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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

The Spy Who Vamped Hitler?

National Post, 10 January 2004

Book Review
The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, by Antony Beevor
Viking, 300 pages

The Mystery of Olga ChekhovaRussia guards its secrets zealously. Over a decade after the collapse of the USSR, the most spectacular revelations about Soviet spying have emerged not from Russian archives, but from high-profile whistle-blowers and declassified US intelligence. As far as the Russian intelligence services are concerned, the fall of Communism never happened.

It’s enough to frustrate even the most dogged of researchers. Antony Beevor, an award-winning British author of sprawling military histories, appears to have been the latest victim of the stern gate-keepers of the Soviet archives.

His most recent book tries to solve the “mystery” of Olga Chekhova, a niece of the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov. Fleeing Soviet Russia in 1920 to make a life for herself in Berlin, Chekhova exploited her illustrious name to become a star in Germany’s fledgling film industry, attracting the attention of a young Austrian-born rabble-rouser by the name of Adolf Hitler. By the 1930s, her reputation had grown to the point that she was regularly invited to parties thrown by the Nazi elite. Goebbels described her in his diaries as a “charming woman.” In May 1939, at a party thrown by Joachim von Ribbentrop, she was photographed sitting next to Hitler. The photograph was widely circulated and is reproduced on the book’s cover.

And this is where the story gets interesting. Shortly after World War II, rumours circulated that Chekhova was working for Soviet intelligence. A London newspaper dubbed her “The Spy Who Vamped Hitler,” while German sources said that she had been decorated by Stalin himself for her wartime services. Beevor tries to get to the bottom of these allegations, which have periodically resurfaced since the end of the Soviet Union.

It is no disgrace to say that he has failed. Although Beevor is a gifted story-teller, and recaptures the maddening complexity of life during the war, he runs up against the brick wall of the Soviet archives. “There remain a considerable quantity of documents on [Chekhova],” he admits late in his book, “which have not seen, and probably will never see, the light of day.” Based on a few laconic observations by the late Soviet General Pavel Sudoplatov, and a few murky (and contradictory) recollections of other intelligence officials willing to talk to him, Beevor suggests that the extent of Chekhova’s “service” was arranging meetings with other Russian émigrés in Berlin. Whether she did this at the instigation of the intelligence services is unknown. Whether she ever reported the substance of these meetings is unknown. Whether she even knew that Russian intelligence was interested in her, on account of her perceived closeness to the Nazi political elite, is also unknown. In other words, Olga Chekhova remains as mysterious as ever.

Her brother, a composer named Lev Knipper, is a much more interesting story. Although he fought against Bolshevik forces during the Russian civil war, Knipper later switched sides, offering his services to Soviet intelligence. According to General Sudoplatov’s son, Knipper’s earliest task was to “identify those émigrés, especially intellectuals, who could be persuaded to return to the Soviet homeland as obedient citizens.” This is frustratingly vague. One might have expected, given his musical credentials, that Knipper would have played some role in persuading Sergei Prokofiev to return to Russia in the 1930s – a propaganda coup for the Soviet regime. But Beevor never mentions the incident, and Prokofiev himself barely mentions Knipper in his diaries of the time. Later, Knipper would became the focus of several spectacular – and abortive – plots to assassinate Hitler during the War. Whether his sister was aware of any of these schemes remains unclear.

Fortunately, this is not what Beevor’s book is really about. Beevor has accomplished something much more impressive than solving a mystery. As in his earlier books on the battle for Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin in 1945, Beevor plunges his readers into a pivotal historical event, and tries to recreate what it might have felt like on the ground. Contrary to its publication hype, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova is less of a spy-thriller than a family drama. It chooses a single family, the descendants of Anton Chekhov, and follows its individual members through the crucible of revolution and war. Not surprisingly, the family is scattered and almost destroyed by the experience. The family’s matriarch, Chekhov’s widow Olga Knipper-Chekhova, continues her acting career as the horrors of Stalinism engulf her country. Chekhov’s sister Maria Pavlovna struggles to maintain the Chekhov museum in Yalta against both Nazi and Soviet attack. A nephew flees to America. Another nephew commits suicide. There are nervous breakdowns, doomed love affairs, mistaken identities.

It is all very much like a Russian novel in which, as Tolstoy famously observed, “unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” The greatest mystery of the story is not whether Olga Chekhova was a Soviet spy, but how anyone managed to survive those years with sanity intact.