The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love
between a Count and His Serf in Catherine the Great’s Russia
General review of the lecture by Douglas Smith
given at the Russian Consulate General in New York
on October 29th, 2008
Late on the evening of February 27, 1803, a casket was carried out of the grand St. Petersburg palace of Count Nicholas Sheremetev and placed upon a funeral carriage for the long ride down Nevsky Prospect to the Alexander Nevsky monastery. Inside lay the body of the Count’s young wife, Praskovia, who had succumbed to tuberculosis just three weeks after giving birth to the couple’s only son and heir. Praskovia’s funeral was accorded all the pomp that befitted the dead wife of the scion of one of Russia’s greatest noble families. Yet, the Countess’s funeral was conspicuously ignored by society, for despite her title and Nicholas’s claim that his departed spouse sprang from an ancient Polish noble family, everyone knew the truth of her past that the Count so desperately sought to hide: Praskovia was no noblewoman, but had been one of Nicholas’s serfs, the former star of his private theater troupe who performed as “The Pearl,” in whom he had fallen hopelessly in love, had freed, and then secretly wed.An archetypal tale of forbidden love, the story of Nicholas and Praskovia is as dramatic and moving today as it was two hundred years ago. Their affair is at turns inspiring, passionate, cruel, and ultimately tragic, a testimony to the great price often paid by those who flout the dictates of society in order to follow their hearts. Their story provides a fascinating window onto life in the Russia of Catherine the Great, from the simple huts of the Russian peasants to the great country estates of the wealthy nobility, from the dressing rooms of serf actresses to the opulent splendor of the tsarist court in St. Petersburg.
The story begins at the estate of Kuskovo, the Sheremetevs’ ancestral home a few kilometers southeast of Moscow. Among the serfs who worked the estate was Ivan Kovalev, a master blacksmith and heavy drinker whose physical deformity earned him the name “The Hunchback.” Among his children was a little girl named Praskovia, born in 1768. As a child Praskovia learned the folk songs of the local peasants and liked to sing as she went about her daily chores and wandered with her friends through the leafy woods of Kuskovo. One fateful day, Princess Marfa Dolgorukaya, Count Pyotr Sheremetev’s cousin who lived with the family in the manor house, overheard young Praskovia and was captivated by her clear, songbird voice and her pretty face. Although Praskovia was only seven years old, Marfa took her from her family and began to educate her and to train her promising voice. It was to be a decision fraught with the most profound consequences for the little serf girl, as well as for the Count’s only son.
Like other wealthy nobles at the time, Count Sheremetev had his own theater company complete with a full troupe of actors and actresses, singers, dancers, and musicians comprised of his serfs, all trained in his own school. If most of the Count’s 200,000 plus serfs paid their lord through agricultural work or quitrent, this select group paid by entertaining him and his guests. Praskovia was a natural, and in 1779 she made her debut in the French comic opera “Les Souliers mordorйs” at the tender age of ten. So impressive was this youngest member of the company, that the following year she was given the lead in Sacchini’s “La Colonie,” in which she appeared for the first time as “Zhemchugova”—“The Pearl.”
Praskovia was Nicholas’s prodigy, and he supervised her studies, both musical and otherwise, as she developed into a budding star. It was he who gave Praskovia the stage name, to go along with his other leading ladies – “The Sapphire,” “The Garnet,” “The Crystal,” and “The Emerald,” Anna Buianova, who was not only his first actress, but Nicholas’s lover as well, though most certainly not the only one.
Throughout the 1780s, Praskovia continued to develop as an actress and singer. The highlight of her young career came in June 1787 when Catherine the Great visited Kuskovo and saw her perform the lead in Gretry’s “Les Mariages samnites,” which became her defining role. So moved was Catherine by her performance, she personally presented Praskovia a diamond ring. At the time of Catherine’s visit, Nicholas and Praskovia had been lovers for a year or more. Approaching twenty, Praskovia had captivated Nicholas not only with her rare talent and fine, delicate features, but also with her sincere religious sensibility and spiritual purity. In 1789, they moved into a small house built for the two of them at Kuskovo away from the manor house and the servants. Nevertheless, Nicholas’s attempt to construct a refuge for themselves away from the disapproving stares and vicious gossip, which was especially painful for Praskovia, failed.
Partially to escape Kuskovo, partially to build an even greater stage upon which to show off Praskovia’s talent, Nicholas began rebuilding the old family estate of Ostankino in 1790. The focal point of the palace was to be a large theater, around which the rest of the structure was erected, that rivaled in size and technological innovation the best theaters of Europe. Nicholas’s men worked furiously to complete the palace, and by the spring of 1795, Nicholas and Praskovia were able to move in. Praskovia appeared in the lead role of Zelmira in “The Siege of Ismail” on July 22 to universal acclaim. Soon after, however, she was taken ill and began coughing up blood. The best doctors were summoned, and their diagnosis was dire: tuberculosis. The doctors counseled against any more performing and prescribed rest. Praskovia would appear only once more at Ostankino when, in May 1797, she revived her role in “Les Mariages Samnites” for Stanislaw Poniatowski, the last king of Poland.
This was a difficult period for Praskovia. Her one true joy had been performing, when, for a few brief hours, she could forget that she was a serf and lose herself in the life of another, someone who was free and did not know the indignities of being the property of another human being. The sinfulness of her relationship with the Count grew ever more oppressive to her pious nature. Nicholas could see that Praskovia was suffering and he struggled with himself to find the way to lessen her pain. Finally, in December 1798, he gave Praskovia her freedom, and she ceased to be his property. Still, this was not enough for either of them. Though he had illegitimate children from other serfs, Nicholas wanted a legal heir, and Praskovia sought a way out of this immoral relationship–either by ending their affair or consecrating it with marriage. An answer to their searchings came on the evening of November 6, 1801, when, accompanied only by a few of their closest friends, Nicholas and Praskovia were secretly wed in Moscow.
Though this eased their religious qualms, it did nothing to lessen the social taboo against which they struggled. Now living at the Sheremetevs’ Fountain House in St. Petersburg, the couple had to go on pretending that Nicholas was still the wealthiest bachelor in all of Russia, and Praskovia little more than one of his concubines. Though she lived in opulence, it was a golden cage that she rarely left. Too ill now to perform, she passed her days in the circle of a few friends, reading, crocheting, and playing the harp.
Nicholas’s grief consumed him. While with time the pain lessened, no one ever took Praskovia’s place and he cherished her memory and sought to enshrine it through charitable works until his death in 1809. With time Praskovia passed into legend. The story of her improbable journey from serf to countess inspired a folk song sung by millions of peasants across Russia. Penny prints depicting a romanticized first meeting with Nicholas hung in many Russian homes. In smoky taverns and roadside inns gypsy musicians performed a song about how “the church bells were calling, our sweet Parasha is to be married to the master.” Praskovia’s tale was recalled in poems and novellas. By the end of the nineteenth century, nearly everyone had heard of the poor serf girl who had married Russia’s richest aristocrat.
Under the Soviets, Praskovia was transformed into a quasi-socialist celebrity. She became a symbol of the worker-peasant class whose talents had been exploited by their masters. Her image was put on postcards, and a crudely politicized version of her life fed to Soviet school children. The Sheremetev estates of Kuskovo and Ostankino were reopened as shrines to Praskovia and the genius of the Russian peasant. As for the Sheremetevs, visitors were instructed to gaze upon their palaces so that they might “better know their enemy, and consequently develop a deeper and more conscious hatred toward him.” Writers cranked out books and brochures full of distortions and half-truths on Praskovia and Nicholas, and their story became the subject of a popular made-for-TV movie.
The poet Anna Akhmatova paid tribute to Praskovia’s spirit in a sketch to her epic “Poem without a Hero:”
What are you muttering, midnight?
In any case, Parasha is dead,
The young mistress of the palace.
The gallery remains uncompleted–
This capricious wedding gift,
Where, prompted by Boreas,
I am writing all this down for you.
Incense streams from every window,
The beloved lock has been cut,
And the oval of her face grows dark.