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The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia Hardcover – May 27, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (May 27, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300120419
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300120417
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,431,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

"Smith's book is an unusual gem—a work that gives us not only an absorbing view of the intimate world of a forbidden romance but also a first-rate historical tour of the lost landscapes of Russian aristocratic society, opera, and theater in its golden age."—Willard Sunderland, University of Cincinnati
(Willard Sunderland)

“Douglas Smith has produced the definitive account, and the first in English, of the extraordinary relationship between Count Nicholas Sheremetev, Russia’s wealthiest noble ever, and his wife, a former serf actress known as 'The Pearl'.”—Hilde Hoogenboom, University of Albany
(Hilde Hoogenboom)

"A moving, romantic, and tragic historical tale."—Elise Wirtschafter, California State Polytechnic University
(Elise Wirtschafter)

"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

(Amanda Foreman)

"The Pearl is a portrait of one of the greatest and least known love stories in European history. Douglas Smith, a brilliant historian who writes like a novelist, has brought it to life in a rare blend of meticulous research and gripping emotional narrative. Mesmerizing."—Andrea Lee, author of Russian Journal and Interesting Women
(Andrea Lee)

"The Pearl is a book I've always wanted to see written—a portrait of one of the greatest and least known love stories in European history. Douglas Smith, a brilliant historian who writes like a novelist, has brought it to life in a rare blend of meticulous research and gripping emotional narrative that opens to the reader both the recondite world of Russian serf theater, and an extraordinary human drama. Mesmerizing."—Andrea Lee, author of Russian Journal and Interesting Women
(Andrea Lee)

“This is a dazzling, multi-faceted jewel of a book. Based on an extraordinary effort of meticulous research, Douglas Smith has discovered and told the true story of a young, eighteenth-century serf woman whose superb voice made her the star of the private opera theater of her owner, the wealthiest nobleman in Catherine the Great’s Russia. The high drama of their passionate love is set against a background of the greatest possible contrast: the grim realities of serfdom versus the staggering opulence of the highest Russian aristocracy. It is a remarkable work of dual biography; it is also an unforgettable story.”—Robert K. Massie, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great
(Robert K. Massie)

"This fascinating, well-researched account by Douglas Smith is more than a love story. . . . It's also a vivid account of the . . . complex interaction between the wealthy few and their countless serfs."—Selwa Roosevelt, Washington Post Book World
(Selwa Roosevelt Washington Post Book World 2008-05-18)

"A love story between the richest nobleman in Imperial Russia and a young serf with a spellbinding operatic voice—the scribbler of a bodice-ripper romance could not ask for better stuff. Now, imagine the same story undertaken with meticulous historical research of thousands of archival documents."—Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Seattle Times
(Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett Seattle Times 2008-05-23)

"The irresistible story of the Russian serf Praskovia Kovalyova who was honored by Catherine the Great and loved by one of the richest men in the world. Nicholas Sheremetev brought her to the stage, to his bed, and then secretly wed her."—Bob Blaisdell, Christian Science Monitor
(Bob Blaisdell Christian Science Monitor 2008-07-08)

"An engaging narrative. . . . Scrupulous research underlies this fascinating picture of life at Russia's top social echelon."—George Loomis, Moscow Times
(George Loomis Moscow Times 2008-08-08)

"A fascinating and moving story."—Betty Smart Carter, Books & Culture
(Betty Smart Carter Books & Culture 2008-09-01)

"This is an odd but inspiring story. It is wonderful that Smith uncovered it and tells it so movingly."—Howard Kissel, The Cultural Tourist (New York Daily News blog)

(Howard Kissel The Cultural Tourist 2009-05-29)

About the Author

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.


More About the Author

Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of four books on Russia. His latest book, "Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy," was published in 2012. It was named a best book of the year by the Kansas City Star and Salon and won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize. "Former People" is being published in ten foreign languages.

Over the past thirty years Douglas Smith has made many trips to Russia. In the 1980s, he was a Russian-speaking guide on the U. S. State Department's exhibition "Information USA" that traveled throughout the USSR. He has worked as a Soviet affairs analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany specializing in Russian nationalism and served as an interpreter for late President Reagan.

Smith has taught and lectured widely in the United States, Britain, and Europe and has appeared in documentaries for A&E, National Geographic, and the BBC. He lives in Seattle.

His new book, "Rasputin: The Biography," will be published in 2016.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Timothy M. Frye on May 13, 2008
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Paul E. Richardson VINE VOICE on October 17, 2008
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)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By LB on February 11, 2009
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By maxl31 on October 3, 2008
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.
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