A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia
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 fact The Pearl tells 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 Pearl sheds 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.
To learn more, click Praskovia.
To listen to Douglas Smith discussing The Pearl at the Seattle Public Library, click podcast.
The fate of the Sheremetev family and the rest of the Russian aristocracy in the tumultuous years following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 is the subject of Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, Douglas Smith’s book published in October 2012 with Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
"The Pearl is a bright, sparkling jewel of a book; a masterpiece that deserves as large an audience as possible. Russia’s greatest love story has never been properly told, until now."
~Amanda Foreman, author of the #1 bestselling Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
"The Pearl is a book I’ve always wanted to see written—a portrait of one of the greatest and least known love stories in European history. Douglas Smith, a brilliant historian who writes like a novelist, has brought it to life in a rare blend of meticulous research and gripping emotional narrative that opens to the reader both the recondite world of Russian serf theater, and an extraordinary human drama. Mesmerizing."
~Andrea Lee, author of Russian Journal and Interesting Women
"Far more than the ‘pearl’ of its title, this is a dazzling, multi-faceted jewel of a book which can be admired and read by scholars and lovers of romantic tragedy alike. It is a remarkable work of dual biography; it is also an unforgettable story."
~Robert K. Massie, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great
"Smith re-creates their lives as master and servant and husband and wife in this fantastic, scandalous, and true tale from a deeply intolerant time… A well-written and compelling book. Highly recommended."
"The Pearl is a gripping read, glittering with exotic wealth, imperial power, family intrigue, priceless diamonds, glamorous theatre and, above all, forbidden, doomed love, but it is also a work of deeply researched scholarship on Russia: this is history-writing at its best."
~Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sunday Telegraph (UK)
"If truth is indeed stranger than fiction, then there can be no better example of that maxim than The Pearl. This fascinating, well-researched account by Douglas Smith is more than a love story about the singing serf who became the greatest diva in Russia and married her master—Russia’s wealthiest noble, Count Nicholas Sheremetev. It’s also a vivid account of the privileged lives and baroque splendor of the Russian aristocracy in the 18th century—the golden age of the Russian nobility—and the complex interaction between the wealthy few and their countless serfs, who were the basis of that wealth."
~Washington Post Book World
"A love story between the richest nobleman in Imperial Russia and a young serf with a spellbinding operatic voice—the scribbler of a bodice-ripper could not ask for better stuff. Now, imagine the same story undertaken with meticulous historical research of thousands of archival documents, crafted by a scholar who moves with impressive agility between the past and the present, among English, Russian and German. Douglas Smith is one of a small circle of people on the planet who could think up this book—and have the gray matter to do it well."
~The Seattle Times