Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Antony Beevor's The Mystery of Olga Chekhova

A friend of mine once confessed to me that he loved to play the "lottery game" as opposed to playing the lottery itself.  That is to say, this friend liked to imagine what he would do if he won a million dollars.  Up until that time I had naively imagined this game of fantasy to be something that I had personally discovered.  What is the source of our passion for this kind of counter factual activity?  Is the "lottery game" a  form of unhealthy escapism or does it actually propel us to investigate his core values?  What would we do if time and money didn't prevent us from living the life we really want, deep down?  Is it only money that prevents us from taking a different kind of job?  Do we really want to be free of work altogether?  The answers  to these and similar fanciful questions can be revealing.  For me one Russian history equivalent of the "lottery game" is to imagine the survival of a figure of nineteenth century Russia into the twentieth century.  What would Pushkin or Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Turgenev have made of the Russian Revolution?  How would liberal sympathy for Russia's oppressed masses have been translated when confronted with street violence, civil war, and purges?  Of course, most if not all nineteenth century writers did wrestle with revolutionary ideas as well as events, and at least a few "nineteenth century" men and women actually lived long enough into the twentieth century to see the 1905 Revolution first hand.  But we can't ultimately know how Tolstoy would have reacted to the lived experience of Bolshevik insurrection and Bolshevik government.  On the other hand, Tolstoy's family did encounter real revolution, so we can get at least a glimpse of what Tolstoy himself might have thought about the communist experiment.  So too did Chekhov's family encounter the world's first communist government.

The best overall treatment of these way aristocratic families--Tolstoys and Nabokovs and Bunins included--suffered at the hands of the Reds is provided by Douglas Smith's wonderful new book, Former People:  The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy.  But although Smith's book deserves the scholarly attention it is already getting, Antony Beevor's smaller book, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, deserves some attention as well.  To be sure, the Chekhov/Knipper family was not an aristrocratic clan.  However, the Chekhovs and Knippers, representatives of the famed Moscow Art Theatre, came to embody Russia's creative aristocracy.  Their ambiguous position between Old Russia and New Russia is tantalizing to say the least. On the one hand, the Moscow Art Theatre symbolized Russia's enduring claim to greatness even in the midst of economic and political confusion.  If the West had doubts about the Bolsheviks, let them remember that Russia had only recently invented some of Europe's most prized expressions of modernity.  On the other hand, the Moscow Art Theatre had been a product of the bourgeois, not proletarian, imagination.  How valuable any cultural institution be if it predated the proletarian revolution of 1917?

Ultimately, Antony Beevor devotes his book to one Chekhov/Knipper in particular, Anton Chekhov's niece, Olga Chekhova.  Fascinatingly, Olga left the Soviet Union and soon emerged as a film star in Wiemar, and then Nazi, Germany.  Olga's strange career tells us a great deal about how extraordinarily difficult it could be to bridge the gap between nineteenth and twentieth century Russia, and nineteenth and twentieth century Europe in general.  For Olga, who traded on her uncle's fame in order to establish her bona fides in the Central and Western Europe industry, ultimately found it necessary or perhaps desirable to become a Soviet "sleeper" spy even as she attended celebrity events with Hitler, Goebbels, and other high-ranking Nazi officials.  At one point, Stalin and Beria were apparently intent on using her to help assassinate Hitler. Of course, the niece's precarious life choices don't really tell us what Anton Chekhov would have thought about either the Soviets or the Nazis, but the fact that his cultural heirs were obligated to weave their way between two of modernity's greatest monsters, Hitler and Stalin, tells us something dreadful about how degraded European culture had become since the Moscow Art Theatre first opened its doors in 1898.

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