The Mystery of Olga Chekhova

 by Antony Beevor

Penguin Books 2004

ISBN: 0 14 30 3596 (pb)

ISBN: 0-670-03340-5 (hc)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

No century in history has captured historians and scholars quite like the twentieth century with its political upheavals, bloodshed, revolutions, social dislocation and technological advancement brought on by world wars. The brutal and bloody totalitarian advances that swept Europe – of Hitler’s Reichstag and Stalin’s Soviet Union – along with Mao’s China in Asia, continue to mesmorise researchers.

Much awarded historian Antony Beevor has made a career out of such work. Producing volumes such as The Fall of Berlin 1945, Stalingrad and Paris After Liberation: 1944-1949 (with wife Artemis Cooper), Beevor trawled military and political files across Europe over decades. Work on those files no doubt gave Beevor much more than he could use in any military tome of great battles or events.

In The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, it is Beevor’s achievement to make use of riches left on the cutting room floor, so to speak, to weave into an engrossing tapestry the panorama of a remarkable family – the extended family of Russian writer Anton Chekhov and his wife Olga Knipper (“Aunt Olya” to distinguish her from her niece Olga Knipper Chekhova), who was of German descent.

This book is much more than its title – although, by the end, a reader can rightly feel that “mystery” is the operative word in the case of Olga Chekhova (born 1897) and her brother Lev Knipper (born 1898). Were they double agents? Was Olga a Slav Mata Hari who survived her two-way trade? Or were they simply fellow travellers able to switch sides as the tides moved, protected by their fame as artists and connection to Russia’s great playwright?

Whatever the answer, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, meticulously researched and absorbingly told, retains an amount of guesswork as to the whole story. Files can only reveal what’s left of the traces. As Beevor concludes: “Olga Chekhova was part of that ancient fascination between Russia and Germany, a dangerous borderland of shifting frontiers.”

It is an irony that the actress heroine of The Mystery of Olga Chekhova is the niece of Anton Chekhov who once described actresses as “cows who fancy they are goddesses”. Whether Olga ever thought herself a goddess is doubtful, but she did exhibit a unique talent for making the best of her circumstances which at times were dire. Moreover, she certainly mastered acting for film and stage, albeit with no formal training, as she sought safety and a livelihood in Berlin during the Russian civil war.

Russia had become a dysfunctional state as Red and White armies fought it out across the regions in the wake of the execution of the Tzar and his family. In Moscow, gangs of Bolsheviks dispossessed the bourgeoisie or any denounced as such; People’s Courts condemned to death class enemies for as little as not having calloused hands, houses were taken over for multifamily billeting, girls brought up as middle-class ladies were forced into prostitution while others stood against walls in the last of their clothes trying to sell what meagre possessions they had.

Malnourishment, hunger and eventually famine gripped all but the ruling elite. In the winter of 1917-18, Olga’s baby daughter was saved with milk from a cow owned by Olga’s friend, singer Feodor Chaliapin. Meanwhile, the commissars in black leather jackets and caps dominated the terror. As Beevor writes: “Privilege had not been abolished. A new form had appeared.”

In late 1920, using her connections to get an exit visa from Russia, Olga dressed as a peasant woman and, taking her chances, travelled to Berlin. She left behind her unfaithful actor ex-husband Misha Chekhov (a nephew of Chekhov) and a baby daughter. She spoke little German and took menial work at first, even carving and selling chess pieces to make a living.

But her Chekhov name soon gained her introductions to significant emigre Russians in Berlin and before long she had a foot in the door of the fledgling movie industry, fudging her past by claiming she had been a member of the Moscow Art Theatre. While Aunt Olya and Olga’s ex-husband Misha were accomplished members of the Moscow Art Theatre, Olga had never been part of it.

For all that, Olga was a natural in front of the camera and in a couple of years went on to acclaimed stage performances. She became a celebrated actress of stage and film over the next quarter of a century. A star in today’s terms. In Berlin, Olga Chekhova was feted by the Nazi leadership after their takeover of Germany in 1933. In 1935, she was made “Actress of the State”. Her aunt, Olya Chekhov, had been appointed People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1928. This was a family whose fortunes lay in the hands of dictators left and right.

Even at a time of gross social dislocation and war, Beever argues, being an acclaimed actress had its advantages. Totalitarian leaders in Moscow and Berlin were infatuated with the arts. Hitler and Goebbels were obsessed with the cinema seeing it as a modern weapon of propaganda. When the Moscow Art Theatre group, led by the actor Vasily Kachalov, found it safe to return to Moscow in 1922 they were welcomed by Lenin who exclaimed, “At last!” He loved the plays of Chekhov and the old Russian theatre. Stalin attended Mikhail Bulgakov’s Days of The Turbins and saw it fifteen times even though the cultural commissars had condemned Bulgarkov as a reactionary.

Beevor, with his intimate understanding of the totalitarian world the Chekhov/Knipper family found themselves in, post February 1917, integrates the political and the personal while underscoring both the repressive and super indulgent natures of those dictatorial regimes.

It is not enough to capture and dominate a whole population, propagating and enforcing simplistic nationalism and obedience to the political line. Leaders of totalitarian states also want to enjoy the best of their contemporary worlds and the status it can bring to the national reach.

Like tyrants down the ages, the elites of modern dictatorships enjoy all the available riches on tap – from personal wealth and indulgence in the best technology to the adulation they likewise can receive from popular and famous stars circling their milieu, desperate for sponsorship. The arts and global sport are used to present their courts to the world. A gulag is not going to impress international rivals or colleagues.

Being feted by the public and party, however, was no guarantee of long lasting safety. Murderous regimes can make a favourite an outcast in moments. Stalin and his henchmen perfected this, using commanders of the secret service against each other. Stalin used Olga’s close contact Viktor Abakumov, head of the Soviet intelligence agency SMERSH, against secret security chief Lavrentiy Beria, only to later use Beria to purge and destroy Abakumov. Beria in turn was purged by Krushchev soon after Stalin’s death.

Most of the extended Knipper/Chekhov family around Aunt Olya, Olga and her brother Lev survived and eventually prospered. Most of them escaped death or labour camps during the years of  post-revolutionary Russia, Stalin’s Soviet terror of the 1930s (when, as Beevor records, 19 million were arrested and 7 million died and the executioners visited their barbers with blood on their clothes), Nazi Germany and the Soviet takeover of eastern Europe. It is possibly one of the most extraordinary family stories of survival from that half century.

The stories are complex and complicated but, overall, Beevor demonstrates that this was largely due to the influence gained through the success and fame of Olga Chekhova in Nazi Germany and the ingratiating collaboration of her composer brother Lev Knipper with Soviet intelligence, for whom he worked, along with his second wife, NKVD agent Mariya Garikovna. A family foot in both camps. Aunt Olya’s connections in Moscow added to that. Beevor writes:

Olga Chekhova, ever since the collapse of her marriage to Misha Chekhov, had been a determined survivor, prepared to make whatever compromises were necessary.

Beevor adds that one of Olga’s failings was “her relationship with the truth”.  What small favours she might have gained by supplying information against émigré Russians one can only guess at. In her early days in Berlin and in her travels through Europe especially to Paris, it is thought that Olga was used to report on émigré Russians she knew.

At each political twist and turn of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Olga had an ability to charm and plot her fate helped by her talents and her contacts in both Moscow and Berlin. Beevor believes she was instinctively more German than Russian unlike her Aunt Olya who became homesick away from her Russian roots. Ironically, after her devotion to Nazi Germany and her German lovers, it was Olga’s Russian that helped her win over the invading Red Army in 1945 in Berlin. Her interrogation after being flown to Moscow appears to have been mostly a side show with Olga emerging from it with a state sponsored house in Berlin, equipped with all needs from money to security.

Lev, likewise, while working closely with the OGPU (a forerunner of the KGB), continued his musical compositions acutely aware that any political slip could turn his Soviet masters against him. Writes Beevor:

In 1934, he worked on his Fourth Symphony, a work that was politically irreproachable. … Whatever Lev’s work for the OGPU at this stage, it is striking how hard the former White Guard … was trying to redeem his past. It is impossible to say whether this was out of a new attempt to convince himself of the rightness of the Soviet regime or because he sensed looming Terror.

As the years went on, Lev became more involved in secret operations for much of which Beevor has no details. Lev and his wife spent time in Iran and Lev became enchanted by the Caucasus mountains whether carrying out operations or just enjoying the alpine exercise or both.

Beevor believes there was also evidence that at some stage Lev was involved in plans for a plot to assassinate Hitler, involving Olga at the Berlin end. Nothing came of it but the connection between Lev and his sister is one of the threads that Beevor offers for her survival with the Soviets after the war. Beevor also believes that Beria had plans to use Olga to report on her significant Western contacts. This was her ticket to safety as a fellow traveller.

Whichever way the political wind blew for Olga, she was going that way. Beevor maintains a light, non judgemental touch in his tale of the survival of the Chekov/Knipper collective. Yet, his frank recording – alongside this – of the many barbarous events the family lived through does leave a strange taste. It is the tale of a handful of narcissistic fellow travellers who rose amid the destruction of millions and never looked back. The question we all need to ask is – in the race for survival, how would we act?

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.