A love that shocked Russia's aristocracy

How an 18th-century playboy fell in love with the serf he made into a star.

The Pearl By Douglas Smith Yale University Press 344 pp. $35

Biographers of today’s celebrities have mountains of material to sift through, but it’s not easy to write about someone whose fame as a singer and actress predates recordings and who left behind not a line of writing. Is it better to have too many details or too few?

The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia is the irresistible story of the Russian serf Praskovia Kovalyova (1768-1803) who was honored by Catherine the Great and loved by one of the richest men in the world. Nicholas Sheremetev brought her to the stage, to his bed, and then secretly wed her (after which she bore his only legitimate child and died).

"Everything we know about Praskovia comes from the words of others,” writes historian Douglas Smith, and those words were almost invariably uttered or written years after her death. Smith weighs suspect testimony and assures us of his own scrupulousness: “There are no imagined scenes in this book, no made-up characters, no invented dialogue.”

Yet he can’t always resist cheesing up descriptions, as when he occasionally channels Praskovia’s thoughts, feelings, and surroundings: “Catherine and the rest of the audience burst into applause. One can almost feel the wave of euphoria mixed with exhausted relief that must have washed over Praskovia…. Standing before the house, she felt a sense of her own power.”

Smith is better at and more serious about the cultural history of Catherine’s – and Czar Paul’s and Czar Alexander I’s – times, but he’s best of all on the real subject of this biography, Sheremetev (1751-1809), the slacker and playboy who found his calling as a serf-theater impresario.

Democracy aroused by love
Sheremetev owned 210,000 serfs, almost equal to the population of St. Petersburg or Moscow at the turn of the 19th century., So he had no trouble finding among them talented actors, singers, and dancers. He hired Europe’s best instructors and designers to train them and to present the latest Parisian dramas, ballets, and operas on one of his estates (first near Moscow, later in St. Petersburg). His conscience in regard to these souls who served him seems to have been awakened by reading of Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and most certainly by the romantic comedies of his time.

Again and again Sheremetev witnessed on stage and in his life the democratizing effects of love: “The plots … invariably revolved around the complications arising from the obstacles of caste and estate ... race and culture that society placed before true love.”

Praskovia debuted in a Sheremetev production at the age of 11 and by the time she was 14 was probably one of his mistresses. After her retirement at 29 due to illness, Sheremetev legally freed her from serfdom, and then, shortly after the 1801 assassination of Czar Paul (whom Sheremetev had unwillingly served as chief chamberlain), he married her, “at once thanking the Lord for finally bringing him and Praskovia to this point of happiness and praying for his forefathers’ forgiveness at having married a former serf.”

As one of the most important men in the government, Sheremetev pleaded with Czar Alexander I for understanding and, at Praskovia’s death, for a recognition of his and Praskovia’s son Dmitry.

Straight from a Russian novel
Sheremetev is a type more often found in 19th-century Russian fiction than in history. Pushkin, Herzen, Leskov were all aware of and affected by this true story.

Smith offers an engaged and sympathetic assessment of Sheremetev, an aristocrat who overcame prejudice and privilege sufficiently to do something right, good, and brave. His peers might have learned from Sheremetev who wrote: “Tradition is not law. ”

Bob Blaisdell, who teaches English at the City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College, edited “Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.