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VINE VOICEon 8 August 2008
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.

The book is not just the wonderful love story but gives a deep inside into the word of the Russian Grandees and the glitterung world of the Court in the 18th century contrasting deepy with the lives of peasants and serfs. Serfdom reached its height at the end of the eighteenth century. By then 34 out of 36 million peasant families were either landlord serfs or state peasants. Officially serfs were not slaves, although the dividing line could be rather hazy. In general, Russian serfs were considered property to be bought and sold. The author however believes that "serfdom never sank to the brutalizing and utterly dehumanizing level of slavery in the Americas". Well, a bit too roamtic his notion and forgetting that the vast majority of Russian were in such a state. Serfdom and slavery might be in legal terms different, but the reality was very similar and both are utterly unacceptable.

Brilliant is his re-creation of the serf theatre. It was a great discovery for me.

Unfortunately, the absence of historical material about Praskovia herself leaves a deplorable gap, deplored first of all by the author himself. He than has to speculate about the emotional relationship between the serf turned singer and her owner.

All in all, this is a wonderful book giving an inside into Russia at the end of the 18th century when glitter and glamour and poverty and misery are close by. 100% recommended!!!
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on 6 May 2013
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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on 5 December 2015
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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on 25 March 2014
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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