The Mystery of Olga Chekhovaby Antony Beevor
In his latest work, Antony Beevor—bestselling author of Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin 1945 and one of our most respected historians of World War II—brings us the true, little-known story of a family torn apart by revolution and war. Olga Chekhova, a stunning Russian beauty, was the niece of playwright Anton Chekhov and a famous Nazi-era film actress who was closely associated with Hitler. After fleeing Bolshevik Moscow for Berlin in 1920, she was recruited by her composer brother Lev to become a Soviet spy—a career she spent her entire postwar life denying. The riveting story of how Olga and her family survived the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, the Stalinist Terror, and the Second World War becomes, in Beevor’s hands, a breathtaking tale of survival in a merciless age.
The Washington Post
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Read an Excerpt
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.
Meet the Author
Antony Beevor was educated at Winchester and Sandhurst, where he studied under John Keegan. A regular officer with the 11th Hussars, he left the Army to write. He has published four novels, and seven works of non-fiction. They include The Spanish Civil War; Inside the British Army; Crete—The Battle and the Resistance, which was awarded a Runciman Prize, and Paris After the Liberation, 1944-1949 (written with his wife Artemis Cooper). He has also been contributed to several books including The British Army, Manpower and Society into the Twenty-First Century, edited by Hew Strachan and to a forthcoming book on the Eastern Front in World War II in honour of the late John Erickson.
Stalingrad, first published in 1998, won the first Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature in 1999. The British edition, a number one bestseller in both hardback and paperback, has so far sold over 600,000 copies, and the book has been translated into twenty-four languages. The Fall of Berlin 1945, published in 2002, was accompanied by a BBC Timewatch programme on his research into the subject. The book will also be appearing in twenty-four foreign editions. It was a No. 1 Bestseller in seven countries apart from Britain, and in the top five in another nine countries. The two books between them have already sold over two million copies. His latest book, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, describes the experiences of the Chekhov and Knipper families from before the Russian revolution until after the Second World War.
Antony Beevor was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 1997 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He was the 2002-2003 Lees-Knowles lecturer at Cambridge. In 2003, he received the first Longman-History Today Trustees' Award. He is a member of the management committee of the Society of Authors and of the London Library. He is also Visiting Professor at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck College, University of London. In September 2003, he took over from Philip Pullman as Chairman of the Society of Authors. In July 2004, he received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Kent. He is currently a judge of the British Academy Book Prize and a member of the Samuel Johnson Prize steering committee.
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