I seem to have slipped out of the habit of reading non-fiction lately – and that’s odd, because I used to favour that type of book a lot. So I was pleased to pick up this particular volume in the Oxfam; and as I’m about to embark on a couple of very *large* fiction works, I thought I’d read the Chekhova first.

olgaAnthony Beevor is of course well-known for his books on Stalingrad, and also on Berlin in 1945, so he has the background for this type of work. Olga Chekhova was niece to Chekhov thorough his mother’s (Knipper) side of the family, and also through marriage to his nephew Mikhail (from the Chekhov side of the family). In fact, the whole family tree is a bit convoluted (and not helped by there being several Olgas) and the book would have benefited from a drawn family tree, rather than a written summary. This book tells the story of her life, from her young marriage to her cousin Misha, the rapid breakdown of that relationship, how she survived war and revolution, fled to Berlin and became an actress in German cinema, and somehow lived through the war in Germany, survived the fall of Berlin and lived to tell the tale. Alongside, we hear of her brother Lev, a spy for Russia, and the fate of all the Knippers and Chekhovs, including the original Olga Knipper – the great writer’s wife, and our Olga’s aunt (known as Aunt Olya throughout the book).

This is a surprisingly slim volume (some 234 pages) to tell what is in fact quite a big story, and therein lies the problem. Beevor obviously knows his stuff, and has done tons of research, but somehow the book feels thin and underdone. The “mystery” of the title is about Olga’s survival – was she spying for Russia and to what extent; and if not, how did she survive the liberation of Berlin when she should have been shot on the spot by the Red Army as a traitor, but instead was flown back to Russian for ‘interrogation’ and then returned to luxury in post-war Berlin? The obvious assumption is that she was spying for the Russians, but to what level is unclear and this book doesn’t really come up with any definite conclusions.

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And because of its short length, the book does feel a little rushed; because it covers such a long period of history, and such a dramatic one at that, it could have been so much longer and more in-depth. Instead, it ends up feeling a little like a summary instead of a full length book, and that’s a great pity; because Beevor is a first-class writer and has obviously done so much research here, which isn’t done justice. Where he excels is in capturing the chaos, confusion and uncertainty of war and revolution; the horror and the violence; the ever-changing borders and alliances; the starvation and the fear; and the unbelievable bizarreness of some situations, like the Moscow Arts Theatre going out on an acting tour in the middle of a civil war.

The book is very readable and so I ended up a bit frustrated because I felt it could have been so much more. It paints a wonderful and fascinating picture of the fates of the various members of the Chekhov-Knipper families, but this is only a glimpse rather than the full detailed story. In some ways, the title is a misnomer, as there is no real mystery about Olga and her spying, and what there is will probably never be resolved. In fact, the book seems to have more about brother Lev’s exploits than Olga’s, and as the Russian archives have been opened, there is probably not much more that can be found out.

Another thing that I wondered about was exactly to whom the book was pitched. It didn’t come across as detailed enough to be scholarly, although assumes too much background knowledge for the general reader. This probably all sounds very negative, and I don’t want it to seem like I think this is a bad book, because I did enjoy reading it. It was more a case of wishing it had gone further, and the subtitle of the book, “The true story of a family torn apart by revolution and war”, gives the hint of where I would like it to have gone. A much more in-depth study of the lives of the Chekhov/Knippers would have been a satisfying read, particularly as Aunt Olya was the dominant character throughout.

After the war, the story is wound up quite quickly, and the reader can’t help agreeing with Beevor when he concludes: “The simple answer is that Olga Chekhova, ever since the collapse of her marriage to Mikhail Chekhov, had been a determined survivor, prepared to make whatever compromises were necessary. She had a number of failings, particularly her relationship with the truth, yet she remained a brave and resourceful woman whose main priority was to protect her family and friends.” More than that we will probably never know. I did like this book, but I do think it was something of a missed opportunity…

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