May 10th, 2006

WTF

Skating along the edge of the furnace

I actually finished The Mystery of Olga Chekhova over the weekend, but gave it a couple of days to marinate first before I sat down to do a review.

This is a story of someone who managed to be in the right places at the right time to avoid getting sucked into the maws of the Nazi concentration camps and the GULag, despite seemingly being in all the wrong places at the wrong times and being what under other circumstances would have been considered a Socially Dangerous Element by the secret police of both regimes. Was Olga Chekhova a Soviet spy? She certainly seems to have gotten the red-carpet treatment accorded a top-rank agent as Germany was collapsing under the hammer blows of the Red Army in 1945, and somehow avoided the lethal infighting that killed off so many agents in the Stalin era. On the other hand, she certainly seems to have done well under the Reich, although how much of this is due to Goebbels' favor and how much to the ineptitude of the Gestapo is an open question. There's also the distinct possibility that as an actress, she had long ago mastered the art of playing both sides off against each other in such a skilful way that neither ever grew suspicious.

Anthony Beevor does a good job of showing how Chekhova survived and thrived (and managed to do some good along the way) at a time when millions, including members of her own family, were being fed into the meatgrinder and/or thrown onto the human waste pile that was Russia in the 1920s and 30s and Europe in the 1940s. Beevor also throws the spotlight on Chekhova's brother Lev, who was clearly a Chekist despite his White Guard origins, and the rest of her family in the Soviet Union. It's not a happy story, by any means; the twists and turns of the murderous factional fights under Stalin are clearly shown, as well as the squalid lives of the millions under his rule. Worth reading, although the book left me with a curious sensation of insubstantialness, as if I'd been reading an outline of a play without the dialogue or a history from which all the names of people and places had been deleted. Very strange.