The Pearl A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia Douglas Smith

Publication date:
25 Aug 2009
Yale University Press
352 pages: 229 x 148mm
16 b-w + 11 color illus. + 2 family trees
Sales territories:


The unforgettable story of the serf who became one of Russia’s greatest opera singers and her noble master, a man who defied all tradition to marry her

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.  

Douglas Smith is a resident scholar at the University of Washington and the author of the prize-winning books Working the Rough Stone: Freemasonry and Society in Eighteenth-Century Russia and Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin.

"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

"Smith’s account is based on meticulous scholarly research, but is written in a lively, engaging and sympathetic manner that will appeal to a broad readership; this is a work that offers much to academics of eighteenth-century Russian history, opera lovers and those with a soft-spot for a tear-jerker of a love story."—Robert Collis, Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism