedom shows how Picasso and Dior, Sartre and de Gaulle, all helped to put their stamp on postwar French culture.
The book created a huge market for military history. Beevor's harrowing narrative of the bloody siege focuses on the soldiers and civilians in an epic turning point of the war.
b>Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (2002)
Again Beevor picks out the personal stories - of conquest and survival, of defeat and bereavement - against the terrifying background of Hitler's last stand and the Red Army's attack. The unsparing details of mass rape by Soviet troops prompted official Russian protests.
Edward Gibbon (1737-94)
Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), in which he vividly portrayed 1,300 years of history from original sources, using irony to convey what he really felt about the intolerance of early Christianity.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
Scottish essayist, translator, social critic and historian, who found popular fame with his three-volume history of The French Revolution, published in 1837. Carlyle believed, above all, in heroes, and wrote a giant biography of Frederick the Great of Prussia.
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59)
Lord Macaulay is now thought of as the chief proponent of the Whig interpretation of history, making moral judgements on a nation's progress. The judgements were very favourable in his five-volume History of England, which was a massive Victorian bestseller.
Sir Lewis Namier (1888 - 1960)
Born in Poland but educated at the LSE and Oxford, Sir Lewis began a revolution by suggesting, through his study of 18th-century parliaments, that personal ambitions and allegiances were much more important in political history than ideas themselves. An active Zionist.
Sir Steven Runciman (1903-2000)
Socialite, gossip and wit, and also the great historian of Byzantium - the Eastern Roman Empire - Sir Steven continued something like Gibbon's great sweeping narrative tradition, especially with his three-volume History of the Crusades, which was published between 1951 and 1954.
AJP Taylor (1906 - 2000)
The first "TV historian", Taylor won a wide audience with his television lectures - delivered to camera from a bare studio - in the Sixties and Seventies. Combative, a gadfly, usually anti every establishment, he was denied a professorship by Oxford.
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