Misha and the actress who loved him

by Nagesh Havanur
3/15/2020 – When Misha Tal was young, amatory conquest was as important to him as conquest over the chess board. Some liaisons were fleeting and others lasted longer. The affair with "Actress L." was perhaps the most “scandalous” of them all. Who was she? Our columnist makes some astonishing discoveries. | Photo: kino-teatr.ru

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Part 6: A veteran actress bids adieu


This is part six of a story on "Checkmate", a book authored by Sally Landau

Read part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5


Larisa KronbergMoscow, 23rd April, 2017. She had not picked up the phone in spite of repeated calls. Finally, they had come to her apartment and rung the bell. There was no response. In the end they had called the police. They had the door broken and found her sitting motionless on the couch.

Larisa Kronberg (photo: kino-teatr.ru), veteran actress of yesteryears was no more. She was 87 years old. The curtain had at last come down over a life stranger than fiction.

Larisa made her debut in the Russian film, Большая семья (“Big Family”) in 1954.

The film with an ensemble cast won an award at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1955 and it is still remembered.

In a career that spanned three decades she acted in a number of films, Girl with a guitarOleko Dundich and The Bride from the North among others. In her younger days she was a wild, adventurous spirit who took on any challenge that came her way.

Большая семья (“Big Family”) in 1954

She loved the good things of life and enjoyed shopping. But money was in short supply. More importantly she needed a place of her own to reside in Moscow. Then an opportunity presented itself.

A pawn in the Great Game

Back in 1950s the Soviet Union and the USA were at the height of cold war. The Soviets were keen to wean away Western Europe from the U.S. influence and control, especially, NATO. For this, they needed France as an ally. But French politics was in turmoil and its future course remained uncertain. The Soviets needed a highly placed mole to know what went on in the French corridors of power and closed door meetings on foreign policy at Quai d’Orsay. More importantly, they wanted their own man to influence, if not determine the French decisions.

This began in earnest in December 1955, when Maurice Dejean arrived as the French Ambassador to Moscow.

Photo: antiquariat-lorenz.de

The KGB identified him as the first target for recruitment and it was top priority. Col. Leonid Kunavin directing the new operation put it tersely, “The order comes from the very top. Nikita Sergeyevich (Khrushchev) himself wants him caught.”

Khrushchev

Photo: encyclopediaofukraine.com

Larisa becomes a red swallow!

How was this to be done? Dejean was not the sort who would be lured by money. However, he had a roving eye and a weakness for young women. So it was going to be a honey trap. The KGB knew how to do it. It chose young aspiring actresses to tempt Western diplomats to compromise themselves. For the work, it offered them various inducements—the promise of better roles, money, clothes, a measure of liberty and gaiety absent from normal Soviet life.

The girls were called “swallows”. Flats were provided to them for assignations with their targets—these were “swallows” and “nests” were provided for assignations with their targets. Each consisted of two adjoining rooms; one for the tryst and the other for the KGB team to record everything for blackmail.

In Larisa Kronberg the KGB found an ideal candidate for their operation. They called her “Lora”.

She was bold and brazen, importantly she would throw herself into any role.

Lora

Photo: https://www.kino-teatr.ru

She agreed to go along with their designs on Dejean and her reward was to be an apartment in Moscow.

No fool like an old fool!

In a “chance meeting” Larisa became acquainted with Dejean and in no time he became infatuated with her. He was also naïve enough to believe her cover story: She was married and her husband was away in Siberia. He was insanely jealous and given to fits of violence.

Larisa was a consummate actress and the ageing diplomat swallowed it all, hook line and sinker. There is no fool like an old fool!

Enter Oleg Gribanov

Meanwhile the KGB had opened the second front against the ambassador. He was introduced to Oleg Gorbunov, a high-ranking official in the Council of Ministers.

In reality he was Oleg Gribanov, heading Second Chief Directorate, KGB.

Oleg Gribanov

Photo: ru.wikipedia.org

Gribanov offers a script for his actors

Gribanov gave Dejean the impression that he commanded a lot of influence in the corridors of power in Kremlin. Dejean was taken in by the suave and the sophisticated airs of Gribanov and began to consult him on any issue in the line of work.

As luck would have it, Dejean’s wife left Moscow for a vacation in Europe. Now the whole plan was set in motion. Larisa would invite Dejean to her apartment for an assignation. Right when the two lovers would be in bed they would be surprised by an enraged “husband”. Now that role was to be played by a Tatar thug, Misha.

Gribanov summoned his deputy, Kunavin and this gangster for a final briefing.

 “I want you to beat the hell out of him,” meaning Dejean. “Really hurt him. Terrify him. But I warn you, if you leave one mark on his face, I’ll put you both in jail.”

On her part Larisa was only too delighted to play the role of seductress.

As soon as Dejean ended up in her apartment the fun and frolic between the two began in earnest.

“Stop! He is the Ambassador of France!”

Then the door opened to let in the “husband” and his friend. All hell broke loose.

“It’s my husband!” Larisa screamed.

“I can’t believe it!” Misha shouted,” All day I flew just to be with you a few hours earlier, and what do I find!”

“Misha, oh please, “Larisa pleaded, “He’s an ambassador.”

“I don’t give a damn who he is!” roared Misha. “I am going to teach him a lesson.”

Then they set upon Djean, viciously beating him.

Larisa too was slapped and pummeled for theatrical effect.

All the while she put up a superlative performance, crying and screaming, “Stop! You’re going to kill him! He is the Ambassador of France!”

Finally, as planned, Kunavin grabbed Misha as if to restrain him. “Listen,” he said, “If he is really an ambassador, maybe we would better stop.”

“All right, all right,” Misha agreed, still pretending fury.

But it is not going to end here I am going to the authorities. I am just a plain Soviet citizen, but we have laws in our country. If you are an ambassador, I am going to see that you are expelled. The whole world will know what a filthy swine you are.”

Amidst growing threats Dejean gathered his clothes with as much dignity as the circumstances permitted and left. Nearly collapsing in the back seat of his car, he said to his chauffeur, “The Embassy”. The chauffeur, watching him in the mirror, saw him bury his face in his hands.

“You forget, I am an actress!”

Then the celebration began and champagne flowed even as everyone rushed to congratulate Larisa.

Gribanov said, “You were just perfect and then added in some embarrassment,

“But you ought to be more modest in the presence of men.”

Larisa laughed at him “You forget,” she said, “I am an actress”

Then she glared at Kunavin, “Look, what you did to me!” pointing to the bruises on her body,

“I am sorry,” he apologized. “It had to be done. Please take a few days off and rest in bed.”

“And my room?” she asked. “Do I get my room?”

“Yes, Lora. You will have a room.”

A desperate Dejean is caught on the hook

At 8 o’clock that evening Dejean arrived at a dacha to keep a dinner appointment. Waiting for him was a friendly host-the same man who three hours before had secretly presided over his beating and degradation. Days before Gribanov had arranged for this party to follow closely upon the beating. The KGB wanted to accord Dejean an opportunity to ask for the help he now desperately required. Throughout the dinner Dejean barely managed to keep up appearances of a cheerful guest even as his body ached from the ordeal. Thereafter he could not withstand it any more. He took his host, Gribanov aside and quietly said, “I am in bad trouble. I need your help.” 

“This is extremely serious.” Gribanov commented, “The husband has the law on his side. If he goes to court he could make quite a scandal.”

“I would be indebted to you for anything you could do,” said Dejean.

“I will do all I can,”Gribanov replied. “But Mr. Ambassador, I must be candid. I am not sure we will succeed in hushing this up.”

Dejean begged him again and again in the days that followed. Gribanov merely toyed with him, saying, the husband was obstinate and unreasonable. Finally one day he told Dejean “We have persuaded the man to keep quiet in the interest of Soviet-French relations. Unless he changes his mind, you’re all right.”

Dejean was profoundly grateful. Gribanov on his part was an embodiment of tact and never mentioned Larisa again. From then on Dejean confided in him on all matters of state that concerned him as an ambassador.

How to get to President de Gaulle

By this time Charles de Gaulle had become the President of France. The veteran leader was known for his fierce independence. While he did not care for communism, he did resist the U.S. domination and saw himself as the sole spokesman for Europe.

cartoon

“His dream….”
A contemporary cartoon by Hans Geisen | Photo: cvce.eu

Dejean had worked under the old general as a member of the Free French Movement during the Second World War. The Soviets näively thought he was close to the grand old man and hoped, one day he would return to Paris and become a member of de Gaulle’s inner council. Return, he did, but not in the way that they had hoped for. And it was all KGB’s fault. For once it had overreached itself.

“Mr. Ambassador, there has been accident.”

Intoxicated with its success over Dejean, it now targeted Colonel Louis Guibaud, a military attaché at the French Embassy.  Microphones secreted in his apartment revealed that his married life was far from happy. The Guibaud couple quarreled fiercely and frequently. To the KGB this was a signal for action.

It exposed him to a succession of women until one succeeded him into luring him into an affair. In early summer of 1962 Guibaud was confronted by three men in civilian clothes. They spread before him an array of photographs documenting his liaison. Then they gave him a brutal choice: secret collaboration with the KGB or public disgrace. Guibaud was stunned and he agonized over the dilemma for weeks. On 30th July, 1962 finally he made up his mind. Twenty minutes after he reached the Embassy

Ambassador Dejean received a call in his office, “Mr. Ambassador there has been an accident,” a voice said. “Colonel Guibaud is hurt.”

Perceiving that some thing extraordinary was wrong, Dejean commanded, “Tell me what has happened. I want to know”

“Colonel Guibaud is dead.”

Dejean found the colonel sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood by his desk, a revolver at his side. Kneeling over the body, sobbing and caressing her husband’s face was Ginette Giubaud.

The news of the death created panic within the Second Chief Directorate. Its great fear was that Guibaud had left a suicide note exposing the honey trap. Once its agents discovered, this was not the case, the KGB was relieved. It planted reports in diplomatic circles that Guibaud had killed himself on account of bitter quarrels with his wife.

“Eh bien, Dejean, on couche.”

The real reasons for Guibaud’s suicide would have remained a secret. However, they became known when Yuri Krotkov, a script writer and KGB agent defected to the West. He spilled the beans on Guibaud and Dejean both.

The ambassador was quietly recalled and a thorough investigation took place. Fortunately for him, the French counter intelligence team could not establish that he had parted with official secrets. So he was only dismissed from the job.

Ambassador

Photo: monnaiedeparis.fr

In Paris de Gaulle studied the final report, then summoned his former colleague to his office. Raising his spectacles and looking down his great nose he dismissed him with one sentence, “Eh bien, Dejean, on couche.” (“So, Dejean, you got laid.”)

Enter Misha

The Dejean affair is over and Larisa is back to films. She is no longer the sweet, naughty waif with angelic innocence that her fans knew and admired in the 1950s. Now she is a mature beauty and men still find her irresistible.

Larisa

Photo: kino-teatr.ru

It’s then that Misha Tal enters her life. Handsome as a devil, Misha is the ladies’ man.

Photo: Sveltlana Punte/TAL Album

While he has a legion of female admirers he also has a select band of women friends and some like Bella Davidovich* are celebrities in their own right.

Photo: chess-news.ru

What about Misha himself? He is a star and the darling of the public.

Photo: Svetlana Punte/TAL Album

 Larisa is sharp, intelligent and lively. She excels in card games and her partners call her, “Queen of spades”. Her friends come from the film world and a connoisseur of old Russian films can easily recognize those names, Alla Larionova, Nikolai Rybnikov and Nonna Mordyukova. When they are not busy shooting they play cards from morning till evening. Now the quartet is joined by a fifth one, Misha. He does not play cards, only sits and watches them. But not for long.

Photo: kino-teatr.ru

Nikolai Rybnikov is crazy about chess and long since he has wanted to see Misha. He has often told Larisa, “I just wish to see him once and sniff his coat!”

Now that he is seeing him he can not resist asking Misha if he can honour him with a game. Always the sport, Misha laughingly obliges.  Among the women only Larisa knows the game and she acts as a kibitzer.

“Come on, Kolya. Take that rook. It’s for free.”

“Lora, I am not daft. Misha never gives anything for free. Remember, he is a chess champion.”

“He is bluffing and taking you for a ride. Take it and you will be a rook up.”

So Kolya takes the rook and promptly comes under a mating attack.

“Can I take back that move please? It was Lora’s move, not mine.”

“No, touch and move.” Every one roars.

But Misha feels “sorry” for his opponent, generously allows him to take back the move and gently prompts him, “May be you should have taken the knight instead.”

Buoyed by the suggestion coming from Misha himself, Kolya takes the knight and is mated in two moves.

“Oh, no!” he exclaims, “Misha, this is cheating!”

 Every one is laughing.

“You do not play badly at all!” compliments Misha.

Kolya beams as if he has won the grandmaster title.*

So it goes on…

Amidst all this gaiety Misha has lost his heart to Larisa.  She is seven years his senior and well into her thirties. Does it matter?  In a way they are “made for each other”. Both see life as a game and rules are there only to be broken.  So with all the recklessness and folly of love they fling themselves into a relationship that is doomed from the start.

He calls her “The Blue-eyed one”. They go to the cinema. They visit restaurants and attend parties. They revel in all that life offers them. Between them passion is never spent. When he is abroad playing he sends her lines and lines of poetry. When he returns he brings her expensive gifts.

From distant Riga Sally learns it all. Driven to desperate straits she finds herself in the arms of a Minister who offers her help. When Misha learns of her affair he is first seized by jealousy and then he is relieved. It gives him an excuse to carry on with Larisa. She too has learnt of Sally’s affair with the Minister from Misha and now she thinks he can split with Sally for good and marry her instead.

Her friends have known her affair with Misha and wonder, “What next?” She tells them and any one who cares to listen, “We are as good as married. We only have to solemnize our relationship.”

The nightmare and the parting of ways

Then the nightmare begins. The old kidney ailment visits Misha with a vengeance. With his face contorted in pain, he collapses on the floor. Larisa is in panic. She calls for an ambulance. He is rushed to the hospital. When he recovers he is brought back to her place. She bathes him, feeds him from a spoon and nurses him day and night. All to no avail. The pain would recur time and again. A desperate Misha takes to morphine to alleviate the sheer agony of it all. His morphine addiction also becomes a subject of public gossip. Characteristically, he makes a joke of it all.

At one of his lectures someone asks him, “Misha, is it true that you are a morphinist?”

His response is lightning quick, “What do you mean? I'm a Chigorinist!”

Inwardly he knows how terrible it is for him.  So does Larisa.

There follows a seemingly endless cycle of attacks, ambulance runs, hospitals, doctors and drugs.

Her life turns into a nightmare, a disaster, and indescribable grief.

When he recovers from it all he longs for his wife, Sally and son, Gera.

He misses his family at Riga.

 Now that the passion between him and Larisa is spent he no longer wants her. The parting of ways is bitter. He cannot stand her recrimination and her words, “After all that I have done for you…” He needs no reminder on that score.

He walks out of her life.

Misha learns Larisa’s secret

More than a decade later, in 1980 Misha meets his old friend, Genna Sosonko at Tilburg.

They are playing together in the Interpolis Chess Tournament:

Photo: chess-news.ru

book cover

One evening Misha asks his friend, “Do you have anything to read?” Genna gives him John Barron’s book on the KGB that has just been translated and well-received by the Russian diaspora.

Among other things it describes the Dejean affair in salacious detail. Misha keeps the book for two days and returns it without a word. He has found out the secret that Larisa had so carefully hidden from him and the rest of the world.

Does he hold it against her? Maybe not. He knows what kind of compromises every one had to make for survival and advancement. But he is relieved that he had severed his ties with her long before.

She is always the villain!

After her split with Misha, Larisa drifts from one relationship to another. But conjugal bliss and family life elude her to the end. She finds her fulfillment in her career as an actress.

In the early hours of June 28, 1992, Misha passes away in a Moscow hospital. She is grief-stricken when she hears the news. He was the only man in her life. She no longer has the wish to tell any one what he meant to her. Then in 1998, Sally publishes reminiscences of her life with Misha.

Larisa is curious. What has she written about her? Sally does not mention her by name and chooses to call her, Actress L. Importantly, she holds Larisa responsible for the ruin of her marriage with Misha. Larisa is angry. She reflects bitterly:

Why should she blame me? Wasn’t she carrying on with the Minister right when she was married to Misha?  After that, she pretty well arranged her personal life. She married that jeweler in Antwerp. When he died he left enough money for her to be wealthy. She is lucky. Otherwise she would have been a useless pensioner.

But fate has not finished with her yet. A new documentary on Misha is released in 2006 and it is inspired by Sally’s book.

As expected, Larisa is shown in an unflattering light in the film:

4/4 Фильм "Михаил Таль - Жертва Королевы" (2006)

No one asks her for her version of the whole affair and she is resigned to it all.

Larisa defends herself

Then one day in the autumn of 2012 a reporter from the Russian newspaper Fakty i Kommentarii (Факты и комментарии, translated as Facts and Commentaries) gets in touch with her. He seeks a telephone interview with her on the occasion of Misha’s birth anniversary falling on the 9th of November. She is now a very old lady, past 80 and in frail health. As she relives her life with Misha, all that is set aside and you can hear the voice of the passionate woman who once captured Misha’s heart: Larisa Kronberg Interview.

When she dwells on her helplessness in the face of Misha’s illness, the reporter asks her.

 “That's why you broke up with him?”

She is indignant, “What are you saying?  We never separated. We were forever united in spirit.”

It’s a brave defence. She clings to her belief in a relationship that no longer exists.

The last days

In the last years of her life she becomes a recluse. Seized by chronic asthma, she fights a lone battle with death.

Alexey Tremasov, a film reporter remembers, “A few years ago I called Larisa Kronberg and asked for an interview. She was a little surprised, she said, she did not understand why this was necessary, thanked me for the attention to her and refused.”

Stanislav Sadalsky, a veteran Russian actor writes:

A couple of years ago I had suggested to my friends to make a television program on Larisa Kronberg, and they agreed, but as soon as everything was ready - a ban on the shooting came from the Security Services...

In the end death comes as a release to a spirit, broken, but unbowed.

Who was the real Larisa?

Was she just a brazen hussy as John Barron saw her?

Or was she a selfish woman as Sally Landau saw her?

Who can tell?

She loved and she lost.

At the exclusive grave of Larisa Kronberg:


To be concluded...


Acknowledgement

I owe a special debt to Mr. Mark Moore, Senior Subject Librarian, Social Scence Department, Cleveland Public Library who made John Barron’s book on KGB available to me at short notice.

The Library holds the legendary John G. White collection on chess and checkers. Worth a visit!

Notes

1) Bella Davidovich (1928- ) is a legendary pianist, still happily in our midst.

2) Nikolai Rybnikov and his wife, Alla Larionova were popular actors during 1950s and 1960s. I have used some imaginative licence to recreate the scene between Kolya and Misha. That’s no reflection on the actor who loved chess and adored Misha.

3) The narrative of the Dejean affair is from John Barron’s book, KGB, the secret work of secret Soviet agents (1974).

The historical commentary is mine.



Prof. Nagesh Havanur (otherwise known as "chessbibliophile") is a senior academic and research scholar. He taught English in Mumbai for three decades and has now settled in Bangalore, India. His interests include chess history, biography and opening theory. He has been writing on the Royal Game for nearly three decades. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.