The secret marriage between Count Nicholas Sheremetev, the richest nobleman in 18th century Russia, and the serf opera singer, Praskovia Kovalyova, has become a romantic legend. In a new book published last month, American historian Douglas Smith has crafted five years of research into a lively retelling of the story for English-speaking audiences. This week Smith was in Moscow to promote his latest book and the expat community just couldn't get enough of him. Meetings over coffee designed for a handful of newcomers were crowded with eager fans so that copies of The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia sold out within minutes. And "author evenings" across town were packed with people wanting to now more about this extraordinary romance. Finding relatively little concrete information in the archives, and virtually nothing written by Praskovia herself, Smith has walked through Moscow in the footsteps of the Count and his "Pearl" ("Zhemchugova" became her stage name), in the hope of imaginatively recreating their feelings. He first discovered the "tragic beauty of their story" on a visit to Kuskovo in 1992 and says that for the next ten years he "couldn't stop thinking about it." The lovely palace and estate at Kuskovo in the south-east (nearest metro: Ryazansky Prospekt) has a new exhibition about the life of Praskovia, displaying many of the paintings Smith has chosen to illustrate his book. There is also a model of the outdoor theatre where Praskovia performed, currently a neglected wasteground, but scheduled for restoration.
The other opulent Sheremtev estate, even more closely associated with the story, is the Ostankino palace to the north (nearest metro: VDNKh), where Nicholas commissioned a larger theater where Praskovia was to be the prima donna. He and Praskovia moved here in the summer of 1795 and the magnificence of the theatre can still be visited together with the sumptuous Italian Pavilion and the recently restored park. Drawings of Nicholas and Praskovia face each other across the picture gallery and in the theater you can see the chariot in which she rode to play the Amazon Elaine before Catherine the Great, together with a copy of the portrait of her in this role. Both palaces often stage summer concerts where visitors can imagine the original performances.
After a time in the then capital, St. Petersburg, the couple returned to Moscow and lived for a while in the Corner House at the junction of Vozdvizhenka Ulitsa and Romanov Pereulok. The elegant house is still there and has a plaque commemorating Praskovia's stay there. It was from here that they made the discreet trip to the green-domed church of St Simeon Stylites on what is now Novy Arbat to get married. This lovely building was then outside the city's earthen walls and is now incongruously overshadowed by tower blocks. It is a well known Moscow landmark, currently closed for restoration. (Nearest metro: Arbatskaya)
Their son Dmitry was born in 1803 and Praskovia died soon after, weakened by childbirth and pneumonia, at the age of thirty-five. Devastated by her death, Nicholas spent the rest of his life grieving and attempting to honor her memory through acts of charity. One impressive monument to his love is the huge semi-circular building of the Sheremtev hospital on the garden ring near Sukharevskaya Metro. This was originally an almshouse, begun at Praskovia's request and finally completed in 1810, the year of Nicholas' own death. Over the next two centuries, two million people were cared for there. Less tangibly, but even more importantly, Nicholas' moral transformation eventually helped to bring about the abolition of serfdom and a radical change in Russian society.
Smith insists that theirs is a "universal" story of "the power of love to transform the human heart."