The spy who danced through catastrophe

At the beginning of May, in 1919, a group of travelling performers from the Moscow Art Theatre set out on a tour of the provinces. The group’s director was the legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky; among its performers was the equally legendary actress wife of the late Anton Chekhov. Unfortunately, the tour was not a success. Although the group was billeted in an abandoned hotel in Kharkov which “still retained an air of pre-revolutionary elegance”, the city’s ambience was somewhat lacking. “Nobody had told them that the civil war had erupted again,” writes Antony Beevor in his description of this ill-fated trip. Within days, the troupe found itself cut off from Moscow, on the wrong side – the White side – of the front line in the bloody Russian civil war.

Wending its way south through war-torn Europe, the troupe wound up in Yugoslavia. Some of its members, Chekhov’s widow among them, did eventually return to Moscow several years later, only to find that other members of their family had already left to make their lives as far away as possible from the chaos in Russia. Olga Chekhova, the niece of the great writer’s widow, was one of them.

This story illustrates the wild unpredictability of the era in which Olga Chekhova lived. From one day to the next, borders shifted, regimes changed, and rules were overturned. Stanislavsky’s troupe, once famed for its realistic interpretations of classic Chekhov plays, was forced, in the excitement following the new revolution, to put on proletkult productions for the masses. When political taste shifted again, the troupe quickly reverted back to Chekhov. In that kind of situation, it took special skills to survive, particularly for artistic celebrities whose every utterance attracted attention.

Olga Chekhova was one such survivor. Like her famous aunt, she was forced to make dramatic decisions in the middle of political chaos. Unlike her aunt, she initially chose what seemed set to be a more comfortable life. Instead of remaining in Moscow, she went to Berlin, where she played up her famous surname, lied about her experience and landed a part in a silent film. She eventually became one of Nazi Germany’s most famous actresses, a special favourite of Hitler, and a byword for betrayal of the Soviet motherland.

Recruited by her brother, an avant-garde musician who had chosen the same path, Chekhova used her status in Germany and her secret-police connections to bring out her daughter, her mother, her sister and her niece. All lived together in splendour – or as much splendour as could be had in wartime Berlin – paid for by Chekhova’s largesse.

But who was she really? According to Beevor, she was even more adept at changing her identity to fit the circumstances than outsiders believed. Although she had deserted Soviet Russia, it seems she hedged her bets and became a Soviet spy. For someone used to seeing borders shift and regimes change, it was a logical decision. If Germany had won the war against the Soviet Union, she would probably never have been discovered. Since Germany lost, she was able to return to Moscow like royalty, in a secret-police plane, and even saw her aunt perform in one of her final productions of The Cherry Orchard.

After the war, Chekhova remained in Berlin, where Soviet secret police apparently stayed in contact with her. In her later years, myths about her life grew more elaborate, partly enlarged by her own penchant for storytelling. All through her life, she falsified her biography and glamourised her recollections. Others did the same, even linking her with the Amber Room, a Russian treasure that went missing during the Second World War and has never been found. By the end of Beevor’s book, it becomes clear that Chekhova’s myth-making was a key part of her survival technique: the stories helped obfuscate her true loyalties, if she had ever had any.

Beevor has clearly enjoyed picking through the legends, and his fascination with Chekhova’s story shines through. Regular readers of his wider-ranging historical works may at first be puzzled by the seeming narrowness of this story’s focus on a single person. But, by the end, it becomes clear that Chekhova’s story represents the reverse of Beevor’s books on Berlin and Stalingrad. Instead of a story of cataclysmic events, it is a tale of how an unusual person managed to dance, sing and act her way through them.

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