From Serf to Diva to Countess: the stranger-than-fiction life journey of Praskovia Ivanovna Sheremeteva and her lover

August 26, 2008 at 2:17 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia)

The Pearl by Douglas Smith is a most unlikely love story set against the backdrop of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Russia. The rule of the Romanov tsars was absolute. The higher echelon of the nobility often possessed fabulous wealth and ruled over demesnes on which thousands of serfs labored.

Wikipedia defines serfdom as “…enforced labor of serfs on the fields of landowners, in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields.” As an institution, it resembles to some degree the relationship of lord of the manor and peasant in medieval Europe – feudalism, in other words. In western Europe, this social order was weakened first, by the scourge of the Black Death in the mid-1300’s, and in subsequent years, by the Renaissance. Russia, however, was bypassed by both of these culturally seismic shifts. As a result, the waning years of the eighteenth century found it lumbering forward with glacial slowness, encumbered with an outmoded system of fiefdom more suited to life in the Middle Ages than to the thrust toward modernity being experienced by nations to the West.

in the late 1700’s, for a variety of complex reasons, certain Russian aristocrats built theaters on their vast estates. They then proceeded to tap into the vast pool of available serf labor in search of individuals who could perform in theatrical productions and operas. An amazing reservoir of talent, even genius, was brought to light in this manner. And in just this way a fabulously wealthy epicure, Count Nicholas Scheremetev, discovered the preternaturally gifted Praskovia Kovalyova – discovered her, and then fell in love with her.

Praskovia as Eliane in the opera "The Marriage of the Samnites"

Ii was by no means unheard of for a nobleman to take a serf woman as a lover or a mistress. What was completely unprecedented was for that same nobleman to take such a woman as his wife. This is precisely what Nicolas Schermetev was determined to do.

The Pearl centers on the extraordinary bond between Micholas and Praskovia. The reader can have no doubt concerning the depth of the Count’s devotion to the beautiful, delicate Praskovia. Douglas Smith sets this relationship in context by describing in detail the Russia of the late 18th century. We’re familiar with L.P. Hartley’s dictum concerning the past – that it is another country, where people do things differently. The Russia evoked in these pages seems more like another planet. It was a society governed by rigid protocol. The contrast between the fabulous – I almost want to say obscene- wealth of the aristocracy and the poverty and wretched living conditions of the serfs is shocking. These conditions were promulgated as being nothing less than God’s will. At the head of this ossified social order was the Tsar, a kind of Godhead himself (or herself, the ruler for much of that era being Catherine the Great).. By the next century, the seeds of revolution were already being sown. The only wonder is that it took so long to happen.

This book dragged in places. Smith goes into great detail concerning the strange phenomenon of serf theater. The lengthy narrative of Nicholas’s efforts to establish some sort of noble lineage for Praskovia became tedious. Finally, while a few passages might be described as lyrical, Smith’s prose rarely rises above what I would call workmanlike. In fairness to this author, this was a complex tale exhaustively researched and no doubt extremely difficult to assemble into a coherent whole.

In point of fact, Smith was able to locate the Count’s descendants, who were only to happy to assist him: “Kyra Cheremeteff, a direct descendant of Nicholas and Praskovia, responded with generosity to my inquiries.”

Despite its occasionally slow pace, The Pearl is a book with a compelling story to tell. I recommend it.

2 Comments

  1. What do an eighteenth century Russian opera singer and a warlike tribal people of ancient Italy have in common? « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 6, 2009 at 10:40 am (History, Italy, Russophilia, books) In  The Pearl, author Douglas Smith tells the story of Nicholas Scheremetev, a Russian aristocrat who finds, in […]

  2. Favorite nonfiction of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Pearl: A True Story of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, by Douglas Smith.For me, reading Russian history is akin to entering some kind of hallucinating state or alternate universe. The Pearl is a slow read, but worth the effort – you’ll be rewarded with an intensely moving love  story. […]

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