The baleful life of Stalin's favourite actress


Lyubov OrlovaHad 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, the Lyubov Orlova, like Orlova herself, was destined for the shadows.

On tow by tugboat Charlene Hunt and bound for the Dominican Republic to be broken up, she drifted off when the tow line snapped. A bigger vessel, the Atlantic Hawk, took over and moved the stricken ship into international waters — by some extraordinary means the captain was able to work out when his ship had crossed an invisible territorial line — at which point Transport Canada abandoned the tow.

Drifting aimlessly across the Atlantic, the subject of intermittent sightings, reportedly crewed by hundreds of cannibalising rats, the MV Lyubov Orlova had become that most beloved and venerable of metaphors, the aimless ship on a trackless ocean crewed by — fools, skeletons, heedless hedonists, cadaverous pirates, absolutely no one, as in the Mary Celeste, fearful asylum seekers, or — an entirely new twist — rats. Eerily, the ship's emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) has twice sent out signals.

In March 2013 the MV Lyubov Orlova seemed to be about 700 nautical miles off the Irish coast and was dubbed the 'Ghost Ship' in the world's press.

If the Lyubov Orlova had drifted south and entered Australian waters, she would have become what Immigration Minister Scott Morrison calls an 'on-water' episode, part of a 'sovereign borders operation' and as such could not have been described, referred to or discussed in the unlikely event of there being a press conference.

So, 'operationally', the RAN would have carefully nudged the Lyubov Orlova into a U-turn, the sailors puzzled no doubt by the hundreds of beady eyes hungrily watching them from its rusting decks instead of the usual crowd of desperate, terrified and broken 'illegals'. In due course, someone would 'leak' from some source or other that this ship had arrived, that it had an odd and suspicious provenance and toxic passengers, and that it had been turned back. Everything would have been normal.

The Lyubov Orlova will no doubt eventually be chased down, dry-docked, fumigated and plundered for its US$600,000 worth of scrap. But the name of Lyubov Orlova, the actress, will live on because of a second recognition she was accorded: in 1972, a Soviet astronomer named Lyudmila Zhuravlyova discovered a new, minor planet. She called it 3108 Lyubov, in honour of the famous actress.

So Orlova lives on as an actual star. Given the vicissitudes of her life, however, and the baleful aura with which she seems to have endowed her nautical namesake (whose sister ship, incidentally, hit a well-known, charted rock hazard in Nunavut's Coronation Gulf in 2010) God alone knows what's happening up there on 3108 Lyubov.

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Lyubov Orlova, Andrei Berezin, Russia, Moscow, Stanislavsky, Stalin, Grigori Aleksandrov, Tolstoy



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Existing comments

I can well understand why the headline 'Cannibal Rat Ship Adrift in Atlantic' captured your bemused attention Prof. Matthews. Orlova's tumultuous life should indeed be the subject of much sombre reflection. One can only hope, against hope, that the stricken MV Lyubov Orlova does not drift into the Bermuda Triangle. Triangles can be so messy! And, gulp, it would certainly be worst case scenario to enter the extremely dangerous waters of Operation Sovereign Borders - I can only imagine the frothing of mouth by a certain Immigration Minister. Still, we can thank our lucky stars, for 3108 Lyubov!!

Pam | 30 January 2014  

Orlova's name reminds me of a common Russian greeting - Kak lyubov? How's love? (your love life). What's love got to do with anything? Everything! -Especially in the lack of it towards asylum seekers, and all lost, terrified souls seeking protection and looking for a home. In the story of the Good Samaritan didn't Jesus make it clear that everyone is our neighbour and each deserves our love and kindness.

Annabel | 31 January 2014  

Update By late May 2013, the Canadian Coast Guard announced that it has received no further reported sightings of the LYUBOV ORLOVA and that the ship was presumed to have sunk. [] However 7 days ago:

Father John George | 31 January 2014  

Thanks Brian. a lovely piece of writing! It raises a thought bubble for a Modern History exam perhaps: Compare the modus operandi of Stalin, the Vatican (for last 100 years or so) and the current Abbott government? An good answer might be: "we do not make mistakes; if we do you will not hear of them; ...or else!!"

Eugene | 31 January 2014  

Thanks Brian, great article as always!

Denis Quinn | 31 January 2014  

Eugene for starters the Vatican has not murdered 60 million people:

Father John George | 31 January 2014  

Dear Examiner, Everyone knows of Stalin's most secret gulag: The Gulag was the government agency that administered the main Soviet forced labor camp systems. While the camps housed a wide range of convicts, from petty criminals to political prisoners, large numbers were convicted by simplified procedures, such as NKVD troikas and other instruments of extrajudicial punishment. The Gulag was a major 'SECRET' instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union.

Father John George | 02 February 2014  

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