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The Mystery of Olga Chekhova


  Table of Contents

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Dedication

  I. The Cherry Orchard of Victory

  2. Knippers and Chekhovs

  3. Mikhail Chekhov

  4. Misha and Olga

  5. The Beginning of a Revolution

  6. The End of a Marriage

  7. Frost and Famine

  8. Surviving the Civil War

  9. The Dangers of Exile

  10. The Far-Flung Family

  11. The Early 1920s in Moscow and Berlin

  12. Home Thoughts from Abroad

  13. The End of Political Innocence

  14. The Totalitarian Years

  15. The Great Terror

  16. Enemy Aliens

  17. Moscow 1941

  18. A Family Divided by War

  19. Berlin and Moscow 1945

  20. Return to Berlin

  21. After the War

  OLGA CHEKHOVA’S FILMS

  REFERENCES

  SOURCE NOTES

  SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

  Acknowledgements

  INDEX

  FOR MORE WORKS BY ANTONY BEEVOR, LOOK FOR THE

  FOR MORE WORKS BY ANTONY BEEVOR, LOOK FOR THE

  Praise for The Mystery of Olga Chekhova

  “This was an extraordinary life, which Mr. Beevor handles with disciplined speculation.”

  —The New York Sun

  “An extraordinary drama of exile and espionage, celebrity and concealment.... As in the Stalingrad and Berlin books, though in a less deeply tragic key, Beevor’s new work brings home to younger readers what he calls ‘the fate of the individual within the mass’ during Europe’s age of tyranny, genocide and total war.”

  —Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  “Beevor has clearly enjoyed picking through the legends and his fascination with Chekhova’s story shines through.”

  —Anne Applebaum, Daily Telegraph

  “Beevor’s work is, above all, the fascinating story of an extraordinary family living through extraordinary times. On those grounds alone it’s a great read. Families, as so many novelists have discovered, provide a wonderful window into the past ... Beevor tells the story with seemingly effortless grace and it reads like the very best novels. He is a gifted writer and this is an enthralling tale.”

  —Gerard DeGroot, Scotland on Sunday

  “Antony Beevor’s engaging and revealing memoir ... tells the parallel stories of sister Olga and bother Lev with clarity and panache ... as engaging a read as Stalingrad and Berlin.”

  —David Edgar, The Guardian (London)

  “This compelling work ... fascinates the reader by making Chekhova and her despicable brother Lev Knipper prisms through which one examines the degraded life of the citizens of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and explores the shadowy, morally ambiguous world of the Russian émigré. ... As in his other books, Antony Beevor is remarkably astute at digging out testimonies from living descendants and closed archives.”

  —Donald Rayfield, author of Anton Chekhov, in the Literary Review

  “Beevor uses the story to evoke a world—the vague ideological borderlands of Nazism and Communism.... Exhibits Beevor’s big-book knack: he can write excitingly yet with restraint, and never resorts to grand guignol to grip you.”

  —Felipe Fernandez Armesto, The Times (London)

  “Fascinating. An intricate, gracefully told and often moving social history of a talented family in times of revolution, civil war, dictatorship and world conflict.”

  —Rachel Polonsky, New Statesman

  “A true story that is dramatic, evocative and well worth unearthing” —The Observer (London)

  “Literate, lucent, and well researched; a fascinating glimpse into how artists respond as the world explodes around them.”

  —Kirkus Reviews

  “Given its colorful subject matter and Beevor’s well-placed narrative, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova never fails to absorb.”

  —The Times Literary Supplement

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  THE MYSTERY OF OLGA CHEKHOVA

  Antony Beevor was educated at Winchester and Sand- hurst. A regular officer in the 11th Hussars, he served in Germany and England. He has published several novels, and his works of nonfiction include The Spanish Civil War; Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, which won the 1993 Runciman Award; Stalingrad; and The Fall of Berlin 1945. With his wife, Artemis Cooper, he wrote Paris After the Liberation: 1944-1949, now issued in a new edition. Stalingrad was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, the Wolfson History Prize, and the Hawthornden Prize in 1999. The Fall of Berlin 1945 was a number-one bestseller in Britain and has been translated into twenty-four languages. Most of his titles are published by Penguin.

  Beevor is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Chevalier de l‘Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. In 2003 he received the first Longman History Today Trustees’ Award. He was the 2002-2003 Lees Knowles lecturer at Cambridge and is a visiting professorf at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is now chairman of the Society of Authors.

  www.antonybeevor.com

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  Published by the Penguin Group

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  First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,

  a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2004

  Published in Penguin Books 2005

  Copyright © Ocito Ltd., 2004

  All rights reserved

  Photographic credits appear on page xi.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-17505-7

  1. Tschechowa, Olga, b. 1896. 2. Actors—Soviet Union—Biography.

  3. Spies—Soviet Union—Biography.

  PN2728.T8M.028’092—dc22

  [B] 2004043076

  75 pt. Monotype Bembo

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  For Artemis

  DRAMATIS PERSONAE

  The Knipper Family by Generation

  KONSTANTIN KNIPPER Konstantin Leonardovich (1866- 1924). Railway engineer. Father of Olga Chekhova, Ada Knipper and Lev Knipper. Brother of Olga Knipper Chekhova (‘Aunt Olya’) and Vladmir Knipper, the opera singer. Married ‘Lulu’ Ried, later known as ’Baba‘.

  ‘AUNT OLYA’ KNIPPER-CHEKHOVA Ol
ga Leonardovna (1868-1959). Actress. Married Anton Chekhov in May 1901. Sister to Konstantin, the railway engineer, and Vladimir, the opera singer.

  VLADIMIR KNIPPER Vladimir Leonardovich (1877-1942). Usually known as Vladimir Nardov, his stage name. Singer, and director at the Bolshoi. Younger brother of Konstantin Knipper and Olga Knipper-Chekhova (‘Aunt Olya’), and uncle of Olga Chekhova and Lev Knipper. Father of Vova.

  LULU (LATER BABA) RIED-KNIPPER Yelena Luise (1874- 1943). Mother of Ada, Olga and Lev.

  ADA KNIPPER Ada Konstantinovna (1895-1985). Actress. Sister of Olga and Lev, and mother of Marina Ried.

  OLGA CHEKHOVA Olga Konstantinovna (1897-1980). Daughter of Konstantin and Lulu Knipper, sister of Ada and Lev, and mother of Ada (christened Olga).

  LEV KNIPPER Lev Konstantinovich (1898-1974). Composer. Brother of Olga and Ada, and husband of Lyuba, then of Mariya Garikovna Melikova and finally of Tatyana Alekseevna Gaidamovich. Father of Andrei Knipper.

  VOVA KNIPPER Vladimir Vladimirovich (1924-95). Son of Vladimir, the opera singer, and first cousin of Lev Knipper and Olga Chekhova.

  ADA CHEKHOVA RUST Ada Mikhailovna (1916-66). Daughter of Olga Chekhova and Misha Chekhov. Married Wilhelm Rust. Mother of Vera. Killed in a plane crash.

  MARINA RIED Marina Borisovna Rschevskaya (1917-89). Daughter of Ada Knipper and Boris P. Rschevsky (1872- 1922), and niece of Olga Chekhova.

  ANDREI KNIPPER (1931—). Geologist. Son of Lev Knipper and Lyuba (Lyubov Sergeevna Zalesskaya).

  The Chekhov Family by Generation

  ALEKSANDR CHEKHOV Aleksandr Pavlovich (1855-1913). Writer. Brother of Anton and Masha, and father of Misha. Husband of Natalya Golden.

  ANTON CHEKHOV Anton Pavlovich (1860-1904). Writer, doctor and playwright. Married Olga Knipper in May 1901. Brother of Aleksandr, and uncle of Misha, Volodya and Sergei.

  ‘AUNT MASHA’ CHEKHOVA Mariya Pavlovna (1863-1957). Keeper of the Chekhov museum in Yalta. Sister of Aleksandr, Anton and the other Chekhov brothers. Aunt of Misha, Volodya and Sergei.

  MISHA CHEKHOV Mikhail Aleksandrovich (1891-1955). Actor. Son of Aleksandr Chekhov and Natalya Golden, nephew of Anton Chekhov, husband of Olga Chekhova and father of Ada (Olga Mikhailovna) Chekhova.

  VOLODYA CHEKHOV Vladimir Ivanovich (1894-1917). Student and lawyer. First cousin of Misha and Sergei. Committed suicide 1917.

  SERGEI CHEKHOV Sergei Mikhailovich (1901-73). Family historian. First cousin of Misha and Volodya.

  I. The Cherry Orchard of Victory

  During the night of 8 May 1945, lights stayed on all over Moscow. People waited impatiently for news of the final German surrender. Only the most privileged members of the Soviet elite, such as the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, possessed a radio set which they dared to tune to foreign stations. In Stalin’s Russia, victory did not bring freedom from the secret police.

  The announcement of the German surrender taken by Marshal Zhukov in Berlin was eventually made by Levitan, the Radio Moscow newsreader, at ten past one on the morning of Wednesday 9 May. ‘Attention, this is Moscow. Germany has capitulated... This day, in honour of the victorious Great Patriotic War, is to be a national holiday, a festival of victory.’ The Internationale was played, followed by the national anthems of the United States, Great Britain and France.

  The inhabitants of communal apartments did not wait for the music to finish. They surged out on to the landings in all stages of dress to congratulate each other. Those with telephones rang their relations and closest friends to share this historic moment with them. ‘It’s over! It’s over!’ they kept repeating. Many broke down in tears of relief and sorrow. With some 25 million dead as a result of the war, there was barely a family in the whole Soviet Union which had not known suffering. By four in the morning, Ehrenburg noted, ‘Gorky Street was thronged: people stood about outside their buildings, or poured along the street towards Red Square.’

  It was, as Ehrenburg wrote, ‘an extraordinary day of joy and sadness’. He saw an old woman, crying and smiling, showing a photograph of her son in uniform to passers-by and telling them that he had been killed the previous autumn. It was a festival of remembrance as much as a celebration. When bottles of vodka were passed round, the first toast was to those who had not lived to see this day, although loyal party members should have first paid tribute to Comrade Stalin, the ‘great architect and genius of the victory’.

  Officers in uniform, above all those with medals, were cheered and sometimes bounced in the air as victors. Even Ehrenburg, the most famous propagandist of the Red Army, was recognized in the street and suffered the same honour, to his great embarrassment. Foreigners too were ‘kissed, hugged and generally feted’. Around Red Square, ‘foreign cars were stopped and their occupants dragged out, embraced and even tossed in the air’. Outside the American embassy, the crowds shouted their admiration for President Roosevelt, who had died just over a month before, to their genuine sorrow.

  Khmelev, the director of the Moscow Art Theatre, addressed a spontaneous meeting of the company in the foyer. ‘What immense joy is ours today!’ he said. ‘We’ve been waiting for this so long, but now that it’s come, I can’t find words to express what we feel. When the radio played victory marches, I saw a woman through the brightly lit window of a house, dancing and singing to herself.’

  During the course of that day between 2 and 3 million people packed the centre of the capital, from the embankments of the Moskva river up to the Belorussky station. Most of them came armed with bottles of vodka or Georgian champagne, which had been hoarded religiously for this very day. Workers and their families from the suburbs had come into the centre wearing their best clothes. Muscovites who had stayed in the capital during the war were better dressed than those from elsewhere because, during the panic of October 1941, evacuees from the city had sold all the clothes they could not take with them to the thrift shops. Moscow, although it had been bombed that winter, had been truly fortunate. Comparatively few buildings had been damaged. Elsewhere, to the south and west, towns and villages lay in ruins for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. Some 25 million people were homeless. Survivors lived in dugouts—literally holes in the ground covered by trunks, branches and turf.

  That evening, Stalin’s victory speech was broadcast and a salute of 1,000guns was fired, the shock waves rattling the windows. Hundreds of aircraft flew overhead, releasing red, gold and purple flares. Searchlights from Moscow’s anti-aircraft batteries illuminated a huge red banner held up by invisible balloons. Stalin was cheered spontaneously. Many, like his protégé Ehrenburg, did not reflect until later upon the fate of all those whose lives had been wasted or who had been executed on false charges to cover up the blunders of their leader. Yet even as strangers embraced each other in the streets on that deeply emotional day, a true feeling of victory and joy somehow still seemed just beyond their reach. The only certain sensation was an exhausted, slightly numb relief.

  After these celebrations, members of the Moscow Art Theatre felt that they too should mark the end of the war. The Kremlin was planning a huge military parade on Red Square to commemorate the achievements of the Great Patriotic War. They, meanwhile, decided on a special performance. They simply wanted to give thanks that Russian culture had survived the terrible onslaught of the Nazis.

  With Anton Chekhov’s flying seagull emblazoned on the curtains, the choice of author was not in doubt. The plays which he had written for the Moscow Art Theatre, giving it such international prestige, used to be known before the revolution as its ‘battleships’. And the work decided upon for this occasion was Chekhov’s last, The Cherry Orchard.

  Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper-Chekhova, a founder member of the company, would take the part of the unworldly landowner Ranyevskaya. She had played it during the very first performance in January 1904, watched by their friends Feodor Chaliapin, Maxim Gorky and Rachmaninov. It had painful memories. Anton, her husband, had been seriously ill. In fact he was so ‘deathly pale’ that there had been gasps of horror when he appeare
d on stage to receive a tribute. Konstantin Stanislavsky, the presiding genius of the Moscow Art Theatre, remarked that this triumphant occasion ’smelled of a funeral‘. Six months later the playwright was dead.

  In those days, Olga Knipper-Chekhova, with her small, animated eyes and firm jaw, had possessed the clean good looks of a determined, intelligent governess. But now, aged seventy-six and quite stout despite the short rations of the war, she was a living monument of the Russian theatre. She had been appointed a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union as early as 1928. Yet under Stalin, this was no protection. She had spent much of the war fearing arrest at any moment by the NKVD secret police.

  In the spy-mania of the time, her anxieties were perfectly understandable. Both her father and mother were of German origin. Her brother had assisted Admiral Kolchak, the White commander in Siberia during the civil war. Her favourite nephew, the composer Lev Knipper, had been a White Guard officer fighting the Bolsheviks in the south of Russia. But most dangerous of all by far, her niece, Olga Chekhova, had been the leading movie star in Berlin, honoured since 1936 with the title of‘State Actress’ of the Third Reich and allegedly adored by Hitler. There had even been photographs of her at Hitler’s side at Nazi receptions. And her niece’s former husband, Mikhail Chekhov, was in Hollywood. They were a family of émigrés at a time of Stalinist xenophobia.

 
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