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Ranevskaya Also Didn’t Want to Become a Spy

Justin Lifflander

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In honor of the 34th anniversary of the death of Soviet actress Faina Ranevskaya
(born 27 August 1896; died 19 July 1984)

By Justin Lifflander

It was playwright Anton Chekov who sent Faina Ranevskaya on the path to become one of Russia’s most beloved performers.

At the age of 14 she saw a performance of The Cherry Orchard, in her home town of Taganrog next to the Azov Sea in southern Russia. By 19 Faina had made the decision to escape her provincial hometown and head to Moscow to pursue an acting career. Her family, dismayed by her decision, disowned her. Undaunted, she changed her last name from Feldman to Ranevskaya and set off to pursue her dream.

Young Ranevskaya, circa 1931

Young Ranevskaya, circa 1931

She spent the next seven decades on Moscow’s stages and played supporting roles in more than a dozen hit films – mostly dramatic comedies.

A mix of Mae West, Ruth Gordon and Woody Allen, Ranevskaya became known for classic her lines on screen and stage. Her biting, sometimes bawdy witticisms in real life – something she found thoroughly funny yet painfully lonely – are no less famous.

Her life span paralleled that of the absurd experiment called the Soviet Union. Ranevskaya was an example of the fine humanity it produced, despite shortages of consumer goods, housing, and personal freedom. It was an existence marked by an overabundance of cultural Neanderthals at the top and secret-police informants at all levels.

In Natalia Bogdanova’s excellent collection of aphorisms and anecdotes, we learn how Ranevskaya worked the system to solve her housing needs. Until 1952, the actress – already twice awarded Stalin’s prize for creative achievement — lived in a shabby room in a communal apartment.    

But Faina was not risk-averse. She had the courage to reject a proposal to “cooperate” with the state security organs. The recruitment effort was managed by then chief of counter-intelligence for the USSR Lieutenant-General Oleg Mikhailovich Gribanov.

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Oleg Mikhailovich, though not a tall man, had immense hypnotic powers and an impressive gift for persuasion. Among themselves his subordinates nicknamed him “Bonaparte.” Gribanov did not pitch Ranevskaya directly. He sent a young operative by the name of Korshunov – a man who would never be accused of having an intricate mind.

Captain Korshunov started the conversation with Ranevskaya from afar.  He educated her about the international class struggle, the machinations of spies on the territory of the USSR and how they try to trip-up the nation as it strides toward a bright future.  He casually reminded her that it was the duty of every Soviet citizen to willfully provide assistance to the organs of state security.

Listening attentively to the passionate monolog of the young KGB officer, Ranevskaya contemplated a smooth way to deflect the recruitment pitch, which was sure to come at the end of the operative’s fiery speech.

In her signature style, she asked Korshunov:

“Young man, why didn’t you show up earlier, when I hadn’t yet reached my seventh decade?"

“What are you saying, Faina Georgievna?” Korshunov blurted-out melodramatically. “No one would take you for a day over thirty. Believe me, you are a young woman…in comparison to the other actresses of your theater troupe.”

Lighting up yet another cigarette, Ranevskaya squinted at Korshunov and responded coolly.

“I see what you're driving at, young man.” Without skipping a beat, she declared, “I have been waiting for the moment when the security service would realize I’m worthy.  I am always ready to expose the plots of detestable imperialist low-lifes. You could say it’s been my dream since childhood. But there is a problem…

“First of all, I live in a communal apartment, and second of all, even more importantly, I talk in my sleep…loudly. So, my dear colleague – and I can only regard you in this way— together let’s try to envision, like good secret policeman, how this problem might play out….

“Imagine, that you give me a mission, and I, being a responsible person, begin to consider how to execute it.  Then suddenly, in the middle of the night, while I’m dreaming, I begin discussing with myself the details about how to fulfill the task. I speak aloud last names, first names, code names, secret meeting places, passwords, appointment times, and so forth… And we have to keep in mind that I am surrounded by nosy neighbors who for many years have unrelentingly monitored my every move…Then what? Instead of faithfully doing my duty I will have betrayed you!”

Ranevskaya’s discourse left a deep impression on Korshunov. He immediately reported back to Gribanov.

“This lady is willing to work for us…I feel it inside. But there are objective complications related to the peculiarities of her nighttime physiology.”

“What peculiarities?” asked the baffled counter-intelligence chief.

“She talks loudly in her sleep. And besides, the overall situation is shameful. It’s unacceptable that our glorious People’s Artist occupies a room in a communal apartment.”

A month later Ranevskaya celebrated her housewarming party in the newly constructed elite Stalin-era skyscraper on Moscow’s Kotelnicheskaya Embankment.

Then Korshunov resumed his attempts to meet her. But each time it turned out that Faina was unable to keep the appointment: either she was preparing for a show’s opening, her spleen hurt, she had a cold…

Finally, a frustrated Korshunov informed the actress he was coming to her new home for a conclusive conversation. The young captain had no idea who he was dealing with. Before he could make it to her door, a citizen appeared at the KGB’s reception center. He was of an indeterminate age, though the prominent capillaries of his nose and his puffy countenance left no doubt about his primary pastime. Regardless, he was relatively sober and most determined when he insisted they accept his report about unseemly goings-on in the famous skyscraper.

The report was a collective effort by the residents of the prestigious building on the embankment where Ranevskaya had happily ensconced herself just one month prior. It was on the desk of General Gribanov within the hour. It read as follows: “The residents of the upper floor (ten signatories) kindly inform the organs of state security that immediately under them lives some kind of lady who can be heard on a nightly basis loudly talking to herself about the threat of imperialist espionage and what she is going to do about it…how sorry she will make those capitalist scum…just as soon as the organs of state security take her on as a part time employee.”

Gribanov summoned Korshunov, gave him the report and clear instructions.

“Cross Ranevskaya off your list. Forget about her and find someone else – someone who sleeps silently.”

Later, Korshunov learned from his agent in the Mossovet Theater, where Ranevskaya worked, about the true origins of that “collective” report.  In exchange for two bottles of vodka, the actress persuaded the plumber from her new building to assist in her intelligence-countering scheme. He was that very same informant with the puffy face and demonstrative nose. But it was too late. The horse had left the barn and the apartment remained Ranevskaya’s.

That she was a woman wholly without fear was proven again in a subsequent interaction with Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.

Ranevskaya's most famous line was, “Mulya, don’t get on my nerves!” from the 1940 film “The Foundling.” For the rest of her life it would haunt her. Fans of all ages, especially children, would great her with that phrase when she walked down the street. It annoyed her to no end.

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In 1976, when Faina was already an octogenarian, Leonid Brezhnev awarded her the prestigious Lenin Prize for her contribution to the arts. As he welcomed her on stage, the leader of the USSR exclaimed, “And here comes our Mulya…don’t get on my nerves!” Faina calmly accepted the award and responded, “Leonid Ilyich, the only people who address me like that are little boys and hooligans!” An abashed Brezhnev apologized. “Forgive me, Faina Georgievna. But I just love your work.”

In conclusion, some of Ranevskaya’s more poignant quotes and comments:

On politics:

* During Khrushchev’s thaw, when information from the outside world began to seep into the USSR, someone asked Ranevskaya what she would do if they open the country’s borders and allow people to travel.

“I’d climb a tree, of course.”


“Because I don’t want to get crushed by the stampede…”


* A comrade sighed and declared, “Oh my, how difficult it is for honest people to make a living these days!” Ranevskaya glared at him and said, “So what’s your problem?”


* "There are people with God inside, there are people with the devil inside and there are people with only parasites inside."

* Ranevskaya liked to say that when God created the earth, he foresaw the rise of Soviet Power and decided to give every man three qualities: wisdom, honor and a sense of “Party” (meaning faith in Communist ideology).  But the devil intervened and convinced God that a mortal man could only have two of those qualities at once. As a result…

               -If a person is wise and honorable, he has nothing to do with the Party.

               -If he is wise and a Party-man, he certainly isn’t honest.

               -If he is an honest Party-man, he's a fool.


On women:

* "A real man is one who remembers a lady’s birthday, but never knows how old she is. A man who knows how old she is but can’t remember her birthday is called her husband."

* "Of course, women are smarter than men. Have you ever heard of a woman who lost her head just because a man had nice legs?" 

* Someone asked Ranevskaya, “Which women are more likely to remain faithful: brunettes or blonds?” Ranevskaya responded: “Those with gray hair…”


On life:

* "Under the most attractive peacock’s tail you still find a chicken’s ass."

* "Homosexuality, sadism, masochism -- these are not perversions. There are only two genuine perversions: hockey played on grass and ballet done on ice."

* "Life is one long leap, out of the pussy and into the grave."

Monument to Ranevskaya, in her hometown of Taganrog.

Monument to Ranevskaya, in her hometown of Taganrog.