The Mystery of Olga Chekhova by Antony Beevor
2005 Penguin Books
I picked up this book with great expectations from the acclaimed author of Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Sadly, I was disappointed. Not having read any of Beevor's other published works, I cannot make comparisons but conclude nonetheless that his talents as a biographical researcher and writer have not yet matured.
One must give him credit for attempting to cover the under-researchered life of Olga Chekhova - the niece of Anton Chekhov - who became a famous Wiemer and Nazi-era movie star after surviving the Russian Revolution and escaping Soviet rule and a broken marriage. According to Beevor, she became an agent for Soviet intelligence, while making pots of money in the film industry, and was invited several times to Nazi top-official occaisions.
"How fascinating!" Indeed, if only Beevor were able to provide more details about this. Sadly the book, already uncomfortably short (only 234 pages of body) is mostly about the rest of the Chekhov family especially her brother Lev, and Olga Knipper-Chekhova (Anton's widow), or a general narrative about the history of the period. For every 3 pages of history book, there is another 3 about Knipper-Chekhova, and half a page on the Olga that we are interested in.
The most problematic was how Beevor told the story as centering from the 'high' political situation. Chekhova's life is retold in terms of the major historical events. There is a repetition of the general speculations that have been made of her life, and a minimum of additional research is reflected in the fleshless skin-and-bones meal of mircohistory. We learn nothing about Chekhova's everyday life, what she thought, what her character was like. Neither is there any description of her emotional life apart from bits and pieces of evidence pointing to passing lovers. Beevor writes that her autobiography is largely fiction, but this still is no excuse for the fourth-rate attempt at a biography. There's a word for this and it's called a disgrace!
Beevor may well think that history without 'History' is not history. But detailed descriptions of peasant riots and Stalin's inferiority complex have made it into this already short book at the expense of more directly relevant material. Beevor assumes that people's lives cannot be told without explaining how they are directed by politicians and bureaucrats. He forgets that anyone, when describing their lives, would hardly start by describing the political history of their era. Olga Chekhova did not interest him as a person, but as another minor chess piece of high politics and history (with a capital 'H'). Olga Chekhova remains a Mystery.