A favourite with Hitler
THE MYSTERY OF OLGA CHEKHOVA
by Anthony Beevor
Viking (Penguin), RRP: $35.00
The life of Olga Knipper-Chekhova – niece, by marriage, of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov – spans one of the most turbulent periods of Russian history.
Born into a middle-class family at the end of the 19th century, she married Misha Chekhov while still a teenager.
Like most middle-class families, the Knippers in the years following the Bolshevik revolution suffered deprivation and constant fear of being rounded up and killed by Bolsheviks.
She left her husband, largely on account of his alcoholism, taking her daughter with her. The family survived as Olga’s father was deemed indispensable by the Bolsheviks. He was a railway engineer.
Realising that her best chance of survival lay in leaving Russia, Olga obtained a six-week departure visa and arrived penniless in Germany in 1921.
Using her Chekhov name and with some film acting experience, Olga was able to obtain roles in the German film industry and eventually became a successful film star.
Indeed, she was one of Hitler’s favourite actresses and, from time to time, was entertained by leading members of the Nazi regime.
Beevor also examines in detail Olga’s brother, Lev Knipper. Although he served with the Whites in the Civil War, Lev returned to Russia and was recruited by the Soviet security forces.
He undertook various missions, including initiating a plot to kill Hitler – an operation that was to involve his sister, Olga.
Beevor raises the interesting question as to whether Olga was a Soviet agent and the extent of her involvement in Soviet intelligence.
That there was some involvement seems likely given her treatment by Soviet authorities in 1945: at a time when Stalin ruthlessly rounded up and shot or sent to the Gulag most anti-communist Russians.
Olga, by contrast, was flown back to Moscow and feted by the Soviet regime, before returning to Germany later in 1945. However, as Beevor acknowledges, given the lack of access to the relevant archives, it is difficult to make a more definitive assessment of her involvement.
This problem of interpretation is only further compounded by Olga’s first-hand accounts, much of which have been demonstrated to be untrue.
The Mystery of Olga Chekhova is an interesting account of an extraordinary woman.
While the sections dealing with the Russian revolution, the inter-war years and World War II make for interesting reading, the work is somewhat loquacious.
A family tree as an appendix would also have assisted the reader in placing various Chekhov family members mentioned in the narrative.