Reviewed by Selwa Roosevelt
Washington Post Book World
If truth is indeed stranger than fiction, then there can be no better example of that maxim than The Pearl. This fascinating, well-researched account by Douglas Smith is more than a love story about the singing serf who became the greatest diva in Russia and married her master -- Russia's wealthiest noble, Count Nicholas Sheremetev. It's also a vivid account of the privileged lives and baroque splendor of the Russian aristocracy in the 18th century -- the golden age of the Russian nobility -- and the complex interaction between the wealthy few and their countless serfs, who were the basis of that wealth.
Smith's book gives a greater understanding of the origins and traditions of Russian music, ballet and theater, and how the nobles, using their serfs as performing artists and set designers, created the cultural underpinnings of the Russian dramatic arts we know today. To do this, Smith, author of several books about 18th-century Russia, has made extensive use of Russian state resources, as well as of the rich archives of the Sheremetev family, which miraculously survived 70 years of communism and war.
As to the story: Count Nicholas Sheremetev owned more than 200,000 serfs -- nearly the population of Moscow or St. Petersburg. According to Smith, the Sheremetevs "were among the richest private landowners in the world." Nicholas and his father, Count Peter Sheremetev, both passionate lovers of music, built magnificent theaters on their great estates near Moscow. Serfs who performed there were given special training, clothing allowances and privileges not enjoyed by peasants who tilled the soil or served the household. In general, Russian serfs were considered property to be bought and sold and were rarely given their freedom, but, according to the author, "Serfdom never sank to the brutalizing and utterly dehumanizing level of slavery in the Americas."
Smith spent many years researching this heartbreaking story of the beautiful serf child, Praskovia Kovalyova. Taken from her family at the age of 8 to be the maid to a princess in the Sheremetev household, she made her debut as a singer and actress in a leading role by age 12. Count Nicholas was enchanted by her -- and thenceforth she was known by her stage name, "The Pearl."
Under Count Nicholas's supervision, Praskovia's training included lessons in Italian, French, religion, history and literature as well as in the dress, carriage and mannerisms of the nobility she would portray on stage. Indeed, she was "the Galatea to his Pygmalion." When the two became lovers is not known, and Smith describes his frustration in not being able to find diaries or letters of Praskovia's to shed some light on her feelings for Nicholas.
Certainly Count Nicholas at any time might have exercised his droit de seigneur, which apparently he did with others on his estates before he fell in love with Praskovia. He was handsome and appealing, and although they were master and mistress for many years, Nicholas treated her with utmost tenderness. He granted her freedom in 1798, but being a very religious woman, she wanted more than anything else to sanctify their relationship with marriage. It was unheard of for a noble to marry a serf, and Nicholas feared the scandal that would ensue. Rich and powerful though he was, he still had to deal with the imperial family -- Catherine the Great, as well as her successor, Czar Paul I, who reigned briefly, followed by his son, Czar Alexander I.
When Praskovia almost died from a serious illness, Nicholas made up his mind to marry her. By this time Alexander was czar, and Nicholas felt he could expect a more sympathetic ear from the young emperor. After Alexander's coronation, the lovers wed, although their happiness was short-lived. Praskovia became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy son, Dmitry, but she died three weeks later. Nicholas was devastated. The final chapters of the book tell how he spent the rest of his life giving testimony of the purity of his beloved.
This great romance has become legend today and is known to almost every Russian -- the subject of songs and drama. But most touching to this reviewer was Nicholas's inscription on the monument to Praskovia, which is in the garden of the Fountain House, their palace in St. Petersburg:
"I believe I see her waiting shadow/Wandering about this place./I approach! But soon this cherished image/Brings me back to my grief/And flees, never to return."
Selwa Roosevelt is a Washington journalist and a member of the White Nights Foundation, which supports the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Books mentioned in this post