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The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia Paperback – 14 Aug 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (14 Aug. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300158580
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300158588
  • Product Dimensions: 14.5 x 2.3 x 22.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 927,548 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


''The Pearl' is a bright, sparkling jewel of a book; a masterpiece that deserves as wide an audience as possible. Russia's greatest love story has never been properly told, until now.' - Amanda Foreman, author of 'Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire'. 'An engaging narrative... Scrupulous research underlies this fascinating picture of life at Russia's top social echelon.' George Loomis, Moscow Times --Amanda Foreman, George Loomis


"The blend of historical and fictional discourse offers a highly readable complement to more academic studies ... Smith does an excellent job." --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In Russia it seems everybody knows the story of Count Nicholas Sheremetev, one of the richest man in Russia, secretly married 32-year-old Praskovia Kovalyova, his former serf. It is a popular legendary romantic fairy tale.

The heroine is Praskovia Ivanovna Kovalyova who was one of the best opera singers in eighteenth-century Russia. She was born into the family of a serf smith. They were owned by the Counts Sheremetevs,who had made their fortune as military leader of Peter the Great. 200.000 serfs were own with body and soul by the Sheremetevs. Count Nikolai loved the theatre and kept a serf theatre. Its brightest star became Parskovia.In this 1780 performance Sacchini's opera La coloniethe actress for the first time appeared under the stage name Zhemchugova, "The Pearl", (zhemchug means "pearl" in Russian). She became the count's mistress; not unusal but this was more. She became a wife in all but name. Already quite scandalous. However, this all went further. Freed by the count, in 1801 she became secretly his wife and mother of his son Dimitry. She died shortly afterwards in 1803. The count had already asked and received official recognition of his marriage. This marriage scandalized society and angered Nikolai's family. His two nephews wanted of course to inherit his vast fortune.T he plaque on Praskovia's grave is a monument for the count's love: This plain marble, unfeeling and impermanent, Hides the priceless remains of a wife and mother. Her soul was a temple of virtue, In which peace, piety, and faith resided, Where pure love and friendship dwellt. He died in 1809.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am of Russian origin, from St Petersburg, a historian specialising in the 18th century. As such, I found that the book contains many factual errors, and analysis of and comments on characters and events are debatable. As an exciting love story for a Western reader who does not know anything about Russia and 18th century - it is possibly OK. As an academic research and reliable secondary source - it is not.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I truly enjoyed Smith's latest book Former People. Tremendously fresh and painful story with strong characters who were trying to survive in a society that loathed them. The Pearl us a gripping and upsetting story about a forbidden love affair between a high aristocrat and his serf. Beautifully told and incredibly sad.
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By KAW on 6 May 2013
Format: Paperback
This was a fascinating love story, the couple not only crossed the class divide the man actually married his serf, the women was legally his property, until he freed her and gave her the status of wife.The author writes convincing about a society that is hard to imagine now. The serf singers and performers were admired and could even become quite wealthy but they belonged bodily and morally to their masters.The material sometimes feels a little stretched and the author admits that he has had to use his imagination and some dramatic licence, but it is a story worth telling and it feels as if he cares deeply about his subjects.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x8dc0e024) out of 5 stars 15 reviews
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8d93e60c) out of 5 stars Review of The Pearl 13 May 2008
By Timothy M. Frye - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Douglas Smith has written a fascinating book. The Pearl tells the tale of Nicholas Sheremetev, Russia's richest noble, who secretly marries Praskovia Ivanovna, his serf and the star of his "serf theater". The book reads like a novel with characters straight out of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but bears all the signs of great history -- thorough research, good judgment, a sense for the times and characters, and deep insight into the social and political forces at play. This work of dual biography and social history is also a joy to read.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8d93e6a8) out of 5 stars A profound love story, well told 17 Oct. 2008
By Paul E. Richardson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
(Reviewed in Russian Life)
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8f0315b8) out of 5 stars The Shining Pearl 12 Feb. 2009
By LB - Published on
Format: Hardcover
One of the few times I have actually longed to see a story spring from it's pages on to the big screen. "The Pearl" is a fantastic book, history written in vivid detail, which paints a picture of what it was like for a Russian serf girl to go from the unknown to become the star of the operatic stage, and the great love of Nicholas Sheremetev, contemporary of Catherine the Great.

The story is filled with descriptions of the unfathomable wealth and power of the Russian aristocrats. The history of the building of grand theaters and their conscripted operatic and symphonic companies is fascinating. How wonderful it would be to see the actual theaters and grand houses restored to their former glory, sparkling on the big screen.

As I read about the experiences of Praskovia, "The Pearl", I felt the former serf's life must have been in turns exhilarating and profoundly lonely. How strange it must have felt to be at one moment the grand dame of the Russian stage, adored by her many fans, and at the next, all alone, terribly isolated because of her relationship with Nicholas, the artistocrat.

I was most struck by the deep love Nicholas and Praskovia seemed to have for one another, despite the social conventions of the time. The death of Praskovia clearly marked the end of Nicholas' life as well. Nicholas seems to have been blinded by his grief over Praskovia's death, to the great detriment of his son, Dmitry. It will be a long time before I forget the terrible letter he wrote for his son to read when he came of age. Poor Dmitry seems to have spent his entire life trying to make ammends for the despair he unknowingly caused his father.

What a story! What a history! I recommend this book highly.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8daa6ab0) out of 5 stars A truly remarkable book -- hard to put down! 3 Oct. 2008
By maxl31 - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Douglas Smith has written a thoroughly readable, immaculately researched tale detailing the life of the talented opera singer Praskovia (aka "The Pearl")--who was born as a serf, but raised to become one of the serf "intelligentsia" (whose job it was to entertain the aristocrats), rose too become an singing star, and eventually entered into a long-term forbidden relationship with her master, Nicholas Sheremetev, whom she eventually married in secret.

Against the lush backdrop of Tsarist Russia, the story is not just a tale of "forbidden love" (as indicated by the quasi-salacious subtitle of the book) but also a fascinating piece of psycho-social history that details again and again the essential contradictions of a talented and passionate woman living a life trapped within a strict social system that officially relegated her to a position of slavery, with no official hope of ever getting out of that position. The tale is made all the more gripping for the sympathetic portrait it draws of Sheremetev, who bucks social and class convention and pursues his love for Praskovia, in sharp contradiction to the mores of the Russian nobility.

The biggest challenge Smith faced in writing this book was probably the lack of historical data about Praskovia's life. Thus, much of what he describes about, say, her separation from her family and move to the "Big House" is extrapolated from what is generally known about serf upbringing. Luckily, Smith, an internationally known expert in the Russia of Catherine the Great, is up to the task and masterfully manages to fill in details based on his extensive research of the social lives of serfs, without falling into the trap of simply fictionalizing her life.

Overall, Smith is a virtuosic writer, balancing a historian's need for well-researched detail with a novelist's flare for the telling description, the clear narrative thread, and the emblematic moment or detail that reveals a larger psychological or social truth. In particular, the "serf theater" interlude sections are masterfully written. Truly fascinating stuff. I got hooked at the beginning, and with each chapter it became harder to put the book down. Highly recommended!
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8da63498) out of 5 stars Misleading title and cover discription 1 Aug. 2008
By Sadie Storm - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title and the cover's description lead one to expect a biographical story of the love story between the Pearl, Praskovia Kovalyova (the Count's mistress and later wife) and Count Nicholas Sheremetev which occurred during an exciting time in Russian history, the time of Catherine the Great. However, the author admits there is little information about this love affair and actually spends most of the book describing the Count's theaters, operas, and dazzling homes. The author even spends a few chapters describing things that bear little relationship to the so-called love story. There is very little information, in fact, about the Pearl, after whom the book is title. Quite misleading!

However, well researched the book, the love story is still to be told.
Disappointing book.
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