Antony Beevor, what is "The Mystery of Olga Chekhova"?
Well, it`s a double mystery, in some ways. There is the spy story, because she was recruited by Soviet intelligence and she was very -- she was close to Hitler. But the real mystery, in a way, is the story of Russia and Germany in the whole of the 20th century. And the advantage of this story, or the fascination of this story, in a way, is you have this extended family, extraordinary family of the Chekhovs and the Knippers split between Germany and Russia at the most dangerous period, really, in world history, of the Russian revolution, the rise of Stalin, the rise of Nazism and then the Second World War. And they all survive. That, in fact, is the basis of the mystery. How did they manage to survive in such astonishing circumstances?
Where did you get the idea for this?
Well, purely by chance. It was while we were researching the Berlin book. My wonderful research assistant, Luba Vinogradova, her mother, in fact, suddenly told us about -- she`d remembered a rumor about Chekhov`s niece being flown back from Berlin to Moscow while the battle for Berlin was still going on. So I thought, in the book on the battle of Berlin, you know, there may be a couple of interesting paragraphs, so we might just follow up. And I suggested to Luba we should go and see the Melikhovo museum, which is Chekhov`s old estate, two hours outside Moscow. And there, in one of -- they`d had little sort of log cabins, really, which Chekhov built for members of the family, partly because they were always either bankrupt or their marriages were falling apart and the used to descend on the poor writer and interrupt all his work. They were really a family which was sort of both financially irresponsible and emotionally incontinent.
And while there in this particular hut which we were taken out to, the archivist showed us this cupboard with one of the doors falling off the hinges, and inside were this huge collection of letters, papers, family papers and family photographs, but also these photocopies of SMERSH documents -- SMERSH was Soviet counterintelligence -- about the return of Olga Chekhova from Berlin to Moscow in April, 1945, as the battle was going on. And that was the start of the story. So we started to follow it up and forgot about including it in the Berlin book because one realized the richness of the material and the whole subject matter of Germany and Russia. And so it sort of -- it started there.
When did you write your Berlin book?
Well, the Berlin book I started back in 1998. That took four years, like the Stalingrad book. They both took four years. And it was really, I`d say, in the sort of the second year of the Berlin research that we started to discover about this. And so I was sort of working very slightly in parallel while carrying on with the Berlin book. And then, obviously, I concentrated on it entirely as soon as the Berlin book was published.
Now, Olga Chekhova was what relationship to Anton Chekhov?
She was a double niece, in fact. Her aunt -- she was born a Knipper. Her aunt was the great Olga Knipper Chekhova, the great actress of the Moscow Art Theater, who married Anton Chekhov in 1901 and, obviously, was with him until his death in 1904, exactly 100 years ago.
And if you haven`t read Anton Chekhov, who was he?
Well, he was -- in Russian eyes, he was the great artist of the Russian soul -- many short stories, "Lady With a Dog," whole series like that. But then he`s most famous of all, really, for his plays. And in this particular book, it really -- it opens with "The Cherry Orchard," which was his last very play, first performed in 1904. But the other famous ones are "The Seagull," "Uncle Vanya," and so forth.
And what kind of a writer was he?
Well, this is the interesting thing, if you like, from the communist reaction to him once they took over because Chekhov was a brilliant analysis, if you like, an analyst of the mentality of a bourgeoisie which almost knew that it was condemned or -- to extinction. And in fact, it`s very prophetic, in a way. Whether he was actually prophesying the revolution, nobody knew. But he was prophesying in a way or describing the decline both sort of emotional, as well as financial, of the Russian middle -- upper middle classes. They were living a system of -- with surfs or, in fact, in the post-surf system, which, in fact, could never really be sustained and would not survive. But there was also a very nostalgic feel to what Russia was losing in this sort of -- the gentle side of it. Obviously, Chekhov was not writing about the appalling conditions of the industrial workers in Petersburg and Moscow. It was a much more sort of bucolic or rural, if you like, view of the gentry in Russia.
How long did he live? And what were the years?
Chekhov died in 1904. And he was born -- I was afraid you were going to ask me this one -- I think it was about sort of 1960s. He was only really in his late 40s. He died of consumption. He was a doctor, as well as a playwright. And even when he was starting to be ill, he wrote -- for example, traveled Sakhalin, this island north of Japan, off Russia, where the convicts were kept under czarism in the most appalling conditions. I mean, as bad as the gulag, in a way. And Chekhov wrote about this. So he had very much had a strong social conscience. But he also was one of the most delightful men, in terms of sense of humor. I mean, he had a fantastic sense of humor. And like most of Russian bohemia in those days, life was, if you like, a series of total improvidence -- bankruptcy, lending money to friends, borrowing money from friends, and basically -- and everybody exchanging mistresses and then perhaps -- I mean, his mistress was then married to his elder brother, which caused a sort of scandal in the family. So it was a pretty complicated existence, in a way.
Now, and this book is about, among other things, as you say, Olga Chekhova. How long did she live? And what were the years for her life?
Well, she was born in 1897 and she died in 1980. So she really spanned an extraordinary era from czarism right through to sort of the -- almost the later part of the cold war. And her life, in fact, is extraordinary in that context because there she was, brought up as a very beautiful, naive dreamer of a girl in this very secure upper middle class family, which was also very artistic. And the Knippers, remember, were of German origin, and Chekhov used to tease his wife about sort of the bourgeois rectitude of the Knippers as opposed to the sort of the chaotic life of the Chekhovs.
And then she actually became a double niece of Anton Chekhov because she fell desperately in love, as a 16-year-old, with Misha Chekhov. This is at the -- in 1914 -- really, in 1914, on the outbreak of the First World War, when she moved to Moscow, living with her aunt, the great actress, and meeting Misha. And he, in fact, was a brilliant actor. He later was the one who actually came to Hollywood. He was teaching Stanislavsky`s method, and he later trained Marilyn Monroe and Gregory Peck. But in his great days, he was without any doubt sort of the young genius of the Moscow Art Theater. But he was totally irresponsible, very charming and an incipient drunkard. He`d inherited his father`s alcoholism. So this naive girl simply didn`t know what she`d taken on. She soon had a baby, a husband who was collapsing with a nervous breakdown, and we all his drinking, as her world was collapsing around her. So she had to reinvent herself rather rapidly and become a lot stronger, and all the rest of it.
And she left her baby daughter with her mother, who was a formidable character. And that was when she decided to avoid the starvation and degradation in Moscow at that time, after the revolution and during the civil war. And in 1928, she left for Berlin with a diamond ring smuggled about her person. In one volume of her memoirs, it`s hidden under her tongue, and in another volume of her memoirs, it`s sewn into the lining of the coat, which I`m afraid shows how difficult it was quite often to decipher the -- where she was being accurate and where she was fantasizing. And then she gets to Berlin, and through sheer lack of shame, in a way, she exploits the Chekhov name to the ultimate and even claims to Erich Pommer, who`s the great movie mogul of the time, the Babelsberg`s cinema, the studio -- cinema studios, that she had been a member of the Moscow Art Theater and had been taught by the great Constantin Stanislavsky himself. And that was her entry to the movie world, and she became a star literally overnight because she was put into the star role by Murnau, who was the great silent movie director of the time.
Stanislavsky lived what years, roughly? I mean, what were -- when was he well known in Russia?
Well, he was -- he became famous, really, from 1898, 1900, when the Moscow Art Theater was set up. He came from a very wealthy merchant family, one of the great merchant families of Moscow. And they had many factories and things like that. And he invested his money into this new experiment of -- theatrical experiment, where the old, pompous rhetoric of the past, the declaiming, the mannered acting, which had always been the case, really, particularly in the Russian theater but many other countries, too, for a new sort of theatrical verite, where everything was almost -- what nowadays one would describe as sort of almost "kitchen sink drama." It was much simpler in comparison to what everything had happened before. It had all the details of daily life and the -- if you like, the emotion and the drama came through daily life. And this was a revolutionary attitude towards theater, and it caused outrage amongst some of the old-fashion theater critics at the time.
But Stanislavsky was also -- he was a brilliant man, a brilliant director, and also a brilliant actor himself. So he was sort of one of the theater -- the actor-directors, really, of his time. He didn`t die until the 1930s. And of course, by then, he`d gone through this terrifying time of the revolution and finding, of course, that the world in which they had lived had completely changed and the ideals of artistic truth were being completely trampled upon, despised and regarded as bourgeois and reactionary by the new communist regime. He was in many ways sort of the archetypal liberal caught up in a revolution. He`d welcomed the revolution, and then was horrified by the consequences of that revolution.
And I want to do this, if you don`t mind, quickly...
... because I want to get into your story. But early, on you say -- you ask the question, How did one family survive? And what I`d like to have you do is put it in time sequence. The Russian revolution -- when did that happen?
In 1917. The civil war carried on until 1920.
What was the Russian revolution originally about?
It was -- there were two revolutions, basically. There was the February revolution, which, if you like, was a liberal revolution overthrowing the czarist autocracy and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) actually taking over from the collapse of the czarist autocracy with the horrors of the First World War and the suffering of the soldiers at the front and also starvation in the rear areas, in civilian life.
How big was -- was it the Soviet Union in 1917?
Well, the czarist empire, which then became the Soviet Union from 1917, or 1918, rather, was huge. I mean, it included, of course, in those days, most of Poland, as well. So -- and Finland. So when the civil war started, you had Finland breaking away. Obviously, then, there was the Russo-Polish war in 1920 and, obviously, all of these border wars which were going on, and also in the Baltic states.
How many people were involved in the Soviet area?
Oh, I mean, we`re talking -- I mean, certainly, well over -- even in those days, well over 100 million. So I mean, it was -- it was not only a huge land mass with a war going on from Vladivostok all the way to -- all the way to, sort of -- you know, to central Europe, but I mean, everybody was involved. And it was one of the most appalling civil wars in history.
Chekhov`s daughter in 1917 lived where?
Well, Chekhov -- his widow was living in Moscow, and the rest of the family were, in fact, at that stage, based in Moscow. Olga Chekhova`s parents, in fact, had left St. Petersburg because the Germans were advancing on St. Petersburg at that latter stage of the war. And that was when St. Petersburg was virtually abandoned. And they, too, moved to Moscow.
The civil war, when did that happen?
Well, the civil war really started in 1918, largely as a result of the Bolshevik coup d`etat in November, 1917. And basically that so polarized even those who`d been in favor of the revolution. Many of the liberals, the social revolutionaries, and so forth, suddenly found themselves being crushed by what they thought were their allies, the Bolsheviks. And that`s when the civil war broke out, and it then lasted until 1920.
How would you define a Bolshevik?
Well, a Bolshevik was technically A member of basically what were regarded -- "bolshoi" being -- "bolshoi" being "big." They were the majority party in the split of Social Democrats. But basically, they were all Marxists, but then you had the Mensheviks, who were the minority one and the Bolsheviks, who were the majority. They claimed they were the majority. In fact, that was a debatable point. But from then on, what later became, if you like, the communists were originally known as Bolsheviks.
Who was running this whole show?
Lenin, basically. I mean, you know, he by then had completely taken over the Central Committee. And he had willing and very effective collaborators like Trotsky, who was running the Red Army, and then the at that stage, rather more faceless Stalin, who was starting to emerge in the background, or from the background, and who eventually came to power as party secretary.
And then the third point is the rise of Hitler. How did this family survive the rise of Hitler? When did that start?
Well, the rise of Hitler really began during the course of late 1920s and particularly very early 1930s when Hitler, with the Nazi Party, originally really based in Munich, started to create civil disorder, with picking street fights with communists and the Social Democrat socialists. And this way, he was creating a sort of -- a public order disaster, basically pushing people into wanting strong government. And he then managed through -- partly through the electoral system and through the votes in 1933, in January of 1933, he was finally allowed to become chancellor. And then, of course, the whole of the democratic system stood very little chance of survival.
And where was Olga Chekhova at the time of the Hitler rise?
She by then was living in Berlin. She had arrived in Berlin in 1920. By then, her movie career had taken off. She was making something like eight movies a year. But the vital fact, in a way, is that in 1923, her brother, Lev Knipper, the composer, had been allowed to return to Berlin by Soviet intelligence. He had been a White Guard fighting in the civil war against the Bolsheviks, and his only way back into Russia was to join the devil, or make a pact with the devil, and that meant working for the Cheka, the -- later the NKVD, secret police. And he came to Berlin to spy on the White Russians in Berlin, and that is when he recruited Olga.
Her rationale was quite simple. It was at a time of international civil war, with -- at that stage, developing between fascism and communism. Your only chance of survival was, if you like, loyalty to yourself and protecting your family. And for her, the priority was not loyalty, of course, to communism, but agreeing to be an agent, to allow her family -- to get her family out of Russia to safety in Germany, where she could look after them because she now had the money. So she managed to get out her mother, her baby daughter, her sister and her niece. And they all arrived in Berlin in 1924.
And again, her mother was who?
Her mother was Louise Knipper, and was, in fact, if you like, the sister -- it was the sister-in-law of Anton Chekhov, as a result of these marriages. It`s much clearer, honestly, in the book, and I do have a sort of, you know, list of all who the characters are. But this is always one of the problems with Russian families.
It is clear, however, the word -- the name Olga comes up so many times that your head spins by the time it`s over. How did you keep track of all the Olgas?
Oh, well, I knew perfectly well because, you see, in the Russian name, it`s always Olga Leonidovna (ph), which is the -- they always use the patronymic, the father`s name. And Olga Chekhova was always Olga Constantinovna. So one always knew which on they were referring to. But one can`t do that for a Western audience because they find it too confusing. So in fact, what I`ve done is Olga is always Olga Chekhova -- the film star is always Olga Chekhova throughout, and her aunt is always Aunt Olya because that was what she was always named -- named throughout the family.
Again, asking the question, how one family can survive -- we went through the Russian revolution, the civil war, the rise of Hitler. And then the fourth one on the list is the Stalinist Terror. What year was the Stalinist Terror?
Well, the Stalinist Terror really started -- the first signs of it, really, were in 1936, which actually coincided with the Spanish -- the start of the Spanish civil war, as well, and really went `37-`38. There were little repeat tremors, if you like, particularly at the start of the war and things like that, but the real Stalinist Terror, the worst of it, was `37-`38.
We`ve talked a lot on this program with Simon Sebag Montefiore, who endorses your book, Anne Applebaum, who says nice things about your book, and also WIlliam Taubman, who did the Khrushchev book, about this whole business of the Terror. The numbers still are hard to understand, and you start off by saying 25 million up front, people that were killed and -- go through the numbers again.
Well, in the Second World War or in the Terror?
Starting with the Terror. I mean, that`s what`s hard to -- what`s the total number of people that were murdered and slaughtered and killed and...
Well, again, the awful thing is it`s a question of how you define things for your statistics. If you`re talking about pure executions -- and this is what the -- you know, the old communists will sort of say, Oh, but only a couple of million were executed. Yes, but, I mean, on top of that were how many more millions were worked to death? I mean, the figures could well be -- I mean -- Anne Applebaum has trouble quite often, you know, defining it in her book, and nobody`s gone into it in more detail, in terms of statistics. But I mean, you know, it might well be another 10 million -- up to 10 million dying through forced labor camps and all the rest of it.
And then you add on -- then you add on the deliberate famines imposed on the Ukraine particularly by Stalin, and so forth, and you can be going up towards 30 to 50 million even. I mean, they are figures which are sort of way beyond any imagination. I mean, in the Second World War, when one`s talking about deaths there, we do know that it`s certainly over 24 million Russians died. Poles -- far more Poles, in fact, lost their lives, in terms of proportion of the population. Twenty percent of the Polish nation died as a result of the Second World War. These are figures -- you know, we talk about the losses on the western front or D-Day or whatever -- it`s nothing in comparison to what was happening on the other side.
Is there something you can still see in the Russian people that brings this about, this attitude toward murder, execution, death?
Yes. I`m afraid. Actually, one saw it even at Beslan and -- the other day. I mean, there is a -- sort of a brutal incompetence, which has always been there. It was partly there in the czarist army. It`s been in the -- it was there certainly in the Red Army, I mean, where one saw the unnecessary casualties inflicted on the Red Army. They lost nine million people killed, let alone, I mean, the numbers in -- if you go to -- I mean, you know, we`re talking about 30 or 40 million wounded and missing, and so forth. But over nine million killed in the Second World War.
And that`s compared with about -- depending on which figure you -- 250,000 to 400,000 here in the United States.
Exactly. Yes. That gives you a proportion. But it also is important of understanding why Churchill and, to a certain degree, Roosevelt sort of had this feeling of blood guilt towards the Soviet Union in the Second World War. It`s easy to criticize, you know, the decisions at Yalta, but one has to remember the background to it. You know, the Russians had done the dying. They`d been paying with far more blood than we ever did, and that was what saved so many thousands -- tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of British and American lives.
Is there any resentment still about this?
Yes. Oh, there is. Oh, yes. I mean, it sort of -- it lingers slightly. I mean, obviously, there`s less resentment, you know, because we`d been allies in the war. But there is still a resentment about sort of, People do not understand how we suffered, and I think that is quite true. I don`t blame them for feeling that because it`s only really in the last few years in the West that people have started to understand how much the Russians suffered. A lot of it was kept quiet by Stalin. I mean, he didn`t want to admit it at all to the world, and the casualty figures were deliberately repressed. I mean, it was only in about 1989 that accurate casualty figures started to come out.
The fifth thing on the list -- by the way, the Great Terror lasted, again, how long?
Well, really, not more than a couple of years, really. Really, the worst was `37-`38.
What ended it?
Stalin, to a certain degree. I mean, in a way, the whole thing had got so out of control. I mean, millions of innocent people were being arrested and many of them being executed. And I think Stalin realized that it had got out of control. It was like -- it was a machine more guided by paranoia than anything else. And the NKVD had sort of arrest quotas. So you know, if they couldn`t find any enemies of the people, they would either beat confessions out of more and more people so as to implicate others and then they`d arrest them. And that would be the numbers of enemies of the people they had arrested that month.
Is the NKVD the same as the KGB today?
Exactly. The NKVD -- I mean, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) again, one of these Russians complications -- the Cheka, later the OGPU, then became the NKVD, later becomes the KGB. And today it`s the FSB.
The last thing on the list -- and again, the question is how did one family survive all this -- was the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. When did that start?
In 1941, in June, 1941.
And Pearl Harbor, of course, December of 1941. Where was the United States in June of 1941? What were we involved in at all in this whole business?
Apart from supplying help -- great help to Britain in terms of Lend-Lease and so forth, nothing at all. It was entirely from December, 1941. And this is, of course, one of the great debates about what was the turning point of the war. In many ways, it was -- as some historians have argued, you know, it was the battle before Moscow because from that point on, with the United States having entered the war, Hitler from that point could never have won. In many ways, the psychological turning point came a number of months later, with the battle of Stalingrad because that was when the Wehrmacht had been decisively defeated in a very major battle, a campaign. And one saw that the Red Army had learned how to defeat the Wehrmacht. So in fact, that was the psychological turning point.
Where did the -- when did the city of Stalingrad get that name?
Well, it was given that name under Stalin. Its original name was Tsaritsyn, which means "the city on the Yellow River" in Tatar. And Stalin had -- when he came to power, really, in sort of `28, wanted to bolster his reputation as a war leader in the civil war. In fact, he`d been a complete disaster in the war against Poland, but he had played a role at Tsaritsyn when the Cossacks, on behalf of the Whites, had been attacking in that direction, towards what was now known (UNINTELLIGIBLE) as Stalingrad. And there had been an engagement, and in fact, it had been a pretty chaotic attack and they`d withdrawn. Of course, you know, he was regarded, or made himself out to be a great war hero as a result of that.
Stalingrad still Stalingrad today?
No, it was renamed under Khrushchev, who, of course, loathed Stalin. It was renamed Volgograd, being on the river Volga.
How big is it?
It`s a big city, but of course, it`s in many ways not much bigger because it`s now very run down. All of the industrial part of it is rusting to pieces. It`s still got a very strong communist faithful following there, much more than in many other cities, and most people there would like it to be called Stalingrad again.
When did the Russians defeat the Germans?
Well, at Stalingrad, the great really battle started. In fact, the Germans reached the Volga on the 23rd of August in 1942, and the battle then carried on all the way through until the following February. I mean, it was a -- it was a monstrous battle in terms of size. Altogether, about a million people died on both sides in that campaign. But the turning point came in November, when the Russians -- the Red Army prepared this counteroffensive, and the first time they had encircled a very large -- in fact, it was the largest German army which existed at that stage. They encircled nearly -- over a quarter of a million -- nearly 300,000 men.
And where in the middle of the battle of Stalingrad was Olga Chekhova?
Olga, at that stage, was still back in Berlin. Her brother meanwhile, though, was playing a more complicated role because he had been recruited -- he had -- in fact, he was -- as well as being a composer, he was a great man of action. He was a mountaineer and he`d been training the Red Army in mountain warfare. And in -- when the Germans advanced on Moscow, he was called back to Moscow by General Sudoplatov, who was Beria`s spymaster, and ordered to prepare assassination attempts against Hitler, if Hitler arrived in Moscow, if they captured the city. They fully expected to lose it, in fact.
And as we know, they didn`t capture Moscow, but Lev was then persuaded, or ordered, rather, to try to defect to Germany, via Iran and Turkey if necessary, join up with his sister in Berlin and prepare an assassination attempt against Hitler there. But this reveals the ignorance of Soviet intelligence at the time. I mean, they were prepared to risk these different groups in suicidal attacks. Olga, by that stage, had very little contact with Hitler. He`d cut himself off from the world. He was living in his Fuhrer bunker. And there would have been no question of her being able to get anywhere near Hitler with her brother and his assassination team.
I showed the cover of the magazine, and then inside is the full picture, where the cover was taken. It shows a group of people sitting where?
Well, that is at a reception given by Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister.
Is he in the picture?
No, but his wife is. His wife is sitting next to Hitler on the other side. But Olga -- Olga`s sitting on Hitler`s left and Ribbentrop and then Goering is -- Goering is over on the side.
Who was Ribbentrop?
Ribbentrop was the Nazi foreign minister.
And what`s this occasion?
It was a reception for the diplomatic corps in 1939.
Well, the impression you get here is that Olga was close to Hitler.
Yes. Well, I mean, the other photograph just above it, where Hitler looks like a little boy, sort of absolutely starstruck, meeting Olga. He looks quite bashful. I have never seen a photograph with that sort of expression on his face anywhere else.
What year was this taken?
That was on the same -- that was on the same occasion. I`m virtually certain it was the same occasion because of the uniform that he`s wearing, and I think, the dress. But he obviously was -- when he saw her in that film in 1926, you know, he`d obviously been completely sort of starstruck by her.
Well, you have here the cover of a magazine, where you see Olga right in the middle with some German troops. What`s this?
There it`s a visit to the troops, if you like, a morale-raising visit, and that`s -- those are troops in Paris. Olga`s signing autographs. All of the main stars of Babelsberg`s, of the -- sort of the movie studios were ordered out by Goebbels, you know, as part of their patriotic duty, to go and raise morale, rather as, you know, American and British actors during the war did similar things.
You paint a picture in the book of the relationship between Goebbels and Olga. What was it?
Well, Olga, of course, had to -- to protect her career, you know, she had to be nice and pretend to be friendly with Goebbels, and she even invited him on occasions out to lunch at her dacha, her little house outside Berlin. And Goebbels describes all this in his diary as how sympathetic and how charmante Frau Chekhova, and all the rest of it. And -- and she, though, basically needed to keep in with him. Goebbels, of course, was notorious for the way that he would leap on any young actress. He was known as the goat of Bobblesburg (ph), because of his rather grotesque casting coach techniques. But I didn`t think that he would have tried it on with Olga, because she was really a pretty formidable character, and she could give as good as she got. In fact, her mother was even openly rude to Goebbels on one occasion, which was brave, if not certainly rash.
Why was she rude to him?
She thought he was absolutely despicable, she thought he was a vulgar little man. And she had never forgiven him, because he had on occasions summoned her daughter to a reception at the last moment or to some Nazi Party reception without giving her sort of proper warning, and she thought that was very ungentleman-like behavior.
You keep referring in the back to the fact that you don`t believe a lot of the stuff that Olga wrote in her two volumes of memoir.
No. I mean, she was an actress. I mean, she was a spy, and she was a bit of a fantasist, she had been from childhood, so one had to be very, very careful. I mean, there was a lot of stuff in there which was -- was obviously true, and was other stuff, which one had to be very, very careful about. And some of which you knew were outright lies. So it was a question of working out where you could rely on material and where you had to tread very carefully. And that was when one relied much more on some members of the family who were still alive, who helped us and we interviewed them. Some of the KGB officers who worked on the case and worked with her and her brother, and they also gave a much better indication of what was likely to be true and what was -- what was likely to be false.
Here`s a picture of her in one of her weddings. How many times did she get married? And who is this?
Oh, she was only -- she was only married twice. This time, it was a very unwise marriage, just to say the least. She married a Belgian industrialist who she thought would sort of keep her in the manner to which she had been -- become accustomed. And -- because she -- I think she was afraid at that stage that -- she was in her 40s, that her career was about to come to an end as a movie actress, and so I think she was hoping for comfort and security.
But this man was unbelievably boring, her husband. She couldn`t face it any longer, and that was the end of it. And then she, quite interestingly, started having affairs with men who were all about 20 years younger than her, with the movie star Cal Rodats (ph) and then with a very -- and then with the Luftwaffe officer, Gep (ph), who was obviously the great love of her life. He was nearly 20 years younger than her. And then was an Olympic athlete star called Albert Sumpsa (ph). And he, in fact, is still in love with her. We interviewed her on a sort of BBC program and filming the research on the book. And it was -- it was very touching. I mean, he is still desperately in love with her. She was quite a woman, obviously.
You`ve interviewed who on the BBC?
Albert Sumpsa (ph), he was the last of the lovers.
Still alive, yes.
Yes, yes, today.
Where does he live?
He lives in Munich.
How old a man is he?
Oh, he`s in his 80s. I mean, he was 20 years younger than her. So I mean, she -- she was born in `98 -- yes, 1898.
Well, in the acknowledgements you thanked the BBC. Did you do a program on the BBC with them?
When did you do that?
Well, this was -- this was "Timewatch," one for Lawrence Reese (ph). We did -- I did one (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Berlin book and they had the idea to do it again while researching the Olga Chekhova book. And -- so sometimes, you know, they would accompany us to an archive and film some of the work there, or a lot of the interviews that we filmed as well. So ...
Has that program aired?
Yes, yes. It`s been -- I don`t know whether it`s been aired here in the States. It`s been aired in Britain. It might be coming out (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I mean, I don`t know.
And this book came out when in Great Britain?
The same time here?
No, just literally -- just came out here. I mean, it`s just coming out this week in Germany and all the places.
As I mentioned earlier here, this book is endorsed by Simon Sebag Montefiore, who did a book on Stalin, and then Ann Applebaum`s book, "Gulag" -- is there a fraternity, or whatever you would call it, a group of people that -- that write about this stuff? Do you all ...
Do you all know each other?
Yes, we do. I mean, because -- if anything else, once in a while, we meet -- one meets them all at seminars and various other sort of, you know, various conferences and things like that. But I mean, most of us have got to know each other partly because we`re always exchanging information on the Russian archives, and the Russian archives are one of the most -- it`s a sort of a minefield of trying to find out what material is where. And when -- I -- I think it`s wonderful, you know, the way the historians help each other. And I mean, it`s a huge advantage. It`s not the sort of the petty jealousies, which in some -- happens to work in some professions, and quite often in sort of an academia in a way. Here, everyone is sort of, you know, passing back information, because, you know, provided you`re not a direct rival, and none of us are ever sort of writing something which is a direct threat to somebody else, and everybody is exchanging information.
So how do you do this archive thing? How do you find the information? Do you speak Russian?
No. I have worked -- I mean, I can get around a little bit and all the rest of it, but I knew perfectly well right from the start that there is so much material. I first went to the Russian archives just after they opened, really, in `92. And working on the French Communist Party. And I realized then there was just so much material that unless your Russian is absolutely perfect and you can decipher the scribbles in Cyrillic in the margin, you`re wasting your time. Much better to have a really good research assistant.
And friends have also said to me, listen, we could easily find you a young Russian historian who`d love to work with you. But I was always very uneasy about that, because a professional historian might filtrate according to their own priorities or interests. And Luba, who I have now worked with for the last 10, 11 years was absolutely perfect, because her doctorate is in plant biology, extremely intelligent, but knew absolutely nothing about history. And we`ve worked together all this time. She knew instinctively the sort of material that I was looking for. And she could speed read in a way that I mean -- even if I`d been learning Russian since the sort of 20 years, I would have never been able to get that sort of ability, of rapidity, and that way we were able to cover huge amounts. In those archives, I remember one French historian estimating that it would actually take them 18 to 20 years of work to cover all the material, and that was this whole group of French historians working on the French Communist Party.
Do any of the other authors use somebody like Luba?
Oh, yes. You know, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Max Hastings now, for his new book on the end of the war, Yung Chang (ph). I mean, you know, Luba has now become -- Luba has now become sort of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) by appointment for almost anybody working -- working in this particular area. And she knows -- she know those archives better -- better than anybody.
So in the book on Olga, what happened to your attitude about this subject as you began to learn more and more about it? What -- you started off by just getting the idea by being, again, two hours outside of Moscow at the museum, the Chekhov Museum?
Yes, that`s right. Yes.
Is that open to the public, by the way?
Oh, it is. Yes, it is.
What do you find there besides these papers?
Well, all -- a lot of family correspondence, unpublished family memoirs about the relationship. I mean, most of the material about the young Chekhov-Knippers before the first world war and during the first world war all came -- all came from that particular -- particular archive. And a number of the photographs came from that archive, a number of others came from the Chekhov archive in a museum in Yalta, where he spent the rest of his life, the latter part of his life. Once he was suffering from -- badly -- badly from consumption.
And -- but then, there are important other archives, like the Moscow Art Theater has its own collections of letters between the families. And some of those are extremely important, particularly the letters from Lev to his aunt, talking about the way that he was obviously convincing himself that Stalin must be right. I mean, he was somebody who`d been a White Guard, who then, if you like, changed sides so as to survive, and then I think as the horrors of the purges went on, he had to convince himself that he was doing something right. And these are fascinating in those letters.
Define what a White Guard is and -- or was and what a Red Guard was?
Well, I mean a White Guard was the phrase, in fact, which has now become fairly common, but which the communists always tended to use afterwards. It was basically anybody who was fighting on the anti-Bolshevik side, the -- those who, if you`d like, many Tsarist officers. They may not necessarily wanted a reimposition of the monarchy, but they certainly wanted to destroy the -- the new Bolshevik government. And the Red Guards were, obviously, the -- those fighting, if you like, the most educated fighters on the communist side.
I noticed in your background there is a place called Sandhurst.
How many years did you spend there?
Well, Sandhurst was two years. I mean, in those days, those days Sandhurst was a full two-year Sunday university course.
Where is it?
It`s not far from London. It`s, I`d say 30 miles, 30 miles west of London.
What`s the equivalent here in the United States?
West Point. I mean, you know, it`s a -- I mean, we used to do exercises with West Point cadets and things like that.
Have you been in the service?
Yes, yes. I was a -- I was a regular officer, who then decided to get out and write.
How long were you in the service?
Five years altogether.
And when did you get interested in this -- I know one of the books you wrote about was this -- the Spanish civil war.
When did you get interested in -- in this whole Russian story?
Well, that in fact just came about -- I was always -- I had always been intrigued by the whole of that 1917 period, where there was an international civil war. You found all of these revolutions breaking out all over, Hungary, Germany, as well as in Russia, obviously. The Finnish Civil War and so forth. And nothing had ever really linked them up. And that was one thing which intrigued me. The Spanish Civil War was again fascinating, because it was again another sort of internationalized civil war, which many people saw as, obviously, the prototype or -- of the second world war. It was in a way sort of -- all of these things which were leading towards the second world war or referred to it in a way that -- that I found it very intriguing.
Where do you live today?
In London, but do a lot of the writing down in the country, near Canterbury, in Kent.
Is -- are you a full-time writer?
And can you make it as an independent -- I mean, can you make it in this world just doing writing for books?
Do you have to do anything else?
No. "Stalingrad" and "Berlin" between them sold over two million copies. So ...
How many different languages have ...
How does that work?
Well, I`ve got a wonderful agent who in fact has -- also has offices around the world, and so when a book, I suppose, like "Stalingrad" takes off in the way that it does, you know, it is that much easier to sell foreign rights, and in fact, you know, all over -- I think every single European country now except for Iceland, as well as some countries in South America and then even the Far East, with China, Korea, Japan.
What year did you write "Stalingrad?"
"Stalingrad" -- it came out in 1998.
And when the process begins at 24 different languages, how long did it take for these -- these books to come out in 24 different places?
Well -- I mean, one or two of them haven`t even quite yet appeared. I mean, for example, I don`t think that the Korean edition of "Stalingrad" has yet come out, but I mean, it`s quite a time-consuming process, because quite often you`d go and do a promotional tour in one or two of those countries. I mean, at one stage I did 10 European countries in -- in three months. When that was sort of quite -- quite exhausting. But it is certainly worth it. I mean, it makes a huge difference.
And where did you sell the most copies of "Stalingrad"?
Oh, in Britain. In absolute terms. I suppose in population terms, probably in Sweden, with only eight million -- sold over 150,000 copies in a population just -- just over eight million.
So, what you learned from all this understanding about Russia, where is it going to go as a country?
It is going to take a long time. And what one fears very much looking at recent events is the attitude of the rulers have certainly changed very, very little. Putin taking advantage of the Beslan massacre not to improve measures of security or whatever, purely to increase his own power, by changing the whole system of governors and by stopping direct elections to the Duma. So I mean, one seeing -- one seeing very much a step towards sort of authoritarian regime again from the Kremlin. Unfortunately, even though many Russians were outraged by the incompetence of the whole of the way the sort of Beslan thing was handled, which is not surprising when one sees the way that the Russian army has acted in Chechnya -- they still believe that sort of, you know, Putin is a strong leader.
The trouble was Yeltsin was sort of so chaotic in so many ways that they were longing for somebody who they could see as -- as strong. And he had an 80 percent approval rating recently. That has now dropped to 60 percent. But that`s even after the Beslan catastrophe, which to a certain degree was the responsibility of the Russian forces there. I mean, they hadn`t secured the perimeter. They were simply not doing the job properly. And they allowed in all of these parents shooting guns to sort of launch their own attack, because they just simply weren`t ready. Now, I mean, if you are going to have that sort of incompetence and then try to -- then try to exploit it, it is -- it`s a bit depressing. So it really shows that they haven`t learned much. They haven`t forgotten anything, and they haven`t learned much.
What have you noticed in your -- when was the last time you were there?
A few months ago, in September -- in the autumn, yes. Yes, that`s right. Yes.
What have you noticed has changed in the last 10 years over there?
Oh, a huge amount has changed. I mean, the -- there were many improvements, I mean, you know, Moscow is being transformed. I mean, you could never have imagined it looking like any world class city now in the way that it does. It was just sort of falling to pieces a few years ago. But the trouble is that, of course, in the provinces, there is terrible suffering and hunger. One seeing a very alarming polarization between the mega-rich and those who have literally no chance at all. And that, I think, is going to stir up problems in the future.
But I think the real problem with Russia at the moment is that it still cannot quite face up to the past. And it is -- that`s going to take two or three generations. So it`s -- it`s a process where maybe they will eventually manage to make the break with this sort of feeling and need for authoritarianism. Maybe sort of an economic takeoff of some form, which is -- should certainly be coming, because it is a very potentially, a very rich country -- will also give them the sort of confidence so that they can actually move towards a proper democracy rather than this sort of veiled authoritarianism.
Do you think they would want to come back as a military power?
Oh, I think so. I think that Putin -- not, not as if you like a -- an imperial power in the way they were in the past. But I think they certainly want to be a strong power, because they feel -- they certainly felt humiliated by the end of the Cold War. There was a feeling that somehow the West had tricked them. It was a dirty trick, to force them into bankruptcy and to have destroyed their power and all the rest of it. And those -- there is still a lot of the old feeling, partly because of the way they see, and I can -- in a way, I can sympathize with it -- the widows of the veterans of the second world war begging in the metro stations still. But that`s because there is virtually no social security system or anything like that. But again, you know, that is the fault of the Russian government. They are not collecting the taxes properly. I mean, you know, the mega billionaires are getting away with it. So ...
Is there any area outside of Moscow that has really done well?
There are one or two, yes. I mean, Petersburg obviously is doing -- doing pretty well. And, you know, I think that its IT capacity is -- is very great, and I think it will go on. I think we can see Russia being always possibly not necessarily rival to the U.S., but it might well become quite a power in the IT world. And -- but, really outside sort of, you know, the major population centers, there are very, very few places which are actually happy or doing well.
Back to the question I asked about this book, "The Mystery of Olga Chekhova." What changed about your attitude about what you are writing about? Who were the characters that came out as you learned more and more as you did your research that you really enjoyed?
Oh, well, I mean -- I think in a way, one of the great characters, of course, is Chekhov`s -- is Chekhov`s widow. Olya, aunt Olya. And she is a controversial character. Some people suggest that she also compromised and became an NKVD agent and denounced people, and all the rest of it. But the trouble is, of course, theater gossip in Russia was probably -- could be as -- as vicious as it is anywhere else. I mean, people within the Moscow Art Theater tried to say that she would seduce young actors by promising to save them from the secret police. But I`m sure that was -- that was actually an invention. One has to be very, very careful about these sorts of rumors. But she was a very remarkable character. That does not necessarily mean she was automatically lovable. Lev, though, I think is a terrifying character. The brother, the composer. He ...
What -- when is this picture ...
That was taken -- that was taken when he was in Tehran, at the time when he was supposed to be trying to defect to the Germans. It may have been after he was ordered to drop the assassination attempt, because Stalin didn`t want -- wanted to be continued with.
Let me again go -- just so people who`ve lost track -- Olga Chekhova was related -- who was her mother and father? Who were her mother and father?
Well, her mother and father were the -- were Knippers. And she then was the niece of Olga Knipper-Chekhova, Chekhov`s wife and widow. And then she married Misha Chekhov, who was Chekhov`s nephew. So in fact, she was a sort of a double -- she was a double niece.
So Anton Chekhov was her uncle.
So Anton Chekhov was her uncle. He was not her uncle by blood, but he was her uncle twice over, based through his marriage to her real blood aunt and through her marriage to his blood nephew. Oh, dear. Is that not any clearer?
But you were talking -- starting to talk about Lev. In the end, how -- what happened to him?
Well, again, he survived. I mean, here was somebody who had been a White Guard, was an NKVD agent. I mean, you have the -- he was obviously a very brave man in the war and all the rest of it. But whenever he was about to go on some sort of desperate mission, not through any cowardice on his part or anything like that, that was stopped.
Here is a picture of him on the left. And that`s Aunt Olya on the right...
That`s Aunt Olya on the right.
What -- what year would that have been?
I think that would have been probably in the late `50s or maybe `40s actually. It was -- or late `40s, yes. It`s probably late `40s.
And who survived in the family all of this...
They`ve all survived. I mean this is -- this is the astonishing thing. They have all survived.
Except for Anton Chekhov.
But except for Anton -- no. But he -- he died of natural causes. I mean, what I`m saying is when I say -- they died, sure. But they died of natural causes. They didn`t die in front of an execution squad or in a concentration camp, which was ...
Was -- was Olga Chekhova a double agent?
She was -- I think she was just an agent for the Soviet Union. I don`t think she was -- she was certainly -- wasn`t an agent for the Gestapo or anything like that, or for German intelligence, no. I don`t think there is any question about that.
There is a picture here also of Olga Chekhova along with Conrad Lorentz (ph)...
Receiving the Cross of the Order of Merit in 1972. What was the significance of this?
Well, I mean...
She is on the -- on the right.
That`s right. I mean, what the extraordinary thing is, there she is, being awarded honors by the West German government, who have no idea that in fact she`s been a spy and agent for the -- for the Soviets.
So at the end, tell us about what happened at the end, after the war is over. She`s still in Germany. What did the Soviets do for -- or what did the Germans do for her? Where does she live, and the cosmetic company ...
Well, yes, that`s -- that was an intriguing story. And again, one doesn`t know -- that`s another mystery, in a way. She returns from Berlin -- to -- from -- to Berlin from Moscow, after the time she has been debriefed in Moscow at the end of the war. She -- they then find her (UNINTELLIGIBLE) gets her this huge sort of palatial house on -- in a beautiful position. She is given guards, cars, fuel, everything she needs looked after in -- in an amazing way. She`s then allowed to, in fact or encouraged, we don`t exactly know, to then -- to move to West Berlin. And I think in the chaos of the time, I don`t think that there is any hint that either the British or the Americans had any idea of really what she had been up to. And...
Well, there were rumors at the time and all the rest of it. But I didn`t think that anybody took those very seriously. She may have come up with some very important information, because in 1953, Beria trusts her, and ...
And who is Beria?
Sorry, Beria is Stalin`s chief of secret police.
And a brutal human being.
A brutal human being, who personally tortured to death a number of people and thoroughly enjoyed it. Beria -- in 1953, Stalin dies, Beria wants to take over as Soviet leader. There is a power struggle behind the throne. Beria is opposed by Khrushchev and the others. But Beria is much brighter than all of the rest of them, and he foresees quite clearly that the Soviet Union is so ruined by the war and will take years to recover, that it would be much better to reduce the -- the armament needs by allowing the reunification of Germany -- that you demilitarize Germany -- and in fact, the quid pro quo would be for the United States to do some form of Marshall Plan for the Soviet Union.
Well, that`s, of course, is regarded almost as sort of anathema or treason amongst sort of the hard-line communists like Khrushchev and the others. I mean, Beria, although he was a brutal so and so, was, in fact, a very clever and sort of far-thinking man. So one must not underestimate him. And he wanted to find out really what leading West Germans like, presumably, Conrad Adenauer and others were thinking. And again, gross overestimation of Olga Chekhova`s capacities, as if sort of, you know, she was a woman who had a political salon or something like that. She wasn`t -- she was just an actress. And again, you know, Soviet intelligence got this wrong. But they send into East Berlin Zoya Rybkina, who is the head of the German desk of Moscow`s center, to meet up with Olga to give her her orders.
Meanwhile, he`s sending -- Beria is sending Prince Radziwill (ph) to the States as his emissary to find out whether the States will be prepared to play ball on this. But 26th of June, the day that Olga Chekhova meets Zoya Rybkina, the KGB colonel in East Berlin is the day that Khrushchev and the others, with Marshal Zhukov, spring their trap on Beria and arrest him. So, all of people who are Beria`s proteges, like Olga Chekhova, Zoya Rybkina, were immediately in danger. Olga manages to slip back across the border. And I think she in a way, although it to be a narrow escape, she probably breathed a deep sigh of relief, at the idea that maybe she`s now free of Soviet intelligence and she can lead her own life. And she eventually moves to Munich, acts in a lot more cinema, movies, and even sets up her own movie company, which goes bust.
Then she sets up, Olga Chekhova Cosmetique, a cosmetics company. And the intriguing thing about this is that her movie company, Venus Films, which does sound as if it`s a rather dubious production company, but in fact it was making purely ordinary films, Venus Films have gone bankrupt. So she lost a lot of money there. So where did the money come from for the cosmetics company? Now, the KGB people we interviewed in Moscow are obviously convinced, oh, this was KGB money. But here again, you`ve got to be very, very cautious, because they always liked to see the hand of the KGB was behind everything. So, again, one has to be careful of sort of, you know, the myths -- the myths and the legends of the intelligence world. But the great irony of all was, you know, you start with Anton Chekhov and then four generations later, her granddaughter is going out with Elvis Presley. It`s -- I mean, when I found this out sort of -- it was here in a book of history. I felt it was like a sort of novel. I mean, it`s like almost like (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...
What happened to that romance?
It didn`t last very long. I mean, he`d met her in Frankfurt, I think, originally. She was -- she was a very beautiful young actress.
In the `50s?
Yes. In the `50s. Yes. And then followed her back to Munich and stayed, I think, in Olga`s apartment in Munich, and sort of pursued her there. But whether they had -- whether they had an affair or not, I have no idea. He was obviously deeply smitten by her and then followed her again.
Who is alive today?
The granddaughter, Vera Chekhova, is alive.
Did you talk to her?
Yes. But she obviously was not prepared to talk about -- about Elvis Presley. She was only prepared to talk about her grandmother, fair enough.
How old is she today?
She was born in -- she must be -- she must be in sort of early 60s now.
By the way, because we are out of time almost, your favorite Chekhov writing?
I think "The Lady..." one of the short stories -- "Lady with a Dog." I think it`s such a brilliant -- brilliant piece of prose. But, of course, the plays as well.
Olga died in what year?
Olga Chekhova died in 1980.
Oh, I mean -- old age in a way ...
Well, she would by then was -- must have been about 82, 83. And what she wanted to do was she sent Vera -- and Vera told us this -- she sent Vera down into the cellar where the wine was, because Anton Chekhov had died with a glass of champagne in his hand, and she wanted to do the same. And so Vera was ordered to bring back the champagne, having been told exactly where it was. She drank one glass of champagne, and then said "life is beautiful" and died. And that`s somebody who obviously controlled their death as much as they tried to control their life.
What are you working on next?
What I`m working on it`s -- it`s a smaller book, in a way. I mean, a small book in the sense that it is an edited book, of Vasily Grossman, the Russian novelist. And his war time letters and papers.
Antony Beevor is our guest. This is the cover of the book. It is called "The Mystery of Olga Chekhova." Thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you very much, indeed.