Cover image for The mystery of Olga Chekhova
Title:
The mystery of Olga Chekhova
Author:
Beevor, Antony, 1946-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
London ; New York : Viking, [2004]

©2004
Physical Description:
xvi, 300 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Language:
English
Personal Subject:
ISBN:
9780670915200

9780670033409
Format :
Book

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PN2728.T8 B44 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

This is the extraordinary tale of how one family survived the Russian Revolution, the civil war, the rise of Hitler, the Stalinist Terror and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Anton Chekhov. She left Russia for Germany and became a film star honoured by the Nazis yet secretly worked for Soviet intelligence. Some of her closest relatives joined her in Berlin; the rest remained in Moscow. Olga Chekhova left Moscow in 1920 to escape starvation and degradation. In Berlin, by making the most of her Chekhov name, she obtained a part in a silent movie. Success followed quickly and she eventually became Hitler's favourite film star. Army during the civil war. When he returned to Russia in 1921, he was forced to work for Soviet intelligence. His controllers sent him abroad to spy on Russian emigres and in Germany Lev recruited his sister as a 'sleeper'. Later, at the height of the war, plans were made for the two of them to launch a suicidal attack right at the heart of the Nazi regime. people lived under the terrible pressures of a totalitarian age. It reveals a confusion of courage, idealism, fear, self-sacrifice, opportunism and betrayal. The astonishing part of this epic tale is that both Olga and Lev survived the most murderous era known in history. What they had to do to stay alive may have left deep but hidden scars. fully to light for the first time the true story of how a beautiful Russian woman, found herself, a 'State Actress' of the Third Reich - photographed at the side of the Fuhrer at official receptions. namesake of Anton Chekhov's widow, the revered actress Olga Knipper Chekhova. After a disasterous marriage, left as a single mother on the eve of the civil war, Olga Chekhova embarked on a career as an actress. In 1921, she left Moscow to pursue work in Berlin, then the centre of the film industry. Officer, fighting the Bolsheviks. His subsequent rapid rehabilitation and integration into the elite of the communist regime, at a time when he would surely have been named 'an enemy of the people', points to his role as a valued Soviet secret agent.


Author Notes

British historian Antony Beevor was born on December 14, 1946. He was educated at Winchester College and Sandhurst and studied under the well-known World War Two historian, John Keegan. Beevor was an officer with the 11th Hussars for five years before becoming a writer.

His works have received awards including the Runciman Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History, and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature. The French government made him a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1997, and in 2008 the president of Estonia awarded him the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana. In 1999 Beevor was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He received the 2014 Pritzker Military Museum and Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. In 2015 he made The New Zealand Best Seller List with his title Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The award-winning author of Stalingrad (1998) has turned his attention to the well-known Nazi-era actress and her links with the Soviet government before, during, and after World War II. Chekhova (1897-1980) was born Olga Knipper in Russia. Her aunt, also Olga Knipper and a famous actress in the Moscow Art Theater, was married to playwright Anton Chekhov. Further intertwining the two families, the second Olga Knipper married the actor Mikhail Chekhov, Anton's nephew. In the early 1920s, Olga Chekhova, long divorced from Mikhail and with a daughter, immigrated to Germany to escape the poverty and atmosphere of the Soviet Union. She quickly established herself in the German film industry, where she made more than 100 films. There is also some evidence that by the 1930s she was a spy or at the very least a mole in place to possibly aid and abet in Hitler's assassination. Beevor crafts a good story. --Frank Caso Copyright 2004 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

Hitler admired her for her ?cosmopolitan sophistication,? but Olga Chekhova, niece of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, was far too pragmatic to lose herself to the charms of a powerful man. Drawing on numerous interviews, articles and books, Beevor (Stalingrad) concludes that the great icon of Nazi cinema never forgot where she came from and worked as a Soviet agent while reaping the rewards of stardom under the Third Reich. Chekhova, a Russian of German descent, could not help but see the benefits of serving the motherland. As an emigree in Berlin, she was already held suspect by the Soviets and hoped her spying for them would result in favorable treatment of her family in Moscow. Recruited by her brother, Lev, a Soviet composer, Chekhova became a friend and confidante to men like Goebbels, while serving Stalin by gauging Germany?s interest in war against Russia. An accomplished documentarian, Beevor has written an absorbing and expansive story, not just of an actress/spy, but of revolution and of the stark changes in Russian society that occurred between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He places Moscow and Berlin side by side and shows how the divergent trajectories of the regimes could intersect only on the battlefield. Amid the history lesson is the glowing and graceful Olga Knipper-Chekhova, a woman made wiser by a bad marriage and toughened by civil war. As Beevor illustrates, survival was perhaps her most pronounced motivation, and it guided her well, from the day in 1920 when she left the blight of Soviet Russia behind with nothing more than a diamond ring smuggled under her tongue to her death in 1980. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.


Library Journal Review

Yes, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's gorgeous niece was an actress in Germany-reputedly Hitler's favorite-but did she really spy for the NKVD? From the author of The Fall of Berlin-1945; with a five-city author tour. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

During the night of 8 May 1945, lights stayed on all over Moscow. People waited impatiently for news of the final German surrender. Only the most privileged members of the Soviet elite, such as the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, possessed a radio set which they dared to tune to foreign stations. In Stalin's Russia, victory did not bring freedom from the secret police. The announcement of the German surrender taken by Marshal Zhukov in Berlin was eventually made by Levitan, the Radio Moscow newsreader, at ten past one on the morning of Wednesday 9 May. 'Attention, this is Moscow. Germany has capitulated. . . This day, in honour of the victorious Great Patriotic War, is to be a national holiday, a festival of victory.' The Internationale was played, followed by the national anthems of the United States, Great Britain and France. The inhabitants of communal apartments did not wait for the music to finish. They surged out on to the landings in all stages of dress to congratulate each other. Those with telephones rang their relations and closest friends to share this historic moment with them. 'It's over! It's over!' they kept repeating. Many broke down in tears of relief and sorrow. With some 25 million dead as a result of the war, there was barely a family in the whole Soviet Union which had not known suffering. By four in the morning, Ehrenburg noted, 'Gorky Street was thronged: people stood about outside their buildings, or poured along the street towards Red Square.' It was, as Ehrenburg wrote, 'an extraordinary day of joy and sadness'. He saw an old woman, crying and smiling, showing a photograph of her son in uniform to passers-by and telling them that he had been killed the previous autumn. It was a festival of remembrance as much as a celebration. When bottles of vodka were passed round, the first toast was to those who had not lived to see this day, although loyal party members should have first paid tribute to Comrade Stalin, the 'great architect and genius of the victory'. Officers in uniform, above all those with medals, were cheered and sometimes bounced in the air as victors. Even Ehrenburg, the most famous propagandist of the Red Army, was recognized in the street and suffered the same honour, to his great embarrassment. Foreigners too were 'kissed, hugged and generally feted'. Around Red Square, 'foreign cars were stopped and their occupants dragged out, embraced and even tossed in the air'. Outside the American embassy, the crowds shouted their admiration for President Roosevelt, who had died just over a month before, to their genuine sorrow. Khmelev, the director of the Moscow Art Theatre, addressed a spontaneous meeting of the company in the foyer. 'What immense joy is ours today!' he said. 'We've been waiting for this so long, but now that it's come, I can't find words to express what we feel. When the radio played victory marches, I saw a woman through the brightly lit window of a house, dancing and singing to herself.' During the course of that day between 2 and 3 million people packed the centre of the capital, from the embankments of the Moskva river up to the Belorussky station. Most of them came armed with bottles of vodka or Georgian champagne, which had been hoarded religiously for this very day. Workers and their families from the suburbs had come into the centre wearing their best clothes. Muscovites who had stayed in the capital during the war were better dressed than those from elsewhere because, during the panic of October 1941, evacuees from the city had sold all the clothes they could not take with them to the thrift shops. Moscow, although it had been bombed that winter, had been truly fortunate. Comparatively few buildings had been damaged. Elsewhere, to the south and west, towns and villages lay in ruins for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. Some 25 million people were homeless. Survivors lived in dugouts--literally holes in the ground covered by trunks, branches and turf. That evening, Stalin's victory speech was broadcast and a salute of 1,000 guns was fired, the shock waves rattling the windows. Hundreds of aircraft flew overhead, releasing red, gold and purple flares. Searchlights from Moscow's anti aircraft batteries illuminated a huge red banner held up by invisible balloons. Stalin was cheered spontaneously. Many, like his protégé Ehrenburg, did not reflect until later upon the fate of all those whose lives had been wasted or who had been executed on false charges to cover up the blunders of their leader. Yet even as strangers embraced each other in the streets on that deeply emotional day, a true feeling of victory and joy somehow still seemed just beyond their reach. The only certain sensation was an exhausted, slightly numb relief. After these celebrations, members of the Moscow Art Theatre felt that they too should mark the end of the war. The Kremlin was planning a huge military parade on Red Square to commemorate the achievements of the Great Patriotic War. They, meanwhile, decided on a special performance. They simply wanted to give thanks that Russian culture had survived the terrible onslaught of the Nazis. With Anton Chekhov's flying seagull emblazoned on the curtains, the choice of author was not in doubt. The plays which he had written for the Moscow Art Theatre, giving it such international prestige, used to be known before the revolution as its 'battleships'. And the work decided upon for this occasion was Chekhov's last, The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov's widow, Olga Knipper-Chekhova, a founder member of the company, would take the part of the unworldly landowner Ranyevskaya. She had played it during the very first performance in January 1904, watched by their friends Feodor Chaliapin, Maxim Gorky and Rachmaninov. It had painful memories. Anton, her husband, had been seriously ill. In fact he was so 'deathly pale' that there had been gasps of horror when he appeared on stage to receive a tribute. Konstantin Stanislavsky, the presiding genius of the Moscow Art Theatre, remarked that this triumphant occasion 'smelled of a funeral'. Six months later the playwright was dead. In those days, Olga Knipper-Chekhova, with her small, animated eyes and firm jaw, had possessed the clean good looks of a determined, intelligent governess. But now, aged seventy-six and quite stout despite the short rations of the war, she was a living monument of the Russian theatre. She had been appointed a People's Artist of the Soviet Union as early as 1928. Yet under Stalin, this was no protection. She had spent much of the war fearing arrest at any moment by the NKVD secret police. In the spy-mania of the time, her anxieties were perfectly understandable. Both her father and mother were of German origin. Her brother had assisted Admiral Kolchak, the White commander in Siberia during the civil war. Her favourite nephew, the composer Lev Knipper, had been a White Guard officer fighting the Bolsheviks in the south of Russia. But most dangerous of all by far, her niece, Olga Chekhova, had been the leading movie star in Berlin, honoured since 1936 with the title of 'State Actress' of the Third Reich and allegedly adored by Hitler. There had even been photographs of her at Hitler's side at Nazi receptions. And her niece's former husband, Mikhail Chekhov, was in Hollywood. They were a family of émigrés at a time of Stalinist xenophobia. The elderly actress was almost the last survivor of that extraordinary group led by Stanislavsky which had started to revolutionize dramatic art in 1898. Stanislavsky, whom she described as 'a huge chapter' in her life and who had fired them all with his artistic ideals, had died in 1938. Tall and elegant, with white hair and black eyebrows, he could have been an immensely distinguished professor or diplomat when not disguised in one of the many parts in which he immersed himself. The intensity with which he engaged in a role left him exhausted after a performance. Actors entering his dressing room discovered that he relaxed by taking off all his clothes and smoking a cigar. 'Just as he could wear any kind of costume,' observed one of the cast, 'he could wear his own naked flesh genuinely, with the utmost Hellenic simplicity.' Shortly before his last illness in 1938, Stanislavsky had wanted the brilliant actor and director Vsevolod Meyerhold, a companion of the early days, to succeed him at the Moscow Art Theatre. But Meyerhold had attracted the hatred of the Soviet authorities, and Stanislavsky could do little to help from beyond the grave. Meyerhold, who had been a supporter of the Bolsheviks at the time of the revolution, had fallen foul of the Stalinist regime because his plays did not conform to the new doctrine of Socialist Realism. He attacked the sterile state of Soviet theatre in a suicidally brave speech at the All-Union Congress of Stage Directors. He was arrested in June 1939. Two weeks later, his Jewish wife, the well-known actress Zinaida Raikh, was murdered in their apartment. Her body was mutilated and her eyes were gouged out. Meyerhold may well have been one of those personally tortured by Lavrenty Beria himself before being killed. Stalin signed his death warrant. Few now dared to mention his name, or that a former mistress of Beria had been given the Meyerhold apartment. Even the play chosen to celebrate the Soviet victory over Germany seemed to have its own ghosts. In 1917, the Moscow Art Theatre had performed The Cherry Orchard on the night of the Bolshevik coup d'etat. And in May 1919, Olga Knipper Chekhova had been in Kharkov with a touring party to escape starvation in Moscow, when they heard during the second act of the play that the city had suddenly fallen to the White Army of General Denikin. But the heady advance of the White armies was short-lived. Denikin's forces fell back in chaos towards the Black Sea coast. Along with a stampede of civilian refugees fearing Bolshevik vengeance, they were decimated by typhus and starvation. Olga Knipper-Chekhova and her companions in the travelling group escaped south across the Caucasus to Georgia. There, The Cherry Orchard had been their last performance in the capital, Tiflis, just before crossing the Black Sea into an indecisive exile. From September 1920 until their return to Moscow in the spring of 1922, Olga Knipper-Chekhova had been an émigrée: a category of deep suspicion to the Soviet authorities. But this brief period, although dangerous in itself, was nothing in comparison to the flamboyant career of her niece and namesake in Germany. In the autumn of 1943, the Moscow Art Theatre had requested a special honour for their greatest actress to mark her seventy-fifth birthday, but this had been received with an ominous silence from the Soviet authorities. Throughout the war she had never been invited to speak on the radio or to give solo performances as before. Other members of the family encountered similar sinister rebuffs. In the Soviet Union such signs could not be ignored. And now people were finding that the great victory had not eased the paranoia of the Stalinist regime. The recent wave of denunciations and pre-dawn raids by the NKVD made Muscovites afraid that another round of purges had begun. At least the building was reassuringly familiar. This theatre had literally been a second home to her for over half a lifetime. Apart from a great Art Nouveau bas-relief above the entrance, the outside was not so very different from most Moscow three-storeyed façades. Inside, the circle of ceiling lamps and door handles of the auditorium were also of Art Nouveau design. The fronts of the seats were upholstered in plush, but otherwise the walls and floors were bare of decoration. Stanislavsky had disapproved of anything which distracted attention from the performance. On the grey-green curtains, the only emblem was Chekhov's single stylized seagull in flight. This symbol of a new reality in the theatre had remained in place throughout the revolution and the famine-stricken civil war. It had even survived the Stalinist Terror and the company being forced to stage Socialist Realist plays of pure propaganda. Olga Knipper-Chekhova had little to fear professionally in such a well-known role as the one she was to play for this special performance of The Cherry Orchard. In the autumn of 1943 she had played the part for the thousandth time for the troops and received fan letters from the front afterwards. Anton Chekhov had not written the part of Ranyevskaya with his wife in mind--he had in fact intended it for a much older actress--but this worked later to her advantage. It allowed her, even in her seventies, to continue playing the character and receive tumultuous applause, although the acclaim was perhaps more for a revered institution. She was known for her expressive hand movements--in the role of Ranyevskaya, they were fluttering and elegantly clumsy to express her emotional confusion--yet Olga Knipper Chekhova herself overdid things when nervous. Nemirovich Danchenko once sent her a message which she had never forgotten: 'One pair of hands is enough. Leave the other dozen pairs in the dressing room.' That evening, as the curtains closed on Stanislavsky's final sound effect off stage--the hollow thud of an axe chopping down cherry trees in the lost orchard--the 500-strong audience gave a standing ovation on this highly emotional occasion. Olga Knipper-Chekhova took her bow a few moments later. Her lowered eyes focused on the front rows. A beautiful, well-dressed woman in her forties gave her a discreet wave. Olga Knipper-Chekhova reeled back in shock and collapsed behind the curtain in confusion and terror. The glamorous woman who had waved to her, right there in the triumphant Soviet capital, was her niece, Olga Chekhova, the great star of the Nazi cinema. Excerpted from The Mystery of Olga Chekhova by Antony Beevor All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.