My wife and I happened to drive through Zvenigorod a few weeks ago, and who should I see when we stopped to make a left turn, but Lyubov Orlova. I’m probably the last person – in Russia, at least – who did not now that the popular actress, the Soviet Union’s first sex symbol, was born in Zvenigorod, a sleepy little town due west of Moscow. The statue is relatively new – it was unveiled September 10, 2016. To be entirely honest, I can’t say I’m much of a fan. Sculptor Alexander Rozhnikov seems to have conjured all the kitsch he could muster. It doesn’t help that the square on which the statue is located is terribly nondescript. Bits and pieces of Zvenigorod have the feel of a cozy old Russian town, but not the area that is dominated by the Lyubov Orlova Cultural Center. That building – the creme colored structure behind the statue – is as faceless as everything else on this block. As for the statue, it shows Orlova in a “typical” glamour shot – one hand behind the back of her head, the other saucily planted on her left hip. Presumably the image is inspired by Orlova’s performance in her first major film – Jolly Fellows (1934). In any case, in that film she wore a similar top hat with a feather on the left-hand side, as you see in the photos of the sculpture here. I have to take issue with my old friend Nonna Golikova, Orlova’s great-niece, who said at the unveiling that the dress made of film reels “is a very precise metaphor, wonderful!” I’m more inclined to say that the dress flowing down into rolls of film is about as cliched as one could get. As for Orlova’s face, is it generic or is it completely lacking in character? Sorry folks, I just can’t get behind this one at all.
Having said that, I have to admit it was a thrill to run across something like this in a small Russian town. The Orlova Cultural Center tells us that this is the first and the only statue honoring Orlova in Russia.
Orlova was born on the summer estate belonging to her mother Yevgenia Sukhotina in Zvenigorod in 1902 – February 11 according to the Grigorian calendar, January 29 by the Julian calendar, which was in effect in Russia at that time. Both her mother and her father Pyotr Orlov were from noble families. They were sufficiently well-known and well-placed in society that Fyodor Chaliapin was a frequent family guest in Zvenigorod when Orlova was a girl. According to legend, she once performed in a children’s production at Chaliapin’s home in Moscow, making an indelible impression on the great singer. Here is the account of that great event from the Lyubov Orlova website.
“At his Moscow home on Novinsky Boulevard Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin often organized holidays for children. Sometimes they staged children’s plays. Lyubochka Orlova participated in one of these productions, the musical fairy tale Mushroom Trouble. She was then no more than six years old. The performance was carefully prepared, rehearsals were conducted, the little performers were outfitted in fine costumes. The production was prepared by two directors: Chaliapin’s wife Ilya Ilyaevna and Alexander Adashev, an actor of the Moscow Art Theater. Lyubochka performed the role of the Turnip, and her singing and dancing charmed the audience. Following the performance, Chaliapin picked the girl up in her magnificent pink dress and shouted: ‘This girl will be a famous actress!“‘
Be that as it may, Orlova’s parents were not convinced that their daughter’s future lay in acting, and they sent her to the Moscow Conservatory in 1919 where she studied piano for three years. She did not complete her education there, however. Some sources say that her musical ear was damaged due to an illness and she could not continue, while others suggest that the hard times hitting Russia in 1922 forced her to go out into the world and earn a living. She did, however, switch over to what we now know as GITIS (the state theater institute) to complete her education. Upon graduating from GITIS Orlova joined the company of the Moscow Art Theater strictly as a dancer in the corps de ballet. From 1920 to 1926 she earned extra cash by accompanying silent films at various Moscow cinemas as a pianist. Apparently the one she most often played at was the Ars cinema on Tverskaya Street. It so happens that I now work for the theater – the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre – that is located in that very space. Orlova was famously discovered by the filmmaker Grigory Alexandrov in 1933, and he cast her in Jolly Fellows, his first full-length film, making both of them overnight legends. They were married that same year and remained together until Orlova’s death in 1975.
The Orlova family, in addition to counting Chaliapin among their friends, were also related to Leo Tolstoy by way of Orlova’s mother’s family. Orlova’s great-Uncle Mikhail Sukhotin married Tolstoy’s daughter Tatyana in 1899. Supposedly, Orlova would bounce on Leo’s knee when he came to visit. She owned a copy of Tolstoy’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus, which he signed and presented to her, although it’s possible that she herself had little to do with that gift. One can find a story which states that Orlova’s mother actually wrote to Tolstoy asking him to send her daughter the gift. According to this source, “The fact is that her mother was an incredibly vain woman who composed family legends and did shocking things on behalf of her daughters.” Still, we are inclined to take Orlova’s own account into consideration. This is what she wrote about the gift in 1945. “One day my mother let me read Tolstoy’s children’s stories. I liked them very much, and I asked her to give me another book. Mother did not have anything more like it. So I said I would write to Grandpa Tolstoy and ask him to send me another book. Mother laughed, but let me do it, and I wrote the following: ‘Dear Grandfather Tolstoy! I read your book. I liked it very much. Please send me another of your books to read.’ Responding to this child’s request, the great writer sent as a gift the book The Prisoner of the Caucasus with the inscription, ‘To Lyubochka – L. Tolstoy.’