Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The baleful life of Stalin's favourite actress

  • 31 January 2014

Had she been favoured by unusual longevity, the famous Russian actress, Lyubov Orlova, would have been 112 on 29 January. Our paths crossed because that same date was my first Eureka Street deadline for 2014 and also the day on which, idly skimming the newspapers, I came across a piece in the British Telegraph headlined 'Cannibal Rat Ship Adrift in Atlantic'.

Over the nearly 73 years of her actual span — she died in 1975 three days before her 73rd birthday — Orlova had a notably successful but tumultuous life. Descended from the aristocratic family of Prince Orlov and related to Count Leo Tolstoy, she showed early promise as a musician in the Moscow Conservatory and as a neophyte actress in the Moscow Musical Theatre of Stanislavsky.

When, however, her husband of four years, Andrei Berezin, was arrested and imprisoned indefinitely as an outspoken opponent of the Stalin regime, she became depressed and alcoholic. Film director Grigori Aleksandrov rescued her by choosing her to star in Moscow Laughs. This was no doubt a barrel of fun for Muscovites, but for Orlova it was a turning point. She became Aleksandrov's mistress, later his wife, a screen star and, perhaps most important of all, she attracted Stalin's benign attention.

Stalin appointed her Honourable Actress of the Russian Federation in 1935 and, for her leading roles in Volga-Volga and Cinderella (re-named Shining Path by order of Stalin), he personally awarded her the Stalin Prize in 1941. In 1950 she became the first woman to be named People's Artist of the USSR.

Prefiguring Berlusconi, Stalin held sumptuous parties for his friends, supporters and intimates. Orlova was a favoured guest and these excesses and all the temptations of her growing fame brought her again to the brink of alcoholism and again it was Aleksandrov's influence and discipline that saved her.

In the dangerous world of Stalinist dictatorship, she was buttressed by privilege and public fame, but she remained haunted by the disappearance of Berezin. As advancing age exacerbated her chronic insomnia and a rare condition — sensitivity to daylight — she retreated literally into the shadows.

Two further and unusual recognitions ensured that her name would live on outside Russia. In 1976 she had a ship named after her — the MV Lyubov Orlova, specially adapted to cruise in Antarctica and the Arctic. In 2010, with US$251,000 owing to the charter company, Cruise North Expeditions, and with the entire crew having walked off unpaid,