Born in Zvenigorod (just outside Moscow), to a noble family of moderate means, Lyubov Orlova was raised in Yaroslavl. Her father, Pyotr Fyodorovich Orlov, was a military engineer who built railroad bridges, and was a descendant of both the Poltava branch of the Ryurik clan and the famous Orlovs. Some historians even believe that the actress was a distant relative of Grigory Orlov, favorite of Catherine the Great.
The veins of this People’s Artist of the USSR and laureate of several Stalin Prizes pulsed with the blood of 17 Russian rulers, 27 grand and lesser princes, 7 Swedish monarchs, 2 Byzantine emperors, 3 Polovtsian and 7 Mongolian khans, and the English King Harold II, to say nothing of German counts and Tatar Mirzas. Ten of her ancestors were famous for their exploits in the Christian realm, and were canonized and numbered among the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Lyubov’s mother, Yevgenia Nikolayevna Sukhotina, also descended from an ancient noble family. Lev Tolstoy was related to the Sukhotins, and there was a special place in the Orlov home for a Tolstoyan relic: his novel, Prisoner of the Caucasus, inscribed with the words “To Lyubochka, L. Tolstoy.”
Pyotr Orlov was a decent singer, and Yevgenia accompanied him on the piano. She was also Lyuba’s first piano teacher. In fact, Lyuba and her sister Nonna received a very good education and upbringing at home: they studied languages, singing, music (on various instruments), and dance. They were certainly not rich; their mother had to work. Yet theirs was the rather typical, peaceful, early twentieth-century life of the nobility.
When Lyuba was seven, the great singer Fyodor Shalyapin, a family friend, predicted that she would be a great actress. What she would have become, had there not been a Bolshevik Revolution, is of course unknown. Her parents dreamed she would become a professional pianist. Yet quite possibly she might have married a man of noble origins and ended up a common housewife: going to balls, receiving guests, raising children, reading books and playing music to better her soul.
But there was a Revolution, and Lyuba’s future, whatever it might have been, changed radically. The USSR was to offer her something else entirely, but it also meant she had to hide her noble roots and live under a constant threat of arrest.
In the hungry decade of the 1920s, the family kept a cow. Lyuba and her sister Nonna took care of it, milking it and hauling milk cans about Moscow to sell. At 15, Lyuba hurt her hands from constantly hauling heavy cans about. And from that day forward she hid her hands, feeling that they looked worn-out and insufficiently elegant. She constantly wore gloves and in her films her hands were almost never shown in close-up.
For his part, Lyubov’s father did not fare well under the new regime. He worked, but never earned enough to support his family. The promising young Lyuba entered the Conservatory in 1919, to study piano, but was forced to drop out so that she could work to support her parents and herself.
Later, she entered the Choreographic Division of the Moscow Theatrical Tekhnikum. She graduated in 1926 and joined the corps de ballet of the musical studio attached to MKhAT (the Moscow Art Theater). That same year, she married Andrey Berzin, a young official whom she had long before promised to marry. It was a marriage of convenience, forced upon the 24-year-old actress by dire necessity. Yet the workaholic Berzin chose his career and politics over his family. Then, at the end of the 1920s, as deputy of the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture, he made the fateful decision to join the opposition. In 1930, Berzin was arrested in the Chayanov Affair and sentenced to a long prison term. Lyubov returned to live with her parents immediately after Berzin’s arrest.
As an actress in the choir and corps de ballet, Orlova mainly peformed in episodic roles. Yet her musical and dramatic talent still managed to impress many critics. In Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole, she was selected for the title role of the street singer and enjoyed her first success. Immediately there was talk of putting her in films.
In 1933, the director Boris Yurtsev invited Orlova to act in his silent film Alyona’s Love (the film has been lost). Then followed the role of Grushenka, in the film Petersburg Night. Both films debuted in 1934, but neither was successful. Then, at the end of December 1934, the film Jolly Fellows (Веселые ребята) was released and overnight Orlova became a superstar.
The film was the creation of 31-year-old director Grigory Alexandrov (Mormonenko), who had got his start in film in 1924, as an assistant to Sergei Eisenstein. Together they shot the legendary Battleship Potemkin (1925).
Alexandrov dreamed of shooting the first Soviet musical comedy. And while the male lead was quickly decided upon (the legendary Leningrad music hall singer Leonid Utyosov), finding the right female lead proved more difficult. Then, in 1933, Alexandrov went to a performance at MKhAT’s musical theater, where he saw the brilliant, 30-year-old Lyubov Orlova. The young director was immediately captivated, and not only by her performance… He had found his female lead.
Jolly Fellows was shot in Gagry, Abkhazia, in the summer of 1933. In this romantic setting, the cast and crew witnessed the blossoming of the Orlova-Alexandrov romance. They were soon married (Alexandrov was already married and had a son named Douglas – after the famous American actor Douglas Fairbanks; he divorced in order to marry Orlova) and Jolly Fellows enjoyed a success never before witnessed.
Orlova’s star had risen, and her marriage to Grigory Alexandrov became her lucky ticket. The talented director introduced the musical to Soviet filmmaking, and this new style of film was infused with the brilliance of Orlova’s musical-theatrical gifts.
Stalin was especially taken with Orlova’s looks and he personally directed that she be invited to the Kremlin. The Great Leader expressed his desire to converse with the actress, and from this a legend flowed: apparently Stalin asked her if they she had any requests to make of him. “I will do anything,” he promised.
At times such as this, stars would typically ask the Leader for an apartment or a dacha. Orlova was different. She asked about the fate of her first husband. Orlova was informed that her former husband was alive and she was offered the opportunity to share his fate and place of residence. She answered with silence and left Stalin’s office. More than likely this is all a myth.
Orlova rose to the acme of the cinematographic Olympus. Her films with Alexandrov were released one after the other, and each was a work of art: Circus (in the role of Marion Dixon, 1936), Volga-Volga (as Strelka, 1938). Her sexuality in these films was acceptable to the severe Soviet censors, whom Stalin personally oversaw. He remained an avid admirer and particularly loved Volga-Volga. Yet even Stalin’s goodwill did not spare Orlova from criticism. Enmeshed as she was in the bohemian world of filmmaking, she lost all sense of proportion. She began to drink heavily, yet amazingly did not become an alcoholic. How Alexandrov managed to save his wife from addiction remains a mystery. More than likely, he simply raised the threat that her career would be ruined. To Orlova her career was everything.
In 1939, The Shining Path (Светлый путь) was released. In the film, an uneducated but hardworking girl, Tanya, arrives in the city from the country and manages to work her way into becoming first a skilled weaver, and then, eventually, a deputy in the Supreme Soviet.
For each of her films, Orlova attempted to inhabit her role. Prior to the filming of Volga-Volga, Orlova spent a few days dragging a postal carrier’s bag around the city, delivering mail. But for this film she outdid herself. For The Shining Path, Orlova spent three months working in the Moscow Scientific Research Institute for the Textile Industry, studying under the Stakhanovite textile worker Olga Orlova.
Lyubov Orlova greatness was her universality. She did not have any doubles, but did all her own singing and dancing. She dove into water from high perches and swung on trapezes under the big top. None of her fans could imagine the force of character and iron discipline this required of the young actress. Daily exercises at the ballet barre, having to refuse all sorts of excesses [what is meant here, food?], living a life scheduled down to the minute. Compared to other stars of Soviet film, like Marina Ladynina or Tamara Makarova, Orlova, even when she played a worker, always looked like a Hollywood starlet, given that she was uncommonly beautiful (she was just 5 foot 3, with a 17 inch waist) and extremely musical. While there certainly were some Soviets who did not like her, in particular for her elegant strangeness, these were far outnumbered by her avid fans. In fact, among Soviet women a mania developed that doctors called “Orlov Syndrome.” It was a compulsive desire to resemble the famous actress in all things, which developed into the afflicted woman asserting that she was a close relative – her sister or her daughter.
In 1941, right before the outbreak of the war, Orlova received the Stalin Prize for Volga-Volga and The Shining Path. When the war began, Alexandrov was drafted into the anti-aircraft defense brigades, and served as a rooftop lookout. During one shift he nearly died: the force of an explosion threw him from one roof onto another. He received a concussion and a serious spine injury.
When the fascists were on the outskirts of Moscow and panic gripped the city (October 16), someone got the idea that the city’s residents could be calmed if concert posters for Orlova were posted up everywhere. Indeed, many were sobered by this: if Orlova herself was in the city, of course it would not be given up; there was nothing to fear.
Yet soon thereafter, in the fall of 1941, Orlova and Alexandrov were forced to leave Moscow. They headed for Baku, where Alexandrov headed up a local film studio. In 1942, Orlova visited Teheran and was wildly successful. After the war, he career continued to blossom. In 1946, in Czechoslovakia, the couple filmed the comedy Spring. Orlova actually played two roles in the film: the scientist Nikitina and the actress Shatrova. The film was released in 1947 and that year Orlova won the a special prize (shared with Ingrid Bergman) for best female role at the Venice Film Festival.
After Spring, Orlova began to feel that her film career was ending. She left to act at the Mossoviet Theater, and in the final years of Stalin’s rule the couple more or less basked in the glory of their accumulated fame. Beginning in 1951, Alexandrov and Orlova began to travel the world, demonstrating “the triumph of Soviet democracy.” They befriended many international film stars, including Charlie Chaplin, yet in the Soviet Union, they had no real friends. They always spent New Year’s alone as a couple. Ten minutes before midnight, they would go outside, congratulate one another, kiss, and then stand silently, holding hands. Then take a walk in the park.
While Orlova was still alive, many noted the dearth of rumors about her personal life. But then her union with Alexandrov was so solid and ideal, that there could be no rumors. Still, some said that the couple’s great love was a myth that they themselves had created, citing as proof the facts that the two spouses slept in separate bedrooms and addressed each other using the formal “vy.”
Orlova battled for her entire career against the effects of age. This eventually turned into a maniacal obsession. She was the first Soviet actress to resort to plastic surgery. She feared being photographed and consistently lied about her age. What is more, since the 1920s, when her first husband had been arrested, she struggled with photophobia – all her apartment windows were tightly covered with thick curtains.
In the last twenty years of her life, Orlova was hardly ever filmed, with the exception of Skvorets and Lira, a film that was never released. Apparently Orlova was so shocked with her appearance on screen that she forbade it. She did, however, continue to perform on stage at Mossoviet until she was 70.
Soon thereafter, Orlova’s health suddenly worsened. Pain in her kidneys sent her to the hospital. She was certain it was kidney stones, but the real diagnosis was far worse: pancreatic cancer. The doctors discovered that the cancer had metastasized and informed Alexandrov. He asked them not to tell his wife. “Let her think that it’s stones,” he said. The doctors assented and even presented the actress with stones that had been extracted from another patient’s operation.
After his wife’s death, Grigory Alexandrov lived another eight and a half years. In 1983 he completed the documentary film Lyubov Orlova, after which his mission on Earth was complete. On December 16 of that year, he died at the age of 80. He was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, alongside Orlova.
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567