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The Pearl

The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia

Douglas Smith
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Pearl
    Book Description:

    Filled with a remarkable cast of characters and set against the backdrop of imperial Russia, this tale of forbidden romance could be the stuff of a great historical novel. But in factThe Pearltells a true tale, reconstructed in part from archival documents that have lain untouched for centuries. Douglas Smith presents the most complete and accurate account ever written of the illicit love between Count Nicholas Sheremetev (1751-1809), Russia's richest aristocrat, and Praskovia Kovalyova (1768-1803), his serf and the greatest opera diva of her time.

    Blessed with a beautiful voice, Praskovia began her training in Nicholas's operatic company as a young girl. Like all the members of Nicholas's troupe, Praskovia was one of his own serfs. But unlike the others, she utterly captured her master's heart. The book reconstructs Praskovia's stage career as "The Pearl" and the heartbreaking details of her romance with Nicholas-years of torment before their secret marriage, the outrage of the aristocracy when news of the marriage emerged, Praskovia's death only days after delivering a son, and the unyielding despair that followed Nicholas to the end of his life. Written with grace and style,The Pearlsheds light on the world of the Russian aristocracy, music history, and Russian attitudes toward serfdom. But above all, the book tells a haunting story of love against all odds.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15055-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. x-xiii)
  4. Note on Style
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  5. Family Trees
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Prelude
    (pp. 1-10)

    Late in 1918, amid the chaos of revolution and civil war engulfing Russia, the poet Anna Akhmatova moved into the Fountain House, the grand St. Petersburg palace of the Sheremetev family recently appropriated by the fledgling Bolshevik government. For the next three decades the Fountain House would be her main residence and a powerful source of artistic inspiration. From her earliest days there Akhmatova fell under the palace’s spell, entranced by its history and the many stories, myths, and legends surrounding its generations of inhabitants.

    Of all the stories, she was most fascinated by that of Countess Praskovia Sheremeteva. In...


    • ONE An Aristocratic Boyhood
      (pp. 13-20)

      Nicholas Petrovich Sheremetev was born on 28 June 1751 at the Fountain House, the family’s summer residence that in those days lay just beyond the St. Petersburg city limit. His birth did not exactly overwhelm his father, Count Peter Sheremetev. The count first mentioned it, in passing, three days later in a letter to his stewards in Moscow, and then only after informing them that the dogs and four flasks of rosewater they had sent two weeks earlier had arrived in good condition.¹ His father’s reaction is somewhat understandable. Not only was Nicholas not the much-awaited first son, but he...

    • TWO The Blacksmith’s Daughter
      (pp. 21-28)

      Like so much of her life, Praskovia’s birth remains obscure. Her gravestone states that she was born on 20 July 1768, but no records can confirm this date. Several locations have been proposed as the place of her birth, the most likely being the estate of Voshchazhnikovo in the province of Yaroslav.¹

      The province lies some hundred miles northeast of Moscow. The land forms an extensive plain, tilting slightly to the southeast and gouged in places by ravines and hollows. The black earth of central Russia gives way here to a dark-gray soil. In the eighteenth century the province was...

    • THREE Grand Tour
      (pp. 29-36)

      With twenty thousand rubles in his pocket, nineteen-year-old Nicholas left Petersburg on his grand tour in the autumn of 1770, accompanied by his tutor Monsieur de Woesian. They reached Berlin by November, and there, another tutor, Monsieur de Sacken, replaced Woesian. The following month Nicholas reached Leiden, where his boyhood friend Prince Alexander Kurakin was waiting for him.¹ The two young Russians enrolled at the university, and for the next year they studied law, modern languages, mathematics, and history. In September 1771 they left for England. The channel crossing from Calais to Dover was miserable; the weather was foul and...

    • FOUR The Big House
      (pp. 37-41)

      The Kovalyovs had not been at Kuskovo a year when Praskovia was taken from her family and moved into the Big House. Her parents must have been concerned: serfs gave up their children only reluctantly, and losing Praskovia meant losing the labor of their eldest child, an important member of the household. It also meant placing her safety and well-being in the hands of strangers and relinquishing their power to protect her. From now on Praskovia would live at the complete mercy of their masters, subject to their every whim and their unknown ways. She was only eight years old...

    • FIVE First Meeting
      (pp. 42-47)

      In the early years of the nineteenth century the serfs at Kuskovo liked to sing a song that told of Nicholas’s and Praskovia’s first meeting. Late one evening while driving the cows home from the wood, Praskovia sees the master riding from the hunt with his dogs. Catching up with her, Nicholas asks in a friendly voice, “Hi there, pretty girl, what village are you from?” To which Praskovia replies, “I am your lordship’s peasant.” Smitten with the young lass, Nicholas informs her, “Tho’ born a peasant, tomorrow you’re to become a lady!” Frightened, Praskovia runs home and asks her...

    • SIX Praskovia’s Debut
      (pp. 48-52)

      Praskovia didn’t perform that night. It’s possible that she was there in the wings, watching and learning. The thrill of the evening must have filled her with nervous excitement, just as it did the rest of the troupe, and Nicholas and his father. Praskovia spent that winter and spring in Moscow rehearsing and waiting. Nicholas put on a second work,The Painter in Love with his Model,by the Italian master of opera buffa, Egidio Duni, on 7 February. In late May, the Sheremetev household packed up and left for Kuskovo. There, on 28 June, the company performed Desbrosses’ comedy...

    • SEVEN Early Success
      (pp. 53-60)

      Praskovia did not have long to savor her debut. Within days she and the other performers were busy rehearsing the next opera. Ever since he had heard Monsigny’sThe Deserterduring his stay in Paris, Nicholas had been enthralled by its triumphant yet deeply moving music, suffused with the early roots of romanticism.The Deserterwas wildly popular, and all of Europe was swept away by its musical charms.¹ The craze also gripped Russia. The opera had premiered at court in 1775 and been performed at Moscow’s Petrovsky Theater four years later. Nicholas was the first to produce it in...

    • EIGHT Serf Diva, Serf Mistress
      (pp. 61-74)

      The nature of Nicholas’s feelings for “sweet little Parasha” is difficult to establish, although it seems clear that by now his interest in her was moving beyond the purely theatrical. After her death, Nicholas described in a letter to their son those first sparks of love that took flame during these years:

      Blessed with a quick mind, a humble manner, and attractive spiritual qualities, she drew my special attention and care; I saw to her education and as yet not aware of the stirrings beginning in my soul, I chiefly thought about preparing her for the theater. Her natural talent...

    • NINE Entertaining Catherine
      (pp. 75-84)

      In the autumn of 1786, Nicholas and his father began preparing for Catherine the Great’s visit to Kuskovo, planned for the following summer. The empress would be passing through Moscow on her return from a lengthy tour through southern Russia and the Crimea organized by Prince Potemkin, the trip that became the source for the fabled stories of the “Potemkin villages.” It had been eleven years since they last hosted Catherine, and they wanted to make certain everything was ready to assure this visit would surpass anything she had experienced before. No expense was too great, no detail too insignificant...

    • TEN The Sheremetevs and Their Serfs
      (pp. 85-90)

      Velikolépno,“magnificent,” was the word most often used to describe how the Sheremetevs lived. Their palaces were magnificent, their collections of art were magnificent, their parties were magnificent, everything about their way of life was magnificent. “This count lived, as they say, in the Russian manner, in other words, most magnificently,” observed Nicholas Kotov, a Moscow merchant, of Peter. “He lived magnificently, owned a perfectly magnificent carriage, and the exquisite estate of Kuskovo. He loved everything that was magnificent.”¹

      The Sheremetev servants wore livery of rich velvet embroidered with gold thread. The horses that pulled their carriages sported tassels of...

    • ELEVEN The Old Count’s Death
      (pp. 91-96)

      Count Peter Sheremetev died after a brief illness in Moscow early on the afternoon of 30 November 1788. He was seventy-five years old. His passing was accorded all the pomp and solemn observance typically reserved for royalty. TheMoscow Gazettegave the story substantial coverage, and its pages were filled with verses of lament.¹ He was buried on 9 December in Moscow’s Novospassky Monastery. Present at the burial were Nicholas and Varvara, the Remetev children, hundreds of household staff, and the entire choir. Praskovia was most likely among the attendees. Despite the bitter cold weather, tens of thousands came out...

    • Interlude: Serf Theater
      (pp. 97-110)

      About the time Count Peter Sheremetev began the theater at Kuskovo, many of his noble peers were building theaters of their own at their urban palaces and country estates across Russia. Serf theater is a fascinating chapter in the history of the Russian dramatic arts, simultaneously alluring and repellent, magnificent and squalid, and shot through with the paradoxes, injustices, and cruelties of a society in which millions of men, women, and children labored to provide a life of luxury and leisure for the noble elite. Few art forms have ever displayed so nakedly the inequities of wealth, power, and status...


    • TWELVE “I intend to build . . .”
      (pp. 113-120)

      I intend to build a theater at Ostankino,” Nicholas wrote his steward Agapov on 13 February 1790. That same day he issued an order to his home office appropriating twelve thousand rubles for the construction of the theater and new palace at his estate north of Moscow.¹ This order marked the beginning of what was to become the major building project of Nicholas’s life. Nicholas intended Ostankino to be the greatest theater-palace in Russia and the perfect showcase for Praskovia and his theater. It would stand as a monument to Nicholas’s wealth and taste and the glory of the Sheremetev...

    • THIRTEEN Farewell to Kuskovo
      (pp. 121-129)

      On 5 October 1791, Prince Potemkin died unexpectedly in Bessarabia. His death devastated Catherine and threw the court into turmoil. The reception Nicholas had been preparing for the empress was canceled. The collapse of his plan sent Nicholas into a depression and marked a turning point in his life. He began to cut his connections with Kuskovo and to focus his energies increasingly on Ostankino and the Palace of the Arts.

      As a kind of farewell to Kuskovo, Nicholas organized a grand festival on 1 August 1792. The fête signaled both Nicholas’s adherence to the older Kuskovo traditions of his...

    • FOURTEEN Ostankino’s Premier
      (pp. 130-137)

      Nicholas and Praskovia finally moved to Ostankino in the summer of 1795. The paint was still drying on the walls and there was more work to be done, but the palace was close enough to completion for them to settle in. Nicholas’s leave was to end soon, and they would be forced to return almost immediately to the capital. Desperate to stay, he once more wrote Platon Zubov to intercede on his behalf with Catherine, and once more she agreed to a six-month extension. At least for now, they could relax and get to know their new home.

      Ostankino lay...

    • FIFTEEN Training the Troupe
      (pp. 138-145)

      In the early years of the theater Nicholas had been able to find enough performers from among the house serfs on the estate at Kuskovo and other nearby estates. Over time, however, he was forced to make broader searches and periodic levies of young serfs between the ages of nine and thirteen from distant lands. The favored place was the Sheremetevs’ southern estates in Ukraine, especially Borisovka and Alexeevka.

      Serfs didn’t wish to hand over their children to the overseer to be sent off to their master’s home for use in his theater. Some tried to hide their children; others...

    • SIXTEEN Life in the Troupe
      (pp. 146-153)

      The men and women in Nicholas’s troupe lived much better than the serfs in other theaters and were treated more humanely. They were kept separate from the other serfs and cut off from the outside world in a series of wings attached to Nicholas’s urban palaces. At Kuskovo and Ostankino the performers and musicians were housed in a few buildings beyond the administration wings. The buildings were not crude barracks, but well built, comfortable structures with bright white columns and plenty of windows. The group of actresses installed in the Old Home near Praskovia’s apartments at Ostankino enjoyed a commodious...

    • SEVENTEEN To St. Petersburg
      (pp. 154-159)

      Nicholas and Praskovia had been at Ostankino less than a year when a letter arrived from St. Petersburg in late March 1796. The empress was calling Nicholas back to the capital to serve in the Senate. He felt he had little choice but to obey, and in May they packed up and left Ostankino. With that, Nicholas’s dream of a quiet life with Praskovia at their new home came to an end. Nicholas later looked back on this with sadness. “Having adorned my estate of Ostankino,” he wrote “and presented it to spectators as something enchanting, I thought that having...

    • EIGHTEEN Tsar Paul
      (pp. 160-170)

      The reign of Paul I was the most difficult period in Nicholas’s and Praskovia’s lives. For the next four and half years they would be beholden to the whim of an unstable tsar. From the first days of his reign, Paul’s suspicious character was apparent. He was impulsive, erratic, and sickeningly touchy about respect for his person. He set everyone on edge. “One could never be certain of his good graces,” observed one contemporary. “In a word—whether by chance or by forethought—a single shadow of suspicion was sufficient to replace recently granted charities with persecution. Those in greatest...

    • Interlude: Serf Actress Stories
      (pp. 171-178)

      It is not surprising that Praskovia left behind no diary or reminiscences, for no serf actress ever wrote her memoirs. A few actresses, however, did tell their stories to others who wrote them down. Perhaps the best known of these accounts is Alexander Herzen’s “The Thieving Magpie.”

      Herzen wrote his tale in 1846. It was inspired by the tragic story he had been told by Michael Shchepkin about a serf actress named Kuzmina Vorobyova. Kuzmina had belonged to the Kazan landowner Paul Yesipov. Like Praskovia, she was a brilliant performer and singer, had been taught foreign languages—French, German, and...


    • NINETEEN Freedom
      (pp. 181-187)

      Praskovia convalesced throughout the first months of 1798. It isn’t known whether Dr. Frese’s prescriptions, whatever they may have been, were responsible for saving her life or whether she recovered on her own. It wasn’t until springtime that Praskovia had regained most of her strength. The attack had scared her and Nicholas and placed in doubt whether she would ever sing again. Her lungs had suffered and appeared to have been damaged beyond repair.

      She remained throughout her convalescence at the Fountain House with Tatiana, Anna the Emerald, Arina the Sapphire, her sister, and Taniusha. The days were quiet and...

    • TWENTY The Curtain Falls
      (pp. 188-194)

      On the morning of 16 December 1798, a brilliantly appointed carriage attended by four coachmen and postilions and an equal number of footmen attired in livery of red and black velveteen, their sable collars turned up against the cold, drove out of the Fountain House courtyard. Inside sat Nicholas. He was on his way to the Winter Palace to begin his duties as chief chamberlain after an absence from court of two months. Nicholas would remain in this position for several years. His new office required attending to the tsar—serving his food and drink, pushing in his chair at...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • TWENTY-ONE The Specter of Death
      (pp. 195-199)

      In the early hours of 12 March 1801, Tatiana Shlykova was awakened by one of Nicholas’s footmen and told to fetch her keys and come to their master’s office immediately. She did as she was told and went to Nicholas, finding him before the mirror being attended to by his hairdresser, Rousseau. Nicholas appeared terribly agitated, and his face showed that his thoughts were elsewhere. Tatiana kept the keys to the commode with his jewels, and he told her to open it and pull out everything necessary for his court attire. Tatiana asked Nicholas what was the matter. “The emperor...

    • TWENTY-TWO Coronation
      (pp. 200-205)

      The morning of Friday, 16 August, broke unseasonably cold in St. Petersburg. The sky was clear and calm, and a flurry of activity was under way in the Fountain House. Footmen were struggling as they carried heavy trunks and chests down the stairs and out into the courtyard, packing them into a long line of carriages; grooms were leading the horses out of the stables, fitting their traces, and attaching them to the conveyances. Upstairs, Nicholas and Praskovia were putting on their traveling clothes in preparation for their departure for Moscow and the coronation of the tsar.

      Clouds had started...

    • TWENTY-THREE Wedding
      (pp. 206-216)

      By late October 1801, Alexander and the court had left Moscow for St. Petersburg and the crowds had emptied out. Life in the old capital slowly reverted to its usual, quieter rhythms. Except for the inhabitants of the Corner House. To Nicholas and Praskovia the celebrations of the past two months had been a convenient distraction, and now they began preparing for their own private ceremony.

      No one knows when Nicholas came to the decision to marry Praskovia. It’s conceivable he had already decided when they left St. Petersburg for Moscow in August. Having nearly lost Praskovia that spring had...

    • TWENTY-FOUR Newlyweds
      (pp. 217-224)

      Nicholas awoke the next morning filled with joy, which took the form of a shower of gifts for Praskovia and others in the household. He wrote his Home Office to add fifteen hundred rubles to “Praskovia Ivanovna Kovalevskaia’s” yearly salary, a bit impersonal, but then this was typically Nicholas’s way of showing affection, and he raised the pay of his entire household staff. He also ordered a nice new house built for Praskovia’s father at Ostankino. At the same time he directed nearly four thousand rubles for prayers at churches and monasteries across Russia in memory of his parents, grandparents...

    • TWENTY-FIVE Dmitry’s Birth
      (pp. 225-231)

      Throughout the first week of January 1803, Nicholas suffered from recurring night fevers that made it impossible for him to sleep and left him exhausted and irritable. His throat was sore from a dry, hacking cough. On the eighth, his physicians prescribed port and bled him with leeches. None of this helped, and in the middle of the month he was forced to cancel meetings with both Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna and State Secretary Dmitry Troshchinsky.

      Yet Nicholas managed to find the strength for more pleasant, personal matters. Although the theater had been closed for years, Nicholas continued to follow...

    • TWENTY-SIX Secrets Revealed
      (pp. 232-238)

      Praskovia, however, didn’t regain her strength, and what everyone assumed to be the usual consequences of childbirth quickly proved to be something much more serious.

      Not long after the baptism, Nicholas sent a footman to summon Dr. Rogerson. Rogerson read Nicholas’s letter but did not reply. Nicholas sent the footman back a second time and then a third. Only then did Rogerson bother to respond, though simply to inform Nicholas that he could not see Praskovia. Could not or would not. Nicholas wasn’t sure how to interpret Rogerson’s reply.

      Growing increasingly worried, Nicholas next sent for Drs. Wylie, Lakhman, and...

    • TWENTY-SEVEN Death
      (pp. 239-246)

      Praskovia died shortly after two o’clock in the morning on 23 February 1803, having regained consciousness long enough to say one last prayer and receive the sacred final rites. The cause of death may have been sepsis. The strains of pregnancy and the bloody act of childbirth could have allowed the bacterial pneumonia (if that was indeed the illness that had afflicted her for so long) to cross over into her bloodstream, resulting in a dangerous drop in blood pressure, major organ failure, and then death.¹ She was months shy of her thirty-fifth birthday. Praskovia’s body lay in bed for...

    • TWENTY-EIGHT Scandal
      (pp. 247-251)

      On 6 March, eleven days after Praskovia’s death, the serfs at Kuskovo were called out of their huts and told to gather in front of the overseer’s office to listen to a letter from their lord and master:

      It pleased Almighty God to foreordain that I should marry, in complete accordance with the rites of our church, on the 6th day of November 1801 in the Church of St. Simon Stylites during my stay in Moscow. . . . My lawful spouse, Countess Praskovia Ivanovna Sheremeteva, was born a Kovalevsky, and irrefutable documents attest to her being the descendant of...

    • TWENTY-NINE Saint Praskovia
      (pp. 252-260)

      In a letter to Father Amfiloky days after Praskovia’s funeral, Nicholas wrote, “Pray for a man buried in grief. I truly need your help. My only desire is to be with God, to fulfill his Holy will, to confess my sins, and to save my soul.”¹

      To that end Nicholas dedicated himself to helping others. The first thing he did that March was to begin paying for poor and orphaned girls to go to schools in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as Praskovia had asked. “This loss which is more painful than I can express leaves me no other consolation than...

    • THIRTY Putrid Bones
      (pp. 261-265)

      The cloud that had settled over the Fountain House with Praskovia’s death never lifted, and there was an unmistakable feeling that the life of the household was moving toward its end.

      Nicholas lived quietly, largely out of sight. Although he still appeared occasionally at court, he rarely went out into society, preferring the isolation of Ulianka or his private apartments in the Fountain House. Nicholas found it difficult to be around people. He had become anxious and increasingly melancholic; his frequent illnesses intensified his sour demeanor. He got rid of most of the domestics, assigning them elsewhere. The remaining actors...

    • THIRTY-ONE Fatherly Advice
      (pp. 266-270)

      Nicholas had sensed he would not live to see Dmitry reach manhood. He worried about how his son would fare without either parent and surrounded by an extended family and society that viewed him with a mixture of arrogance, condescension, and greed. Nicholas feared Dmitry would face temptation and prejudice and be besieged by sycophants who would flatter him to his face and mock his peasant roots behind his back.

      Nicholas composed two lengthy letters to his son explaining the story of his parents’ love for one another, the circumstances of their lives and Dmitry’s birth, the challenges Dmitry would...

    • THIRTY-TWO Separate Fates
      (pp. 271-280)

      Praskovia’s father died an old man in his seventies at Ostankino in the spring of 1813. After years of gradual decline Ivan Stepanovich had become recalcitrant, refusing to eat or accept any help, and the estate managers had trouble finding reliable people to watch him. One couple assigned to Ivan beat him savagely and then abandoned him in his cottage for a month with a broken rib. The overseers were instructed to make sure Ivan had enough food, plenty of firewood and candles. Every two or three days a half liter of vodka was placed on his doorstep.

      A German...

  10. Coda
    (pp. 281-284)

    The Sheremetevs’ musical traditions lived on after Dmitry’s death. The writer Andrei Muravyov, who was close to many in the family, even Nicholas’s sister in her last years, observed, “The Sheremetevs are songbirds,” they have the tendency “to speak in a sing-song voice.”¹ Dmitry’s son Sergei was given musical instruction and dance lessons as a boy by Auguste Poireaux, whose grandfather, the famous Le Picq, had earlier taught Tatiana Shlykova. Nothing made little Sergei happier than when Tatiana would come watch him dance.

    Although his father’s choir was disbanded, Sergei managed to put together a smaller one of some fourteen...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 285-300)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 301-320)
  13. Index
    (pp. 321-328)
  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)