cover image The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: 5

The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: 5

Antony Beevor. Viking Books, $24.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-670-03340-9

Hitler admired her for her ""cosmopolitan sophistication,"" but Olga Chekhova, niece of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, was far too pragmatic to lose herself to the charms of a powerful man. Drawing on numerous interviews, articles and books, Beevor (Stalingrad) concludes that the great icon of Nazi cinema never forgot where she came from and worked as a Soviet agent while reaping the rewards of stardom under the Third Reich. Chekhova, a Russian of German descent, could not help but see the benefits of serving the motherland. As an emigree in Berlin, she was already held suspect by the Soviets and hoped her spying for them would result in favorable treatment of her family in Moscow. Recruited by her brother, Lev, a Soviet composer, Chekhova became a friend and confidante to men like Goebbels, while serving Stalin by gauging Germany's interest in war against Russia. An accomplished documentarian, Beevor has written an absorbing and expansive story, not just of an actress/spy, but of revolution and of the stark changes in Russian society that occurred between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He places Moscow and Berlin side by side and shows how the divergent trajectories of the regimes could intersect only on the battlefield. Amid the history lesson is the glowing and graceful Olga Knipper-Chekhova, a woman made wiser by a bad marriage and toughened by civil war. As Beevor illustrates, survival was perhaps her most pronounced motivation, and it guided her well, from the day in 1920 when she left the blight of Soviet Russia behind with nothing more than a diamond ring smuggled under her tongue to her death in 1980.