The Pearl

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.

Overview of the Book

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.

Learn more about Praskovia.

Listen to Douglas Smith discussing The Pearl at the Seattle Public Library.

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.

Book Reviews

"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."

— Library Journal

"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

"The Pearl, with its come-hither subtitle, will lure many a reader seeking breathless romance. The lovers’ story is a remarkable tale to be sure, but what most surprises and lingers is the revelation of this world of enslaved artists who served virtually every need of their country’s ruling class, and until now remained largely hidden to most of us."

— Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"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. This week Smith was in Moscow to promote his latest book and the expat community just couldn’t get enough of him."

— Moscow News

"Deliciously amusing."

— The Daily Telegraph (UK)

"The Pearl is the irresistible story of the Russian serf Praskovia Kovalyova who was honored by Catherine the Great and loved by one of the richest men in the world, Nicholas Sheremetev … the slacker and playboy who found his calling as a serf-theater impresario ... Sheremetev is a type more often found in 19th-century Russian fiction than in history. Pushkin, Herzen, Leskov were all aware of and affected by this true story. Smith offers an engaged and sympathetic assessment of Sheremetev, an aristocrat who overcame prejudice and privilege sufficiently to do something right, good, and brave."

— Christian Science Monitor

"I have stood disconsolate many an hour outside the wooden palace of Ostankino, creation of Count Nicholas Sheremetev with magnificent opera house as its core and raison d’etre. I tried every trick known to my halting Russian and meagre pocket to try for entry to a building evidently under heavy restoration. But the site was guarded as securely as when the palace was originally built. I knew something of the extraordinary story that linked Russia’s wealthiest aristocrat to a serf soprano and had hoped to understand more. Thanks to Douglas Smith’s meticulous research, I at last feel I have been granted admission to Ostankino and have been much moved by the tale he has to tell."

— Music & Vision

"The Pearl is a sophisticated as well as touching exercise in micro-history, using contemporary documents, memoirs, historical studies and Smith’s own observations of the Sheremetiev estates to place Praskovia against the scenery of her times ... In the world of cynical social climbing and snobbery that was the beau monde of 18th-century Russia, their lasting union represented an astonishing human achievement."

— The Guardian (UK)

"Remarkable … A very lively portrait."

— Opera News

"An engaging narrative … scrupulous research underlies this fascinating picture of life at Russia’s top social echelon."

— The Moscow Times (Russia)

"The Pearl does not simply chronicle a private theater. Its raison d’etre is the theater’s star singer … a soprano of apparently prodigious vocal and dramatic gifts who so captivated her master that she became the main woman in his life and eventually—in defiance of societal norms—his wife … The story of the rich aristocrat and his serf became the stuff of legend."

— The St. Petersburg Times (Russia)

"Entertaining and well-informed."

— The Irish Times

"Extraordinary … a profound love story, well told, at the same time a valuable contribution to Russian social and political history."

— Russian Life

"[A] fascinating and moving story … the work of an accomplished historian and fine writer."

— Christianity Today

"[Smith] narrates this story with a vital sense of realism … When it comes to motivation, ambitions, love, prejudices, feelings of inferiority, and so on—what the author calls ‘the hidden pathways of their hearts’—one has to transcend a certain high-brow academic pedantry and become a conjurer. For this a reader can only be grateful. This book is written as a true page-turner."

— Early Music America

"Highly readable … [Smith’s] eye for detail and gift for overview provide a moving picture of life in the country and at court."

— The Times Literary Supplement

"Five stars … a heart-wrenching tale, laid bare with style and relish."

— Nicholas Bagnall, Sunday Telegraph (UK)