THE MYSTERY OF OLGA CHEKHOVA

Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Russian Spy?

By Antony Beevor

Viking. 300 pp. $24.95

The British historian Antony Beevor, author of the best-selling "The Spanish Civil War," "The Fall of Berlin 1945" and "Stalingrad," has peerlessly mined the wars of the 20th century to become a bankable star, in the league of John le Carre. Now he has ventured into le Carre's turf of espionage but with a historian's pen. Beevor has trudged back to the prewar days of Soviet intelligence to bring us the story of Olga Chekhova, Hitler's favorite actress and the beguiling niece of Anton Chekhov.

"The Mystery of Olga Chekhova" is ostensibly the life story of one woman's secret service to the Soviet state, but it is not a biography. Chekhova's life, told solely in its implausible zigzags, may have been more aptly served up in a Vanity Fair profile. With only "a smuggled diamond ring," she escaped Bolshevik Moscow, re-created herself as an actress in Weimar Berlin and gained fame in the margins of the Nazi elite before suffering through -- or perhaps enjoying, a question about which Beevor lets us wonder -- brief but telling encounters with the chief henchmen of Stalin's secret police, the NKVD. To his credit, and the book's favor, Beevor lays bare the limits of Chekhova's consequence. By his tale's end, shorn of myth, his protagonist is revealed to be an opportunistic actress, a flagrant embellisher and a spy of dubious accomplishment. Beevor, however, adroitly elevates his material, setting an ungainly life against the most spectacular turns of Europe's past century. The result is a gem, a small tale spun large, a familial epic freighted with historical drama.

From the start, there is more here than meets the eye. Beevor reveals little interest in Chekhova's film oeuvre but is careful to note that she falsely claimed to have studied under Stanislavsky at the famed Moscow Arts Theater -- the house Chekhov built and the beloved stage of his wife, Olga Knipper-Chekhova. Chekhova, Beevor writes, ascended in large part on her uncle's name.

The book opens with a cast list of dramatis personae enumerating no fewer than 17 members of the two Chekhov and Knipper clans. But the sufferings of Chekhov's widow, who survived him by 55 years, form one of the narrative's richer threads. Rarely does the text marry the family and national histories so well as when this grand dame of Moscow theater appears. Consider a passage by Knipper-Chekhova exposing the sad ironies of the early Bolshevik regime: " 'I was playing patience late into the night, looking up from time to time at the row of brightly lit confiscated mansions on the opposite side of the bulvar and the reflection of brightly lit windows in the liquid mud. It was rather like being in Venice.' The young commissars had wasted little time in expropriating the grand houses of those they had dispossessed in a show of high moral outrage."

Or, on the Nazi bombing of Moscow, hear how the playwright's widow, then 72, "lectured newcomers on how to deal with incendiary bombs: 'One has to take it by the fins,' she told them, 'and throw it out of the window into the sand [piled outside]. It is very simple.' " One wishes that Knipper-Chekhova could own center stage and not be forced, in successive cameos, to steal it.

At the heart of Beevor's tale, however, is the question of Olga Chekhova's espionage. He rightly discounts her own memoirs to offer piquant scenes -- a Nazi reception here, an NKVD rendezvous there -- placing Chekhova in the company of the reigning rogues of the day. He tells of the gift basket the Fuehrer sent her on the last Christmas before he turned against Stalin, and how in July 1941, weeks after the Nazi invasion, Magda Goebbels rang her "to invite her to a Sunday lunch." ("The charming Olga," Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels called Chekhova in his diaries.)

By then, Chekhova was likely already working for Moscow. Beevor draws out Chekhova's links to Stalin's secret policemen, admirably sifting the plausible and probable from the known. Beevor rightly highlights the telling moments in a confounding life history. One came in Berlin in November 1940, when Olga met a top NKVD boss, Vsevolod Merkulov, at a Soviet embassy dinner. Hitler was absent, but feasting in the marble hall on "silver confiscated after the revolution," the Russian-born actress of German ancestry sat amid German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. And "at some stage," writes Beevor, "Olga Chekhova was drawn aside . . . to be introduced to Merkulov," a rising star who had already helped oversee the mass murder of Polish officers in the Katyn woods. But even though Beevor makes superb use of memoirs, interviews and documents, without the NKVD files, he admits he cannot gauge what good this well-placed source did for Stalin. He does suggest, however, that "she certainly appeared to be in a good position to assist the two main priorities for Soviet intelligence" -- Stalin's hunger to learn "Hitler's source of strength" and to identify "influential people in Germany who opposed the idea of an attack on the Soviet Union."

Still, time and again, Beevor tamps down expectations. At one point he calls Chekhova "just a 'sleeper.' " At another, he derides the British paper that splashed a headline after the war, attacking her as "The Spy Who Vamped Hitler." He may, however, overdo it on the historical impartiality. There is no need here to hedge; the question mark that anchors his subtitle -- "Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Soviet Spy?" -- seems more like marketing bait than a bow to decorum. Beevor concedes that the record is incomplete, but there can be no question that Chekhova served, in some fashion, Soviet intelligence. One telling fact is that although Moscow meticulously persecuted Soviets of German descent, "no member of the Knipper family was touched." Indicative, too, of a cozy NKVD relationship was Olga's sudden return, after 25 years, to Moscow at the war's end. Even more revealing was the gift she received after her brief stay: a mansion, under NKVD protection, in the Berlin district of Friedrichshagen.

The ballast that lends Olga's story both gravity and expectancy is Beevor's military history. His Nazis do not just slog on Napoleon's footsteps to Moscow; they advance gravely, with suspense and precision. So fine is his historical drama that at times it threatens to overshadow his heroine's life. The result: What little we know of Olga is in danger of seeming like even less.

Part of the trouble is the residual Soviet cult of official secrecy. Beevor resorts to safe ground in deciding whether she had been an "adventuress," as Chekhov's widow believed, or a dedicated Soviet agent: "As is so often the case, neither alternative tells the whole truth. Olga Chekhova had accepted the invitations to Nazi receptions, partly to safeguard her career and partly out of curiosity. She was neither a Nazi nor a Communist." He concludes simply that she "had been a determined survivor, prepared to make whatever compromises were necessary."

In the end, "The Mystery of Olga Chekhova" is not even a spy story, but a tale, like the best stories from the Soviet century, of struggle and survival. Therein lies Beevor's achievement. This book depicts the hardships, and hard choices, all Russians faced under Stalin. As such, he has offered a small gem, far more compelling and lasting than the saga of a sad actress caught between two totalitarian states -- a miniature of a century of turmoil and tragedy.