Praskovia Zhemchugova serf actress of Count Sheremetyev
The most touching love story of the 18th century
Praskovia Zhemchugova and Nikolai Sheremetyev
On July 20, 1768 in Yaroslavl was born a girl Praskovia, whose name means “Holiday Eve” in Greek. She could become the heroine of a cover version of Cinderella – where have you seen that the richest man in the Russian Empire fell in love with the serf actress and made her his lawful wife. But this story had a sad ending.
Pasha was the daughter of a skilled blacksmith Ivan Kovalev, who was on the drink. So the daughter lived in the father’s house only 6 years. Then she was sent to be raised in Kuskovo. The future star of Sheremetyev’s musical theater grew up under the care of Marfa Dolgorukaya. Such a rapid change in Praskovia’s fate was due to her gorgeous, touching, seductive voice.
“If an angel came down from heaven, when thunder and lightning struck once, I would be less surprised,” – wrote 22-year-old Nikolai Sheremetyev, heard the singing girl.
By the age of 17, serf girl could read and write French and Italian fluently, played the harp and clavichord, sing and act well.
At the age of 11 Praskovia began to perform under the pseudonym Praskovia Gorbunova, as her father was a hunchback due to tuberculosis, but then Count gave “precious” aliases for serf actresses (Zhemchugova, Almazova, Granatova and so on). According to one version, the alias “Zhemchugova” Praskovia had received for her pearl voice.
The Count certainly noticed the young gifted girl.
Then the question, “What did he see in her?” tantalized many notable persons, other than, perhaps, Catherine II. She was at the performance, “Samnite Marriages” by Gretry, in which the 19-year-old peasant woman played the main role. The Empress was so impressed and presented a girl with a diamond ring.
Then the power in Russia had changed – Pavel I became the ruler, but Sheremetev and Zhemchugova’s affection remain unchanged.
After the death of his beloved papa Sheremetyev became depressed and started drinking. Pasha actually brought Nikolai back to life and he decided to marry a serf. Praskovia’s life was very hard – the high society did not want to hear about her, and serfs hated her.
Pavel I did not want to give his permission for the marriage. So Sheremetyev invited the Emperor to listen to the chorus of serfs in the Fountain Palace. The reaction of Pavel I was not much different from Catherine’s reaction, he was so impressed that allowed the Count to marry Praskovia.
According to another version, in December 1798 Nikolai granted the freedom of Praskovia and her family.
After 17 years (!), on November 6, 1801, in Moscow’s Cathedral of St. Simeon the Stylite, Sheremetyev and Zhemchugova were secretly married and then they moved to St. Petersburg.
No wonder many stories end as soon as the bride and groom have the wedding. The actress got tuberculosis and was banned from singing.
Praskovia became pregnant. The pregnancy was hard, but the expectant mother and the child’s father, who dreamed of a successor, were very happy. That time, the serf artist Ivan Argunov wrote the famous portrait of Zhemchugova in a striped hood.
Praskovia died at the age of 35, on February 23, 1803, in 20 days after giving birth to a son Dmitry.
Her husband fulfilled the last will of the deceased, he completed a hospice on the Sukharevka. There is the famous Sklif (Sklifosofskiy Research Institute of Emergency Care) there today.
Count Nikolai Sheremetyev was buried beside his wife in a plain coffin, without any honors befitting his rank, and all his fortune, by the will of the deceased, were given to the poor. The will of the noble Count Nikolai Sheremetyev said:
“In life, I had everything. Fame, wealth and luxury. But nothing that I could not find repose. Remember, that life is fleeting, and only the good deeds we can take with us to another world”