<<< << -- 2 -- Robert Anderson METICULOUS RESEARCH
After his father's death in 1788, Count Nicholas was less in society, and he built a modest house for himself and Praskovia. His favourite author became Marcus Aurelius, and he would accompany Praskovia's singing on the cello. In February 1790 Count Nicholas decided to build the palace of Ostankino. By the time it was complete in 1798, he was millions in debt, the empress had died, Praskovia had retired, and the Sheremetev company had given its last operatic performance. The new emperor, Tsar Paul, immediately celebrated a double funeral, that of his mother Catherine and that of his supposed father Peter III, murdered years before, certainly with the knowledge of Catherine. As a boyhood friend, Count Nicholas was at once bidden to an increasingly capricious court. It was typical of Paul that Praskovia's final performance, at Ostankino in May 1797, should again be as Eliane, this time before Stanislaus Poniatowski, last king of Poland, both given his throne and deprived of it by Catherine.
Madame de Stael characterised Russia as 'a despotism mitigated by strangulation'. In 1801 Tsar Paul was murdered in his turn. His successor Alexander, apparently more civilised, certainly knew about the plot. It was now that Count Nicholas determined to give Praskovia a noble Polish ancestry, the respectability of marriage, and the chance to produce his heir. Tsar Alexander was unconvinced by the ancestry, but reluctantly blessed the marriage, and acknowledged the legitimacy of the boy Dmitri. Praskovia was probably much weakened by consumption. She died within three weeks of her son's birth.
Dmitri turned out to be a 'fanatico per la musica', and Douglas Smith records the family legend that it was in 1855, while staying at Ostankino, that Alexander II signed the first decree leading to liberation of the serfs. Smith continues the family history to include the exiles, executions, and slights imposed by the Soviets, when it proved useful that some of the Sheremetev children were competent on the balalaika. The facts of the book are so well substantiated that I regret Douglas Smith's indulgence in conjectures that require a cautionary 'perhaps' or 'maybe'. That said, the book is so much better than its title.
Copyright © 10 July 2008
Robert Anderson, Cairo, Egypt
The Pearl -
A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia
Yale University Press, 2008
xvi+328 pages, hardback