Praskovya Shremeteva (1768 — 1803) was born into a serf family on the Shremetev estate at Yuthorsk. She was noted for her beauty and voice, and so trained for the Shremetev opera, where she swiftly became the leading female singer. This training included French and Italian, as well as singing, acting and dancing, and Praskovya was taught by some of the finest teachers
Artistic serfs were greatly valued by their owners, and some were among the best paid, although this was by no means always the case. In the Shremetev household, creative serfs also received other benefits such as better housing, and were sometimes allowed to undertake freelance work. But they were still the property of their masters, liable to the same punishments and servitude. For serf girls, this included the possibility that masters would claim their “rights” over them. This was how Praskovya’s relationship with Count Nikolai Petrovich Shremetev began, at first amongst other divas in what seems to have been a serf harem. These were fashionable amongst Russian noblemen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, although not all were sustained with the gifts and patronage which Shremetev bestowed on his.
By the beginning of the 1790s, Praskovya had become Count Nikolai’s unofficial wife, and he claimed to be greatly attracted to her beautiful mind and soul. He was torn between his love for Praskovya and the pride and prejudices of his high position in society. They eventually secretly married in 1802. Sadly, their relationship caused a scandal in the high society in which Nikolai lived and worked, and Praskovya was ostracised by other serfs. As a result of this, in combination with her development of tuberculosis, Praskovya spent most of her time confined to quarters in one or other of the Shremetev houses.
For more information, see Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dances: A Cultural History of Russia.