Olga Chekhova was the beautiful and talented niece of Anton Chekhov’s wife, Olga Knipper. Her life spanned Lenin’s Revolution, Stalin’s Terror, and the rise and fall of Hitler’s Reich; her relatives and friends were actors, politicians, millionaires and spies. She liked to dramatise herself, embroidering her anecdotes of childhood and youth with wild jackals, rugged scenery and doting older men.
She was born Olga Konstantinovna Knipper in the southern Caucasus in 1897. She had an older sister, Ada, and a fragile younger brother, Lev. The family were German Lutherans, and the attraction of opposites – Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy, precision and chaos – runs through the story. By 1900, the Knippers and the Chekhovs were doing well in the brief flowering of the Russian bourgeoisie. Konstantin Knipper, Olga’s father, was a railway engineer, and he was often away while she was growing up. His sister, the magnificent Olga Knipper Chekhova, had a greater influence on the children’s lives. Aunt Olya was one of the most celebrated actresses in Russia by the time she met and fell in love with Chekhov in 1898. He died in 1904, and scarcely figured in Olga’s childhood, but his reputation – and later his name – followed her for life.
When Olga said that she wanted to act, Aunt Olya’s advice and influence opened the necessary doors. It was also thanks to her that the Knippers met their Russian cousins, including Misha Chekhov, a rising star of the Moscow Art Theatre. At the age of 23, Misha was handsome, egotistical and alcoholic. Olga, barely 17, fell in love at once. The couple married in secret in September 1914, to the horror of her parents (Aunt Olya swooned on the stairs when she heard the news). The marriage lasted just long enough for the 18-year-old Olga to bear her only child, another Olga (but always called Ada). Olga Chekhova’s career on the stage had been launched, however, and now she had a name to conjure with.
The next few years were the hardest of her life. During the Civil War that followed the Revolution, most of the rooms in the Knippers’ Moscow flat were requisitioned for soldiers and poor civilians. Hunger forced the family to scratch a living in ways that Olga does not detail in her memoirs. By 1920, exhausted, she decided to try her luck in Berlin. According to her own account, she left in midwinter, bundled up in an overcoat, a headscarf and valenki felt boots. As it happens, she most probably left on a warm day in August, but that sounds less romantic.
When the friend who met Olga’s train took her to a coffee shop to buy her cakes and cream, she was so malnourished that the rich food made her sick. The aspiring star of the German screen had no money and nowhere to live, and she could barely speak the language of her ancestors. She was saved by her looks and her ability to adapt her features – even the shape of her face – so radically that, as Antony Beevor observes, she looked like a different person in each role that she played. In April 1921 she attended the premiere of her first German movie, Schloss Vogelöd, directed by Murnau: it launched her career as ‘Die Tschechowa’. She acted in more than forty silent movies over the next decade. At first it was a struggle to pay the rent, but in a few years she had a grand new flat, and an extravagant Talbot convertible in which to be driven to the film studios at Babelsberg by a uniformed chauffeur. After her father’s death in 1924, she was joined by her daughter, sister and mother, whom she supported financially. Her apartment at 20 Klopstock Strasse became a haven of Russian chatter and comfortable chaos in interwar Berlin.
Beevor leaves the starlet for a while at this point: his book is as much about the Chekhov and Knipper families as Olga herself. Aunt Olya continued to play leading roles in her late husband’s plays, although a tour of the provinces on which she embarked in 1919 was disrupted by the Civil War. Lev, Aunt Olya’s favourite, had grown into a wiry, restless youth. At 17, he yearned for army life. He didn’t fight at the front during the First World War, but as a new officer in 1917 made a mistake that would shape much of his later life: he fought on the White side in the Civil War. Aunt Olya’s influence may well have saved his skin when the Whites lost, but his future was secured by a deal with the Soviet secret service. By 1924, when he helped his mother and niece to get to Berlin, he was already in their pay. Beevor surmises that his tasks included recruiting his sister as a ‘sleeper’, a spy who does nothing but watch and wait. The incentive for her would have been the chance of securing exit visas for her mother and daughter.
It’s disappointing to learn that Chekhova did very little if any spying. She was no Mata Hari, coaxing secrets from admiring Nazis (of whom there were plenty). Soviet counter-intelligence seems to have done far more for her than she ever did in return. The drama lies in the fact that this woman, whose acting attracted Hitler’s special admiration, was linked to Soviet intelligence at all. Politics was an alien world to her; it wouldn’t have been principle that kept her from a career in espionage: she didn’t care much for causes other than her own. Besides, she lacked aptitude, and was a disastrous judge of men (in 1936 she made her second catastrophic marriage, to a stolid Belgian whose qualifications can only have been his money and his craving – which she mistook for love – for glamour and a bit of fun). There was also the problem of opportunity. Olga knew Hitler, although she was not often as close to him as she is on the cover of Beevor’s book, sitting beside him at a reception for Ribbentrop in 1939. But as an actress she would have been in no position to discuss anything important with him, and even if she had, there would have been no trusting her reports. Chekhova’s taste for drama always overrode other considerations.
Lev, on the other hand, seems to have lived parallel lives. He was a musician and composer, and eventually became a musical adviser to the Red Army. His other passion was climbing; pictures show a lean and weather-beaten hiker making for the snowy peaks of the Caucasus. But travel, for a citizen of Stalin’s Russia, was a privilege enjoyed by very few. Lev moved unhindered between Moscow, Paris, Berlin and even Tehran. His laisser-passer was his secret work, checking and informing, which clawed into his other life and never gave him rest. (He even married a fellow agent, the glamorous Maria Garikovna.) Lev had little choice: his White Guard past was like a death warrant awaiting a signature.
In 1941, when Hitler’s troops swept into Soviet territory, the family was still split between Moscow and Berlin. Lev helped to train the Red Army for mountain warfare. Olga, meanwhile, entertained the troops of the other side, especially the young fliers of the Luftwaffe. (Her lover at this time, a fighter pilot called Jep, died when his plane was shot down over England in 1941.) But though she worked throughout the war, and appeared in a number of propaganda films, it was not politics, or even patriotism, that inspired Olga, so much as self-preservation. Never allowing her Russian name and origins to be a liability, she somehow managed to remain a star. It was only in the closing weeks of the war, as the Red Army neared the German capital, that she had to face up to her divided loyalties.
In April 1945, Soviet soldiers crashed through the door of her retreat in the woods outside Berlin. She spoke to them in Russian. A superior officer arrived, a colonel who recognised the name of the Soviet Union’s favourite playwright. The colonel sent for the secret police and Chekhova was taken for questioning. Days later, she was flown to Moscow. The time had come to pay for the exit visas and safe passages of twenty years ago. Chekhova was interrogated, but then by some miracle (or possibly because she had formed a liaison with the counter-intelligence chief, Viktor Abakumov), she was returned to Berlin. She lived out the rest of her days in Germany, though her last instructions, given in 1980, were that she was to be buried in Russia, according to the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The woman in the book’s photographs looks radiant, glamorous, successful. She dances on a table at a New Year’s Eve party, signs her autograph for handsome airmen, smiles collusively during a speech of Hitler’s. But while missing nothing of the gossip, Beevor allows for her disappointment, the hollowness of her success. Chekhova longed for stardom, but never made it in Hollywood (her ex-husband, Misha Chekhov, briefly did). She longed to be a serious artist, but did not impress the pioneers of the Moscow Art Theatre (again, Misha did). Instead she fabricated tales of acting success. Though German exile brought material security and even fame, she always yearned for the Russia of her childhood, and above all for a world where Aunt Olya and even shadowy, frail Uncle Anton still made everything all right. It was the same for her brother, who could not relax until old age, when the secret service had no further use for him. Both were survivors, and they lived better than most other citizens of Stalin’s empire, but there is a lot that their bright smiles conceal.