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18 November 2018


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The Pearl

by Douglas Smith

She was a beautiful young serf with a near perfect operatic voice. He was Russia’s richest aristocrat. Together, they shared an illicit love that defied the mores of their age and eventually led to tragedy.

As a quick plot summary, this sounds a bit like cover copy for a bit of pulp fiction. But life is always more interesting than fiction. The extraordinary story of Count Nicholas Sheremetyev and Praskovia Kovalyova does read at times like a bit of pulp fiction, what with the unbridgeable chasm between their social classes, his perennial life-threatening illnesses, the intrigues at court, the depravity of the aristocracy. But Smith recounts the tale not as a novelist (though you sense him fiercely resisting the urge), but as a gifted historian, reconstructing the couple’s private lives from the archives, filling in ample historical background (we do, after all, want to read about Nicholas’ unwitting involvement in Paul I’s assassination) about what it meant to be a noble in Catherinian Russia, about travel in Russia, about theater and the arts. It is a profound love story, well told, while at the same time a valuable contribution to Russian social and political history.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2008