Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Love That Shocked Russia's Aristocracy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Love That Shocked Russia's Aristocracy

Article excerpt

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 loveSheremetev 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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.