Subscribe to Christianity Today
The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia
Yale University Press, 2008
352 pp., $40.00
Betty Smartt Carter
Serf, Diva, Countess
Warning: The scene I am about to describe contains material of a fictional nature; some readers, especially professional historians, may find it disturbing.
One day in the first half of the 20th century, when Stalin was in dreary flower and Gorbachev just a boy pitching hay on his father's collective farm, a class of Russian children took a trip to the countryside near Moscow. They came to see the famous Sheremetev estate at Kuskovo, where Count Nicholas had once made the gardens and waterways glitter with torches for the Empress Catherine. Unlike so many of the great houses of Russia, Kuskovo hadn't been ripped down to make way for some cataclysmic piece of Soviet architecture. It remained as a museum for the people of the Revolution, and on this day the people's children would see it for themselves.
They followed their teacher through the fir trees and across the lawns, past the ruins of the outdoor theater, around the rambling seventy-acre garden and the Italian-style theater built by Nicholas after a tour of Europe. Before they could enter the Big House, they were taken for an obligatory visit to the Old Quarter. Here were no palaces or gardens. Here the Sheremetev serfs had once lived and worked. A thousand serfs on this one vast estate! 100,000 on the count's lands all over Russia!
"Look," said the teacher, "and see for yourselves how the workers lived, compared to their masters. They had no palaces, no theaters. By the honest labor of their hands, they made their lazy master wealthy. Somewhere in this quarter lived a poor blacksmith, Ivan Kovalyov, who had his daughter Praskovia stolen from him and taken to the palace when she was only eight. There she was forced with the other serfs to sing in Count Nicholas' fashionable opera—to sing like a canary in a cage. When she grew up, Praskovia became the bride of this decadent man, who always took what he wanted without producing anything. Only by her devotion to her people did she rise above her situation and become ...