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Prominent Russians: Faina Ranevskaya

August 27, 1896 – July 19, 1984
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Chekhov character

If you ask in any street of any Russian town who Ranevskaya was, in 99 per cent of cases you’ll hear, “She was a legendary actress, of course!”, and only a tiny 1 per cent will remember that’s also the name of a Chekhov character. Her talent, charm, wit, sharp tongue and – for the time – unbelievable straightforwardness earned her the absolute love and adoration of the public.

She was born Faina Feldman into a rich Jewish family and attended a girls’ school in the city of Taganrog where she took acting classes. In 1915 she moved to Moscow where she lived in a tiny room and studied acting seriously. She took all the acting jobs she was offered, including those that paid miserable salaries with small private theatres traveling across Russia.

One day Faina Feldman was coming out of a bank where she’d received cash sent secretly by her mother to support the young actress. A gust of wind tore the banknotes out of her hands, all at once. She looked at the money and said, ‘It’s so sad to see them flying!’ A passer-by heard the words and remarked that only Chekhov’s character Ranevskaya could say it, thus Faina found her stage name.

An actress worth a theatre

Ranevskaya never was beautiful – not by any standards. But it wasn’t her face that attracted viewers to her films and stage works. She was an actress with a talent so enormous that people said she’s worth a theatre, and often they came to see Faina Ranevskaya, not the film or play itself.

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One of her most memorable appearances was in the role of the greedy stepmother in the 1947 Soviet film Cinderella. Generations of children across the USSR grew up mimicking her hilarious ‘Too bad your kingdom is too small, no place to show what I can really do!’ and ‘Mariana, stop crying! The king is a widower, I’ll have you settled!

She was a close friend of Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna AkhmatovaVladimir Mayakovsky and Osip Mandelstam. Akhmatova used to say that Ranevskaya was a child that ‘is now 11 and will never turn 12’. Although most of her roles are comic, her personal life was nothing but a tragedy.

Personal life

She’s quite possibly the only actress to acquire such tremendous fame and yet to remain untouched by any recorded history of scandalous relationships and ugly break-ups. Faina had admirers, but that’s all we know of her personal life. There’s some gossip she had feelings to Marshall Tolbukhin, others whisper she preferred women and had an affair with Anna Akhmatova, but there’s no proof that any of these theories had any foundation.

All her life she was lonely. She never got married and ended all her pregnancies with an abortion. The only creature she lived with was her mongrel dog nicknamed Boy, whom she loved wholeheartedly. She adored the dog the way a woman of such immense passion could love her only child, and cared so much she always left the door to her apartment open so that the dog could enter when it pleased. When sick, Ranevskaya never went to hospital as she was afraid Boy might feel abandoned without her.

During a rehearsal one day Faina Georgievna was very harsh with a young actress, causing her to break into tears. In the evening of the same day she called to apologise saying, ‘I’m so lonely, all of my friends have died, all my life is work… I suddenly felt jealous of you. Jealous of that light touch you work with, and for a split second I hated you for it. And I work hard. I’m obsessed with fear of the stage, the future audience, partners even. I’m not being capricious, my girl, I’m scared. It’s not my pride. I’m not afraid of failures or successes – or how do I explain it? – it’s my life, and it’s so scary to handle it wrongly!


Ranevskaya’s colleagues and friends remember her as a witty, sharp-tongued and sometimes explosive character. But not one man on Earth can say she was greedy. Her generosity became just as famous as her brilliant acting. People used to say, if you are needy just find Ranevskaya on the streets of Moscow and ask her for money and she’ll definitely give it away without asking a single question.

Every actor in the theatre owed her money, but she never remembered who and how much. Ranevskaya herself lived modestly, though, and the only luxury she allowed herself was drinking tea from a samovar while soaking in a hot tub. Her maids stole from her, and she never could stop them or fire them. Once a maid stole her fur coat and an expensive crystal vase, and Ranevskaya only said she was sorry because she’d bought nice shoes to match the coat.

Unfit for secret service

Faina Georgievna was already 65 when KGB decided they want to use her services as a secret agent. She invented a whole story telling a young security agent she had the nasty habit of talking in her sleep and, since she only owed a small room in a communal apartment, all the neighbours could overhear state secrets. The young agent was so impressed by the story, Ranevskaya got an apartment of her own, but never became part of any secret service.

Forever funny

Not too many people under 25 can now boast that they’ve seen movies with Faina Ranevskaya, but it’s her jokes that everyone can quote. She were spontaneous rather than scripted beforehand and demonstrated her outstanding mind. It was not a case of homework well done, but a comic reflex.

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She died at the age of 88 leaving behind a legacy of 25 films. She had also earned endless public admiration.

Personal quotes:

  • ‘All my life I’ve swam in the loo butterfly style.’
  • ‘God created women beautiful – so that men can love them – and stupid – so that they can love men.’
  • ‘If a patient wants to live, doctors are impotent.’
  • ‘Health is when it hurts in a new place every day.’
  • ‘Women critics are amazons in climax.’
  • ‘A fairytale is when you marry a frog and it turns out to be a princess. Reality is vice versa.’
  • ‘It’s not a face, but a personal insult.’
  • ‘I never could understand it: people are ashamed of poverty, but not ashamed of riches.’
  • ‘I’m watching this film for the fourth time and have to tell you today the actors are as good as never before.’
  • ‘If a woman walks with her head down – she has a lover! If a woman walks with her head proudly up – she has a lover! If a woman carries her head straight – she has a lover! And actually, if a woman has a head, she has a lover!’
  • ‘Women are, of course, more intelligent. Have you ever heard of a woman that would lose her head only because a man has pretty legs?’
  • ‘Lesbians, homosexuals, masochism, sadism are not perversions. Actually, there are only two perversions: hockey on grass and ballet on ice.’
  • ‘A real man is a man who remembers when it’s his woman’s birthday but never knows how old she is. A man that never remembers his woman’s birthday but knows exactly how old she is, is her husband.’
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    ‘Spelling mistakes in a letter is like a bug on a white shirt.’
  • ‘A family substitutes everything. So before getting one, think what’s more precious: a family or everything.’
  • ‘You cannot cure sclerosis, but you can forget it.’
  • ‘Old age is the time when birthday candles cost more than the birthday cake itself, and half of your urine is wasted on medical testing.’
  • ‘Old age is when you are not bothered with bad dreams, but with bad reality.’
  • ‘I had enough brain to live a stupid life.’
  • ‘Success is the only unforgivable sin you can commit to your loved ones.’
  • ‘This madam can already choose herself who it is she will impress.’
  • ‘Optimism is the lack of information.’
  • ‘My God, I’m so old I remember people being decent!’

Real-life stories:

When asked ‘Are you sick, Faina Georgievna?’ she answered, ‘No, I just look like it.’

Faina Ranevskaya walks about her make-up room totally naked and smokes. A theatre director walks in without knocking and freezes at the door. She says, ‘Am I shocking you with my smoking?’

Ranevskaya invites someone to visit her and says, ‘The doorbell is not working, so when you come, knock with your feet’. ‘Why feet?’ they ask. She answers, ‘Cos you are not going to come empty-handed!’

Ranevskaya tells a woman that she’s still young and good-looking. The woman answers, ‘I cannot give the same complement to you!’ Ranevskaya replies, ‘You should have followed my suit and lied!’

Written by Tina Berejnaya, RT

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