Sentimental Americans like to point to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the conscience of the abolitionist movement. The little lady who started the Civil War, as Lincoln put it.
What about the Russians? The serf system, effectively slavery, was something a parallel. Of course the gentry were fine with it, the church was okay with it (they had a whole lot of land and the souls that went with it – yet the whole thing was outlawed in 1861, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, four years before the Thirteenth Amendment.
Another case of cherchez la femme, it is said, in this case, not a novelist, but a singer, a diva even, Praskovia Kovalyova.
She was the daughter of a smith serf on the Sheremetev estates, the Sheremetev family being among the richest and most powerful families in all of Russia (Field Marshal Count Boris Sheremetev (1652–1719)) commanded the army of Peter the Great and was rewarded accordingly – two million acres and 210,000 serfs).
With that kind of capital, one can afford to indulge oneself, and what his son Count Peter Sheremetev (1713–1788) enjoyed most of all was theatre. He and his son Nikolai (1751-1809) put together an opera company. They stocked it, logically enough and as was the custom, with their serfs.
Proskovia was all of eight years old at the time, but possessed of a good soprano voice with a face and figure handsome enough for the stage. Professional coaches and teachers did the rest. Languages, singing, deportment – the basic techniques of politesse.
Like stage door johnnies from time immemorial, Nikolai, after a squalid youth slumming with the Tsar-to-be Grand Duke Paul, fell for the diva. Surprising or not, she reciprocated (Yes, I know – when it’s a count and his serf, who can know for sure?)
Star crossed, of course. He was one of Russia’s richest aristocrat, she a serf. When his father died, Nikolai moved her in to a pleasant corner of one of his estates, but tried to keep the whole thing low key – detractors claim that Tsar Paul was unpredictable, eccentric, even mad, and would likely punish the couple for their audacity.
In 1798, Nikolai took the plunge. He emancipated the woman. In 1801, the old Tsar died and was replaced by the more easy-going Alexander I. In 1801 Nikolai married her, passing her off as a Polish princess. Two years later, their son Dmitry was born.
It was, sadly, too much for Praskovia who was already not well. She came down with child-bed fever and was clearly going to die. Nikolai, whether as a romantic gesture or more likely worried that the legal niceties might not pass the close scrutiny of his nephews who would, absent the baby, inherit the whole shebang, told the Tsar everything and asked that both the marriage and baby be legitimated.
It was. The story rocked high society, and the funeral was ill attended, but Nikolai got what he had wanted.
Time passed, life moved on. Fast forward a few decades to 1855. Dmitri, all grown up and still part of the ruling class, was walking in the park one day with Tsar Alexander’s son Alexander II and the conversation turned to the subject of his parents. All very romantic, and tragic also, not having had a chance to know his mother or hear her sing. The story goes that Alexander was greatly moved and set out on the path of freeing the remaining serf with the Emancipation Reform of 1861.
It took him eight years to get there. Politics cannot always be rushed. And anyway, he still beat out Lincoln, and with out a bloody civil war.
(The story leaves out a whole crew of Russian abolitionists and a general fear of the 1848 revolution in Europe and the bad performance in the Crimean war and a whole lot of liberal reforms that did not prevent the Tsar from being killed by revolutionaries – but who doesn’t prefer a good love story to mere politics?
Sentimental people, the Russians. Rather like Americans in that regard.)