Women in Russia
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7. The Rise of the Actress in

Early Nineteenth-Century Russia

Julie A. Cassiday

By the close of the nineteenth century, the performing arts had not only taken firm root across the vast expanse of the Russian empire, but also become one of the country’s most notable exports.1 Operatic bass Fedor Shaliapin, ballerina Anna Pavlova, choreographer Sergei Diagilev and actor-director Konstantin Stanislavsky all toured outside Russia in the early twentieth century, securing personal fame and establishing their country’s pre-eminence in the performing arts. Among these cultural exports were Russia’s most popular dramatic actresses, such women as Mariia Savina, Lidiia Iavorskaia and Vera Komissarzhevskaia, who drew crowds of curious spectators to see their unique Russian style of acting, in spite of a significant language barrier. While on tour in Western Europe and the United States, these Silver Age actresses elicited passionate responses from spectators and critics, who viewed their performances as the product of a distinctively Russian tendency to blend art and life, usually to the tragic detriment of the latter.

Catherine Schuler, whose study of the Silver Age actress documents the careers of Russia’s first female superstars, suggests that Savina, Iavorskaia, Komissarzhevskaia and their contemporaries created the particular fusion of art and life, of sexuality and soulfulness, that earned them celebrity both abroad and in Russia.2 Indeed, the rise of mass media, the popularity of women’s issues and increased cultural exchange between Russia and the West created unprecedented opportunities for Russian actresses in the last third of the nineteenth century: in addition to choosing their own roles, many Silver Age actresses all but controlled the repertoire of the theatres where they performed, or opened their own private theatres in the country’s two capitals. However, the particularly feminine blend of art and life, which Schuler links directly to ‘the destabilization of conventional femininity’ had, in fact, already taken shape on the Russian stage almost a century before.3

Although Silver Age actresses took advantage of the implications that blending art on the stage with life beyond the footlights held for Russian women, this particular paradigm of the actress first took shape in the Golden Age of Russian theatre during the reign of Alexander I (1801–1825). The Alexandrine stage was arguably the most important cultural institution in early nineteenth-century Russia, even though its dramatic repertoire, typified by plays translated from French and German, the sentimental tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov and satirical comedies by Prince Aleksandr Shakhovskoi, fell out of fashion by mid-century. Both supported by the state and widely attended by members of multiple social classes, the Alexandrine theatre ‘was vaunted as a “school for morals” and a “school for the people”, but in a sense it was more akin to a “school for citizens”, contributing to the development of civil society’, as Murray Frame aptly describes.4 In addition to providing a powerful venue for literally enacting Russian national identity, the Alexandrine theatre created the country’s first female stars, whose cult status both rivalled and prefigured that of their sisters several decades later. Examining the rise of the Alexandrine actress reveals not only the specific ways in which Russian women blended art in the theatre with life beyond the footlights throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, but also the vital role of the actress’s sexual availability in constructing her emotional and artistic authenticity. As ‘the precious pearls of our theatre’, such actresses as Praskov’ia (Parasha) Zhemchugova and Ekaterina Semenova created a specifically feminine form of artistic legitimacy, which initiated the destabilization of gender roles picked up by Russia’s Silver Age actresses at the century’s end.5

Public Women and the Anti-Theatrical Prejudice

The prostitute and the actress share the distinction of being the first women to take on public professions in many European countries.6 Despite clear differences between sex work and the performing arts, the two professions share a deep connection in the Western imagination, since both prostitutes and actresses earn their living by displaying their bodies publicly for the enjoyment of a largely male audience.7 Spectators of different times and places have readily conflated these two types of performance in a single identity of the public woman, occasioning perennial accusations of actresses’ impropriety, licentiousness and harlotry. As a result, the dubious nature of the actress’s profession has provided a convenient target for anti-theatrical diatribes, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles’ (‘Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre’, 1757), in which the author asks ‘how an estate, the unique object of which is to show oneself off to the public and, what is worse, for money, could agree with decent women and be compatible with modesty and good morals: is there even need to dispute about the moral differences between the sexes to feel how unlikely it is that she who sets herself for sale in performance would not soon do the same in person and never let herself be tempted to satisfy desires that she takes so much effort to excite?’8 As his rhetorical question implies, Rousseau assumes that feminine morality can exist only in private and that any woman who displays her body in public in return for money is destined, sooner or later, to become a whore. The anxiety of Rousseau and his contemporaries at the thought of an attractive actress boldly returning the spectator’s gaze from the stage indicates the extent to which the female performer’s identity as a public woman challenged eighteenth-century assumptions about gender-appropriate behaviour and the clear separation of the public from the private sphere.9

With the introduction of professional theatre into Russia in the eighteenth-century, Western European attitudes towards the actress began to merge with Russians’ own pre-existing anti-theatrical prejudice. However, as semiotician Iurii Lotman has shown, with other ideological imports from the Parisian centre of enlightenment to its periphery, Western European notions of the actress as public woman were not simply grafted on to Russian culture.10 In fact, despite clear familiarity with the ‘Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles’ and widespread enthusiasm for Rousseau, Russians rejected the ultimate conclusion of his antitheatrical invective that theatre be banned from any well-ordered society.11 Instead, professional drama came to

Russia at the behest of the state and with the support of the gentry, becoming ‘not simply a form of entertainment, but a powerful means of education’.12 Consequently, when Western European-style theatre, ballet and opera arrived on Russian soil, the terms and significance of the debate about the theatre’s social utility were significantly transformed. With the patronage of Russia’s most noble and public women – including the empresses Anna Ioannovna, Elizaveta Petrovna and Catherine the Great – and without the need to satisfy the tastes of the ticket-paying rabble, Russian actresses at first did not experience the disrepute that their French and British sisters did during the eighteenth century, and ‘acting was initially a respectable profession for women’ in Russia.13 However, memoirs from the end of the century attest to a deep-seated suspicion of the theatre held by many noble Russians, who, in the words of Barbara Alpern Engel, ‘were profoundly hostile to women’s presence in public and regarded such women as fair game’, as did lower class men.14 As a result, young noblewomen were only reluctantly allowed to attend public theatrical productions, let alone perform on stage.15

By the close of the eighteenth century, the Russian theatre exhibited the same division of labour along lines of social class and gender as in Western Europe, only in exaggerated form. A thriving culture of amateur and domestic theatricals allowed both men and women of the Russian nobility to take part in all aspects of the theatre, including acting, in the privacy of their own homes. But in public theatres, which were located almost exclusively in St Petersburg and Moscow, the vast majority of actors and actresses had begun life in Russia’s lowest classes, often as serfs. They constituted a caste subject to a state-run theatrical administration dominated by male elites, whose attitude towards their employees was both paternal and patronizing. In addition, early nineteenth-century Russia’s culture of spectatorship centred on young men of the gentry, called teatraly, whose love of drama found its fullest expression in the pursuit of attractive actresses, ballerinas and opera singers. Pushkin paints a vivid picture of the typical teatral in a description of Russia’s theatre-going public from 1820:

Before the beginning of an opera, tragedy, or ballet, a young man wanders through all ten rows of the stalls, treads on the feet of everyone, chit-chats with all of his familiars and non-familiars. “Where are you coming from?” – “From Sem…[enova], from Sosn…[itskii], from Kol…[osova], from Ist…[omina]”, – “Lucky for you!” – “Today she’s singing, she’s acting, she’s dancing – let’s applaud her – let’s call her! she’s so sweet! she has such eyes! such talent!” – And the curtain rises. The young man and his friends, going from seat to seat, are carried away and give a round of applause.16

Although Pushkin’s satirical description of the teatral merely hints at the sexual dimension of young noblemen’s admiration of the era’s most famous female performers, numerous memoirs attest to the regularity with which male nobles took actresses as mistresses, as well as to the theatrical administration’s involvement in what Wendy Rosslyn has identified as a system of covert prostitution.17 By the early nineteenth century, the professional Russian theatre had become a thinly veiled but socially acceptable brothel, in which actresses’ dramatic performance in public implied a sexual performance in private with male spectators and superiors in the theatrical administration. Thus, the ascent of female performers, such as Zhemchugova and Semenova, out of serfdom to the heights of theatrical fame, and into the Russian nobility via marriage to their owner/patron, demonstrates the ways in which ‘expressive culture generated pleasure as it deployed power’ in Alexandrine Russia.18

Although the sexual availability of Russian actresses at the turn of the eighteenth century arose from assumptions about, and prejudices against, the public display of the female body analogous to those of Rousseau, the discourse surrounding Russian actresses differs in several respects from that found in the ‘Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles’. When critics of the theatre in England and France directly denounced women on stage as wanton, Western European actresses themselves took up their pens to counter or corroborate such attacks, both of which increased their celebrity and income. On the contrary, Russians preferred to skirt around the issue of actresses’ suspect morals and female performers of the era had little, if any, opportunity to take part in the discussion of their profession. However, the seemingly greater tact of Russians’ attitude toward the sexually-available actress belies a profound cultural anxiety about her role as public woman and created a discourse in which poetic language, redolent metaphor and a sentimental master plot distinguish the actress’s place in the Russian cultural imagination of the time.

Suffering, Tears and Feverish Insomnia

Since the female stars of the Alexandrine stage did not leave their own stories behind, we can never know how Zhemchugova and Semenova constructed and understood their acting careers themselves. The literary genre of the theatrical memoir, which has proven popular in Russian culture, crystallized only in the mid-nineteenth century, providing later generations of performers with the means to narrate their lives.19 Although the Alexandrine actress left no autobiography behind, two works of fiction purport to tell her story in her own words and offer a vivid account of her distinctly sentimental biography. Aleksandr Gertsen (Herzen)’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’ (‘Soroka-vorovka’, 1846) and Nikolai Leskov’s ‘The Toupée Artist’ (‘Tupeinyi khudozhnik’, 1883), despite differences in the authors’ styles and concerns, paint a unified picture of what brought the actress in early nineteenth-century Russia to the pinnacle of fame, as well as what inexorably caused her downfall.20 Both convey the tragic tale of a serf actress in her own voice and place her tear-jerking story within a larger narrative told by an upper-class man.

‘The Thieving Magpie’ establishes the archetypal trajectory of the actress’s life from enserfed obscurity, through artistic triumph, and ultimately to personal tragedy. Based on the real-life story of the serf actress Kuz’mina, who performed in the private theatre of the tyrannical Count S. M. Kamenskii, Herzen’s story conflates the actress’s tormented life off-stage with her ability to depict authentic suffering on stage.21 Herzen’s actress impresses his narrator, a performer considering employment in the fictional Prince Skalinskii’s troupe, with a moving rendition of the role of Aneta in ‘The Thieving Magpie’ (a Russian translation of Caigniez and d’Aubigny’s melodrama ‘La Pie Voleuse’, 1815). In spite of the artificiality of the Prince’s theatre, Aneta’s sincere performance rivets the narrator and establishes the emotional range and intensity of the ‘great Russian actress’.22 When she first comes on stage, he is struck by ‘a weak female voice; in it was expressed such terrible, deep suffering. […] Where did such sounds come from in that young bosom; they are not made up, not learned from solfèges, but achieved through suffering, [and] come as the reward of terrible trials’.23 As the play reaches its climax, the narrator grasps the significance of these sounds: ‘her voice and appearance were a loud protest — a soul-rending protest revealing the world’s absurdity and at the same time softened by a kind of warm, meek femininity’.24 Most impressively, Aneta’s performance moves our narrator to weep openly, making him ‘sob like a child’ and ‘purging the soul of its rubbish’.25 The actress’s genuine depiction of suffering on stage moves the narrator to an equally genuine experience of suffering, which culminates in a night of feverish insomnia as ‘a thousand variations on the theme of “The Thieving Magpie” wandered through [his] head’.26

Aneta’s performance so impresses the narrator that he decides to meet her the next day, which allows us not only to see her acting through his eyes but also to hear her life story through his ears. Aneta’s career on the stage began with a kind but spendthrift master, who took her to Italy and France as part of her theatrical training. However, after her master’s death, his entire troupe was sold, to pay off his debts, to the cruel and lascivious Skalinksii, who prizes Aneta for her artistic virtuosity and wants to exploit her feminine charms. Typical of the peculiarly Russian institution of serf theatre, Prince Skalinskii’s privately owned stage functions as both public entertainment and private harem. Yet the virtuous Aneta fends off the Prince’s advances at the price of becoming a prisoner on his estate. Realizing she cannot escape, she exacts revenge on Skalinskii by becoming pregnant with another man’s child, destroying her health and, as the narrator learns afterwards, dying once her child is born. Aneta ends her story by describing the terrible toll that this revenge has taken on her: the actress’s life has become a perpetual state of the same feverish insomnia experienced by the narrator and she can only ‘play a single role […] And so, everything is finished — both my talent and my life… farewell, art, farewell, passions on the stage!’27 The narrator ends his interview with Aneta in a bitter lament, bursting into tears as he leaves her room.

Interestingly, the actress’s two performances — on stage as Aneta before a full auditorium and in her boudoir as herself before the story’s narrator — differ only in their venue and audience. She tells her lachrymose life story in ‘that voice which so strongly shook [the narrator] yesterday’, conveying with her face ‘a terrible tale: in every feature it was possible to read that confession which sounded in her voice yesterday’.28 Aneta’s personal suffering as the chattel of a lecher gives rise to her genuine performance of suffering on stage and any boundary between art and life disappears as the narrator

‘admired her as a work of art’.29 The great actress’s sacrifice of her soul, her body and even her life guarantees the authenticity of her theatrical performance and her spectator’s empathic mirroring of suffering, tears and sleeplessness demonstrates the efficacy of Aneta’s art.

Leskov’s ‘The Toupée Artist’ repeats, with minor variations, the same plot as Herzen’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’. Once again, the narrator listens to the story of a serf actress in Kamenskii’s theatre and, once again, the actress succeeds on stage only to find herself the victim of her master’s unwanted sexual advances. However, Leskov’s actress, Liubov’ Onisimovna, finds an admirer and would-be saviour in the story’s title character, Kamenskii’s make-up artist and personal barber. The very night that Liubov’ Onisimovna becomes Kamenskii’s star actress, the toupée artist Arkadii is instructed to dress her as Saint Cecilia and to adorn her with the aquamarine earrings in which the Count seduces each of his ‘odalisques’.30 Liubov’ Onisimovna and Arkadii run away together but are quickly captured and returned to the Kamenskii estate. Although Leskov’s actress almost escapes with Arkadii twice, her promising stage career ends neither in marriage to the toupée artist, nor in her master’s bed, but in Kamenskii’s cattle yard, where repeated loss and suffering eventually force her to seek solace in alcohol every night to relieve her insomnia. Although Leskov’s story offers little description of Liubov’ Onisimovna’s theatrical virtuosity, her faded beauty, her ‘honest, meek and sentimental’ character and her moving narration of her chaste love for Arkadii create the same equation between personal suffering and authentic acting as in ‘The Thieving Magpie’.31

The striking similarity of Herzen’s and Leskov’s stories illuminates the sentimental nature of the Alexandrine actress’s biography. Much like Nikolai Karamzin’s heroine in the Russian sentimentalist classic, ‘Poor Liza’ (Bednaia Liza, 1792), both Aneta and Liubov’ Onisimovna are lower-class women sexually victimized by an upper-class man. Like Liza, both sacrifice everything they have for the sake of an idealized amalgam of art and love and both reach the height of their theatrical fame at the very moment and by the very means, that bring their acting and life to a tragic demise. In addition, both stories use the same framing device as ‘Poor Liza’, a narrator whose emotional receptivity to the heroine’s tragic tale both introduces and concludes the story as a whole. In ‘The Thieving Magpie’, Aneta’s monologue (marked as her quoted speech) follows a debate among four young men about the dearth of good Russian actresses and it ends with the actor-narrator wiping tears from his eyes as ‘he and [his companions] represented a fine group of mourners for Aneta’.32 In much the same way, Leskov’s story begins with a morbid description of the embalmer’s art, conveys Liubov’ Onisimovna’s tale over her dead lover’s grave through skaz and then closes with the narrator’s lament: ‘I never witnessed, in my entire life, a more terrible and soul-rending death watch’.33 Despite these stories’ claims to speak on behalf of the Alexandrine actress, their framing makes each of them ‘a twice-told story, an utterance of a trivocal structure’, which, as Gitta Hammarberg demonstrates, shifts the tale’s focus from the actress to the narrator.34 The sentimental frame around ‘The Thieving Magpie’ and ‘The Toupée Artist’ place the ‘narrator’s emotive involvement’ at centre stage: he vicariously experiences the emotional trajectory of the actress’s tragedy, revels in his aesthetic and ethical sensitivity and urges his narratee, as well as the reader, to empathize with the actress as he does.35 Both Herzen and Leskov make the actress, narrator, narratee and reader of their stories into what Hammarberg aptly calls ‘sensitive “clones”‘ of each other, linked by their shared suffering, tears and sleeplessness.36

The content and form of these two stories reveal the fundamentally sentimental nature of what would become, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the biographical cliché of the great Russian actress. Indeed, as Maude Meisel describes in her survey of women’s theatrical memoirs, the Russian actress has typically been understood as ‘expressing her inner being in public’.37 In addition, Herzen and Leskov’s tales bring to light the combined aesthetic and ethical imperative that these women’s tragic careers imply. The actress’s ability to offer an authentic representation of suffering arises out of her victimization as a serf and woman, the lowest of the low in Russia’s hierarchical social order, while the very authenticity of her acting demands an empathic emotional response from her typically noble and male spectators. Although doomed to perish, the great Russian actress has the power to initiate an aesthetic, emotional and ethical chain reaction, which binds her audience together in a shared, soul-purging experience of spectatorship.

The Precious Pearl

When we turn from Herzen’s and Leskov’s fictions to the two most legendary actresses of the Alexandrine era, we encounter female performers who inspired the sentimental master plot outlined above, as well as the inevitable snags in this narrative caused by real life. In spite of the differences in their careers, the serf actress, Zhemchugova, and Russia’s greatest tragedienne, Semenova, both of whom earned the epithet of ‘pearl’, experienced a meteoric rise to fame and were eventually elevated through marriage to the highest ranks of the Russian nobility. Their combined story reveals, even more clearly than Herzen’s and Leskov’s fictions, the specific nature of the anxiety posed by the Russian actress’s identity as public woman, as well as the era’s attempt to contain this anxiety. Zhemchugova’s career predates that of Semenova by some fifteen years and, in effect, articulates the terms in which the later actress’s celebrity would take shape. Because no documents from Zhemchugova herself and little indisputable information about her life and career survives, she appears to be a tabula rasa on which largely male spectators, critics, and historians have inscribed their own fantasies and fears about the Russian actress.38

Zhemchugova lived a truly exceptional life for a serf woman, as her appearance in three of the seven essays in this volume attests.39 The daughter of a blacksmith, she was born Praskov’ia Kovaleva in 1768 on one of the wealthy Sheremetev family’s vast estates. She left home at the age of seven to receive the ‘instruction in genteel manners, diction, singing, gestures, foreign languages, and music’ necessary for the stage, entering the Sheremetevs’ vast network of serf theatricals soon afterwards.40 Graced with beauty, talent and an outstanding voice, Kovaleva made her debut in the Sheremetevs’ Kuskovo theatre before her eleventh birthday and she quickly rose to become the star of Count Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev’s troupe. She was best known for the cross-dressing role of Eliana in André Grétry’s opera Les Mariages samnites (1768), which she performed for several royal personages, including Catherine the Great, who was so pleased by Kovaleva’s performance that she presented the actress with a diamond ring.

Count Sheremetev treated the over two hundred performers he owned as empty vessels to be filled with the language, manners and gestures necessary for neo-classical theatre, giving them stage names that signalled this elevation in status. He typically replaced peasants’ plebeian surnames with more refined speaking names that referred, in the case of women, to precious stones, and in that of men, to minerals. Among his performers were Anna Izumrudova, ‘the emerald’, Tat’iana Granatova, ‘the garnet’, Fekla Biriuzova, ‘the turquoise’, Kuz’ma Serdolikov, ‘the carnelian’, Andrei Kremnev, ‘the flint’ and Nikolai Mramorov, ‘the marble’.41 Sheremetev gave Kovaleva the stage name Zhemchugova, or ‘the pearl’, an appellation which, like its French counterpart ‘perle’, refers not only to a gemstone produced by molluscs, but also to an object of great value or a person of extraordinary talent. However, in addition to describing the esteem in which he held his prized diva, Sheremetev may have also borrowed a metaphor common in French libertine literature for female genitalia in his renaming. Even more explicit than Denis Diderot’s first novel, Les bijoux indiscrets (1747), in which women’s personal ‘jewels’ recount their owners’ sexploits, the count’s choice of ‘the pearl’ for Zhemchugova may refer to the clitoris, often labeled ‘la perle’ in French erotic argot of the time.42

Given the conflation of Zhemchugova’s artistic and sexual worth signalled by her gemstone epithet, an equation we have already seen in the aquamarine earrings of Leskov’s ‘The Toupée Artist’, it hardly comes as a surprise that she lived as Sheremetev’s mistress for approximately a decade. Liberating her from serfdom in 1798, Sheremetev devised a dubious account of her family’s descent from Polish nobility to justify a secret marriage in 1801. The ‘pearl’ of his theatre gave birth to Sheremetev’s sole male heir in 1803 and died several weeks later. He made their union public only after Zhemchugova’s death, leaving monuments to her memory in both Moscow and Petersburg, as well as a testament to their son, in which Nikolai Petrovich declared his abiding love for the actress, who possessed ‘reason adorned with virtue, sincerity, philanthropy, constancy, loyalty […] an attachment to holy faith, and the most zealous reverence of God’.43

The facts of the liaison between Sheremetev and Zhemchugova are colourful but few, due to the fact that ‘someone’s “solicitous hand” […] painstakingly removed everything relating to Sheremetev’s intimate life from the family archives’.44 Nonetheless, Russian and Soviet historians writing about Zhemchugova concur on three points that go far beyond the scant information outlined above and that rationalize Zhemchugova’s combined status as Sheremetev’s chattel, concubine and actress by framing her story much as Herzen’s and Leskov’s. First, biographers agree that Zhemchugova’s greatest roles required her to portray women who rebelled against social convention because they loved men outside their social class. They claim that her ability to play these roles convincingly arose from the fact that they ‘found an echo in Parasha’s soul, in her personal feelings engendered by the forbidden liaison and love for the count’.45 As in ‘The Thieving Magpie’ and ‘The Toupée Artist’, the power of Zhemchugova’s acting relies on the authenticity of her feelings: the sincerity of the actress’s private life determines the power and truth of her public performance.

Second, some historians insist that Zhemchugova and Sheremetev fell in love at first sight, that their love was genuine and that both suffered deeply because they dared to challenge social custom; they thereby justify Sheremetev’s sexual relationship with a star actress still in her teens through a supposedly profound spiritual bond.46 However, according to other accounts, Sheremetev ‘knew no law other than lust’; one story even describes how ‘every day he would forget his handkerchief in the room of one or another of his peasant actresses, and at night he would show up to claim his property’.47 Like the fictionalized Count Kamenskii, Sheremetev appears to have treated his troupe of actresses as a personal harem and the fact that he took another former actress (and one of Zhemchugova’s personal maids) as his mistress a year after his beloved’s death seriously undermines the sentimental narrative of a unique and all-consuming love touted by historians and Sheremetev himself.48

Third, historians state that Zhemchugova’s death in 1803 happened neither as a result of the tuberculosis she inherited from her father, nor due to complications during childbirth, but rather because of the soul-rending grief occasioned by the sacrifices both she and her husband made for their love. Zhemchugova is repeatedly described as having given her life to an idealized combination of love and art, which left a legacy not only in the theatre, but also in the popular imagination in the form of the folksong, ‘Vechor pozdno iz lesochka ia korov domoi gnala’ (‘Late one evening I drove the cows home from the forest’), which, some biographers claim, ‘Parasha […] the first Russian poetess’ herself composed.49 These three instances of mythologizing Zhemchugova’s experience demonstrate the need to couch the narrative of the serf actress in sentimental terms, to use the actress’s public performance as a justification of her master’s sexual excess and to rewrite the economic, artistic and erotic hierarchy of master and serf as a utopian performance of loving equals.50

Body and Soul

Semenova’s story repeats much of the sentimental discourse surrounding Zhemchugova, however, with greater nuance and increased ambiguity. The fifteen years separating their careers had brought about significant changes in the Russian theatre, including the decline of privately-owned serf theatres and the growth of the state-owned imperial theatre in which Semenova was raised, trained and earned her fame. However, the wealth of materials documenting the actress’s life, as well as the remarkable power she herself exercd throughout her stage career, prevents Semenova from becoming a tabula rasa for biographers’ fears and fantasies. Rather, her story resembles a palimpsest in which the sentimental narrative of the Russian actress is written over the bluntly non-sentimental facts of her life.

Semenova was born into serfdom in 1786 and her unmarried peasant mother gave her at the age of ten to the imperial theatre school in St Petersburg, where she lived and studied until she made her debut on the professional stage in 1803, at the age of seventeen.51 Semenova quickly established herself as Russia’s premiere tragic actress through tear-jerking performances in the leading female roles of Ozerov’s sentimental tragedies. However, her career was interrupted several times by enmity and rivalry, most notably when the French tragedienne Marguerite-Joséphine Weimer (known as Mlle. Georges), a former favourite of Napoleon, came to Russia for an extended tour. In the years before 1812, spectators in both St Petersburg and Moscow weighed the respective talents of the French and Russian actresses as they performed in parallel French and Russian productions of the same plays until ‘the competition between them, which arose seemingly involuntarily

[…] exceeded the limits of the theatre and turned into an event of general significance’.52 Teatraly were sharply divided between fans of Semenova and followers of Mlle. Georges until the Napoleonic invasion, when Russia’s theatre-going public declared their own actress the victor.

Semenova’s constant efforts to improve her acting, as well as her tremendous popularity among spectators, secured her pre-eminence in the Russian theatre of her day, and she was widely acclaimed as the quintessence of tragedy on the Russian stage, even by Pushkin:

When speaking of Russian tragedy, one speaks of Semenova, and perhaps, only of her. Endowed with talent, beauty, lively and true feeling, she was educated of her own accord […] Her acting, always free and clear, the nobility of her animated movements, her pure, even, and pleasant voice, and her frequent surges of true inspiration, all this belongs to her and is borrowed from no one. Semenova never had imitators […] Semenova has no rival […] She remained the autocratic queen of the tragic stage.53

In addition to talent and beauty, Semenova also had the patronage of Prince Ivan Gagarin, a permanent member of the imperial theatre’s repertory committee, who provided her with a level of influence in theatrical affairs that no Russian actress had known before. Although Gagarin began courting Semenova soon after her debut, she became his mistress only in 1807, in an apparently calculated attempt to acquire the most reliable and powerful patron possible. After living with Gagarin for almost twenty years and bearing his children, Semenova retired from the theatre in 1826 to become Gagarin’s lawful spouse, and she spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity, raising her family and squandering Gagarin’s vast wealth on various legal entanglements until her death in 1849.

Semenova’s spectacular rise from serfdom to celebrity clearly falls within the sentimental master plot of the Russian actress. However, critics and historians could not repeat the simple equation made in Zhemchugova’s case, between the actress’s art and life, when confronted with the ambiguous facts of Semenova’s career. Rather than claiming that Semenova’s art blossomed out of her life circumstances, they describe how she realized her profound artistic talent in spite of the numerous obstacles she encountered, in spite of her lack of true love for Gagarin and in spite of the fact that she left the stage at the height of her powers to live privately as a Russian noblewoman. This reformulation of the Russian actress’s sentimental narrative not only acknowledges, but requires the artist’s failure to realize perfection in her performance. Semenova’s authenticity as a tragic actress finds its rationalization in the supposedly tragic compromises forced upon her by an unworthy and unfeeling world. Both her steadfast love of the stage and her refusal to demean her talent justify Semenova’s willingness to sham love for Gagarin, providing ‘an instructive example […] of how even the greatest natural talent is spoiled, and in some instances even perishes’.54 The inherent ambivalence of this version of the actress’s sentimental narrative finds its reflection in the many epithets that Semenova earned during her career. On the one hand, the actress’s devotees called her Melpomene (the muse of tragedy), ‘a goddess of beauty’ (a phrase from Konstantin Batiushkov’s encomium to Semenova), or Tragedy Itself. On the other hand, one of her less enthusiastic fans, the teatral Stepan Zhikharev, uses the appellation ‘pearl’ to cast doubt on Semenova’s greatness:

Semenova is a beauty; Semenova is the precious pearl of our theatre; Semenova has everything in order to become one of the greatest actresses of her time; but will she fulfill her destiny? Will she preserve that constant love of art, which compels the chosen few to scorn the advantages of a tranquil and sumptuous life in order to give themselves up to the tireless labours to acquire necessary knowledge? Did she not too soon array herself in velvet robes, clothe herself in Turkish shawls, and adorn herself with various costly trifles? From what I hear from everyone, and indeed have experienced in part myself at the rehearsal of Dimitrii Donskoi, when she so rudely insulted me with her haughty ‘What?’ – she lacks education, simplicity of heart, and that warm-heartedness, which the French mean by the word aménité; and these qualities, with little exception, are always the property of great talents […] Sweet Semenova, you are indisputably a beauty, indisputably the precious pearl of our theatre, and the entire public admires you for good reason; but tell me why I, an amateur, do not weep while watching you act, as I usually weep thanks to your colleague Iakovlev?55

By all accounts, Semenova’s behaviour offstage was distinguished by arrogance, vanity and aloofness, qualities that a young Russian nobleman apparently did not expect from a sexually-available actress.

More interesting than Zhikharev’s desire to put Semenova in her place is his use of rhetorical questions in this diary entry, which bears a noteworthy resemblance to Rousseau’s antitheatrical diatribe quoted above. Both Rousseau and Zhikharev use rhetorical questions to condemn the behaviour of actresses. However, if Rousseau chastises the actress for making her body publicly available at all, Zhikharev rebukes Semenova for the unavailability of her body and her soul to spectators.56 Semenova’s lack of aménité prevents Zhikharev from becoming her ‘sensitive ‘clone’‘ and mirroring the actress’s suffering and tears during a tragic tirade. Zhikharev’s critique differs sharply from the praise of Petr Pletnev, who lauds Semenova’s ability to move the entire audience to tears in the role of Medea: ‘Looking at her, almost everyone cried throughout the entire fourth act. In this way Semenova has surpassed all the best known actresses of her kind’.57 In contrast to Rousseau, who argues against women ever leaving the private sphere to perform publicly on stage, Zhikharev’s and Pletnev’s comments confirm the value of the aesthetic, emotional and ethical chain reaction triggered by the actress’s public performance.

The sentimental stories of Zhemchugova and Semenova demonstrate that the early nineteenth-century Russian actress’s function as a public woman, in effect, inverts that of the prostitute. If the whore provides the individual with a private and potentially shameful means of libidinal release, then the actress gives her audience a public and artistically legitimated means of doing essentially the same thing. The precious pearl of the Russian theatre accumulates and expresses the affective energy of male elites, taking it out of the private sphere and placing it in the era’s most important public venue, the professional theatre. Although the expression of repressed emotion inevitably has tragic consequences for the actress herself, her sacrifice constitutes the community of teatraly and Russian national identity through a collective act of sublimation. Zhemchugova and Semenovna provide particularly vivid real-life examples of the discourse surrounding the precious pearl, yet other female stars of the Alexandrine era, such as Aleksandra Karatygina, Mariia Val’berkhova and Aleksandra Kolosova, were praised or panned using the same sentimental terms, as were male stars, including Iakov Shusherin, Stepan Mochalov, Aleksei

Iakovlev and Ivan Sosnitskii. As a result, the precious pearl of the Russian theatre defined the actor’s profession as a whole in Alexandrine Russia, playing a key role in the actual process of, as well as heated debates about, the feminization of Russian culture in the early nineteenth century.58

From Subject to Author

If Zhemchugova and Semenova were the subjects of a sentimental narrative written largely, if not entirely, by others, a few of their peers managed to author their own stories as sentimentalism gave way to romanticism, Realism, Naturalism and Modernism in the nineteenth-century theatre. The memoirs of two of Semenova’s contemporaries on Petersburg’s imperial stage appeared in print several decades after the end of the Alexandrine era. Much like Zhemchugova’s and Semenova’s biographers, Aleksandra Asenkova and Aleksandra Karatygina asserted, ‘the actress, regardless of her nationality, is a special, an exceptional being. All of her belongs entirely, body and soul, to the theatre’.59 At the same time, however, these retired leading ladies wrote about backstage intrigues, romantic scandals and pragmatic necessities that complicated the sentimental narrative of the precious pearl. Most notable in this regard is the autobiography of Liubov’ Nikulina-Kositskaia, who began her life in serfdom and her career as an actress in the Russian provinces in mid-century. On the one hand, Nikulina-Kositskaia describes her introduction to the theatre as a transcendental experience leading to a mystical vocation: ‘[…] my soul left my body and passed up there, onto the stage. I was lost to the everyday world. I didn’t see or hear anything; it was like everything had died for me. When the curtain fell, I no longer asked why and what it was for. Now I understood everything; I even understood that my life was there, and there was none for me here. I was trembling all over’ .60 On the other hand, Nikulina-Kositskaia’s arduous path from the provinces to Moscow, a path on which many would-be stage stars embarked throughout the nineteenth century, disabused her of any sentimental or romantic notions she might have had about a woman’s life in the theatre. Like many aspiring actresses in nineteenth-century Russia, Nikulina-Kositskaia endured haphazard training, a gruelling schedule of tours and male spectators’ importunate advances before the opportunity to perform in Moscow, let alone audition for the imperial stage, even arose. In spite of the many ways in which their stories failed to conform to the sentimental prescriptions of the precious pearl, Russia’s first actress-autobiographers insistently preserved the master narrative established for Zhemchugova and Semenova.

The opportunity for actresses to author their own stories expanded the sentimental narrative of the precious pearl to include an ever-widening variety of social origins, dramatic genres and acting techniques as the nineteenth century progressed. Yet once the Alexandrine era came to a close in 1825, the Russian actress found herself briefly eclipsed by her male peer, as actors such as Pavel Mochalov, Vasilii Karatygin and Mikhail Shchepkin began to occupy centre stage in mid-century. Only with the rise of a new generation of ingénues in the last third of the nineteenth century did the cult of the Russian actress experience a revival that once again located her artistic legitimacy in an idealized amalgam of life and art. Typical of this master narrative was Mariia Savina’s motto: ‘The theatre is my life’, Glikheriia Fedotova’s reputation as a ‘vestal virgin of the temple of art’ and Mariia Ermolova’s two titles, ‘the great silent one’ and ‘the Madonna’.61 At the same time that these Silver Age actresses based their artistic authenticity on a seamless continuity between life and art, hearkening back to the early nineteenth century, they introduced two important innovations into the narrative of the precious pearl. First, as the titles of ‘vestal virgin’ and ‘Madonna’ imply, Silver Age actresses exerted greater control over their bodies as both aesthetic and sexual objects than their Golden Age predecessors, thereby sublimating even more deeply the erotic and emotional energy they expressed on stage. Second, the Russian actress’s increased control over the public display of her own body came with a newfound power to write her own story, not merely in historical hindsight, but as it unfolded. If Zhemchugova and Semenova were the subjects of a master plot composed by male patrons and spectators, while Asenkova, Karatygina and Nikulina-Kositskaia could only author their careers in retrospect, then Silver Age actresses rewrote and adapted the sentimental narrative of the early nineteenth-century to suit their own talents, repertoires and styles at the very height of their fame.

Perhaps the most vivid example of the Silver Age actress’s ability to carry on the sentimental narrative of the precious pearl at the very same time that she tailored it to her own needs comes in the career of Vera Komissarzhevskaia.62 Her carefully crafted persona of ‘a fragile, suffering child of our times’ earned Komissarzhevskaia scores of early twentieth-century fans, many of them women, whose devotion to the actress verged on the religious. Although she entered the theatre already in her twenties, Kommissarzhevkaia quickly identified her métier and concentrated on roles that embodied ‘youth, degradation, and death’.63 Following in the footsteps of other actress-entrepreneurs, such as Anna Brenko, Mariia Abramova, Elizaveta Goreva, Elizaveta Shabelskaia and Lidiia Iavorskaia, she opened her own theatre in St Petersburg in 1904, where many of the pre-revolutionary era’s ground-breaking productions took place. Her iconic role, Nina Zarechnaia, the idealistic yet tragically fallen provincial actress in Chekhov’s The Seagull (Chaika, 1895), was taken as an artistic rendering of Komissarzhevskaia herself. Unsurprisingly, the critic, Vasilii Rozanov, identified the most striking feature of Komissarzhevskaia’s career as ‘the overlap of role and reality, of living being and actress’.64 Her premature death due to smallpox at the age of forty-six elevated this early twentieth-century incarnation of the precious pearl to the status of theatrical martyr, strengthening the perceived tie between Komissarzhevskaia and Nina

Zarechnaia and inspiring a flock of young Russian women to embark on their own acting careers.65

Chekhov’s character from The Seagull provides a fitting close to the story of the precious pearl of the nineteenth-century Russian theatre. As Nina Zarechnaia’s famous monologue from Act Four of the play describes, the ability to be ‘a genuine actress, [to act] with enjoyment, with rapture, [to become intoxicated] on the stage and [to feel] beautiful’ arises only from tragic personal sacrifice, as well as the willingness to endure the unwanted attentions of male spectators.66 Although Nina’s social and artistic trajectory in the play – from emotionally authentic ingénue to provincial stock actress – is diametrically opposed to that of the female stars discussed above, her formula for successful acting relies on the same combination of art and life, of body and soul, first articulated for the early nineteenth-century Russian actress. In addition, Nina repeatedly confuses herself as actress with the taxidermied bird to which Chekhov’s play owes its name, demonstrating the steep psychological price the actress must pay as she both tolerates the vulgar sexual advances of spectators and embodies the authentic suffering needed for a tear-jerking performance. Chekhov’s fictional reconstruction of the narrative of the Russian actress points to the culturally constructed nature, as well as the surprising longevity, of the precious pearl of Russia’s early nineteenth-century theatre.


An earlier version of this article was presented as ‘“The Precious Pearl of Our Theater”: The Early-Nineteenth-Century Russian Actress as Public Woman’ at the National Conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in 2006. The author would like to thank the State Central Theatrical Library in St Petersburg for providing her with materials vital to her research; Williams College for supporting this and other projects and Gitta Hammarberg, Marcus Levitt and Douglas Smith for their comments on the paper out of which this article has grown. All translations are the author’s own unless otherwise noted.

1.For overviews of the development of the dramatic and performing arts in nineteenth-century Russia, see Catherine A. Schuler, Theatre and Identity in Imperial Russia (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009) and Richard Stites, Serfdom, Society and the Arts in Imperial Russia: The Pleasure and the Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

2.Catherine A. Schuler, Women in Russian Theatre: The Actress in the Silver Age (London: Routledge, 1996). Schuler dates the “‘golden age” of Russian actresses’ from the 1870s to 1910 (p. 2).

3.Schuler, Women in Russian Theatre, p. 8.

4.Murray Frame, School for Citizens: Theatre and Civil Society in Imperial Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 8. Schuler’s Theatre and Identity in Imperial Russia also explores the ways in which the country’s dramatic theatre fostered new forms of national identity during the nineteenth-century.

5.The phrase ‘the precious pearls of our theatre’ paraphrases S.P. Zhikharev’s description of Ekaterina Semenova, which will be quoted at length and discussed below.

6.For studies that examine the association of the actress with the prostitute, see Lenard R. Berlanstein, Daughters of Eve: A Cultural History of French Theater Women from the Old Regime to the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Tracy C. Davis, Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1991) and Deborah C. Payne, ‘Reified Object or Emergent Professional? Retheorizing the Restoration Actress’, in Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater, ed. by J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1995), pp. 13–38.

7.As Kirsten Pullen states, ‘At particular historical moments, the body of the actress (assumed to be an object onto which male desires were projected) and the body of the prostitute (assumed to be an object onto which male desires were enacted) slipped discursively into one: whore/actress’. Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 2.

8.Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater’, ed. by Allan Bloom and Christopher Kelly, trans. by Allan Bloom, in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, 13 vols, ed. and trans. by Allan Bloom, Charles Butterworth and Christopher Kelly, ed. by Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly (Hanover and London: Dartmouth College and University Press of New England, 1990–2010), X (2004), 251–352 (317).

9.For examinations of the ways in which actresses experienced this particular anxiety in eighteenth-century Britain, see Kimberly Crouch, ‘The Public Life of Actresses: Prostitutes or Ladies?’, in Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: Roles, Representations and Responsibilities, ed. by Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (London and New York: Longman, 1997), pp. 58–78 and Kristina Straub, ‘The Construction of Actresses’ Femininity’, in her Sexual Suspects: Eighteenth-Century Players and Sexual Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 89–108. Virginia Scott demonstrates the widespread nature of Rousseau’s view of the actress as a sexual predator in ‘The Actress and Utopian Theatre Reform in Eighteenth-Century France: Riccoboni, Rousseau, and Restif’, Theatre Research International, 27.1 (2002), 18–27.

10.Iu. M. Lotman, ‘Arkhaisty-prosvetiteli’, in Tynianovskii sbornik: vtorye tynianovskie chteniia, ed. by A. Chudakov (Riga: Zinatne, 1986), pp. 192–207 (198).

11.For evidence of Russians’ familiarity with the ‘Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles’, see Marcus C. Levitt, ‘The Polemic with Rousseau over Gender and Sociability in E. S. Urusova’s Polion (1774)’, Russian Review, 66 (2007), 586–601; N. M. Karamzin, Pis’ma russkogo puteshestvennika, ed. by Iu. M. Lotman, M. A. Marchenko, and B. A. Uspenskii (Leningrad: Nauka, 1984), pp. 161, 223, 275 and F. Z. Kanunova and O. B. Levedeva, ‘Pis’mo Russo k d’Alemberu v vospriiatii V. A. Zhukovskogo’, Russkaia literatura, no. 1 (1982), 158–68. For broader discussion of Russians’ reception of Rousseau, see Lotman, ‘Russo i russkaia kul’tura XVIII – nachala XIX veka’, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Traktaty ed. and trans. by V.S. Alekseev-Popov et al. (Moscow: Nauka, 1969), pp. 555–604 and ‘Russo i russkaia kul’tura XVII veka’, in Epokha prosveshcheniia: iz istorii mezhdunarodnykh sviazei russkoi literatury, ed. by M. P. Alekseev (Leningrad: Nauka, 1967), pp. 208–81.

12.Frame, p. 1.

13.Wendy Rosslyn, ‘The Prehistory of Russian Actresses: Women on Stage in Russia (1704–1757)’, in Eighteenth-Century Russia: Society, Culture, Economy. Papers from the VII International Conference of the Study Group on Eighteenth-Century Russia, Wittenberg 2004, ed. by Roger Bartlett and Gabriela Lehmann-Carli (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2007), pp. 69–81 (79).

14.Barbara Alpern Engel, ‘Women and Urban Culture’, in this volume.

15.D. Blagovo, Rasskazy babushki iz vospominanii piati pokolenii, zapisannye i sobrannye ee vnukom, ed. by T. I. Ornatskaia (Leningrad: Nauka, 1989), pp. 152, 154 and M. S. Shchepkin, Zapiski aktera Shchepkina, ed. by N. N. Panfilova and O. M. Fel’dman (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1988), p. 51. See also V. Mikhnevich, Russkaia zhenshchina XVIII stoletiia: istoricheskie etiudy (Kiev: Tip. I. I. Chokolova, 1895), p. 269; Wendy Rosslyn, ‘The Prehistory of Russian Actresses’, pp. 69–71 and Prince M. M. Schcherbatov, On the Corruption of Morals in Russia, ed. and trans. by A. Lentin (Cambridge: University Press, 1969), pp. 252–53.

16.A. S. Pushkin, ‘Moi zamechaniia ob russkom teatre’, in his Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 17 vols, ed. by Maksim Gor’kii (Moscow: Izd. Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1937–1959), XI (1949), 9–13 (9).

17.Wendy Rosslyn provides an insightful and comprehensive analysis of the working conditions of Russian actresses in the early nineteenth-century in ‘Female Employees in the Russian Imperial Theatres (1785–1825)’, in Women and Gender in 18th-Century Russia, ed. by Wendy Rosslyn (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 257–77 and ‘Petersburg Actresses On and Off Stage (1775–1825)’, in St Petersburg, 1703–1825, ed. by Anthony Cross (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003), pp. 119–47. Schuler documents the prevalence of sexual patronage and prostitution among Russian actresses later in the nineteenth-century in Women in Russian Theatre (pp. 26–27).

18.Stites, p. 5.

19.Maude F. Meisel, ‘Self-Presentation on Stage and Page in the Memoirs of Russian Women Performers’, in Mapping the Feminine: Russian Women and Cultural Difference, ed. Hilde Hoogenboom, Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, and Irina Reyfman (Bloomington: Slavica, 2008), pp. 51–66. For a fuller discussion of the genre of the theatrical memoir in Russia, see Meisel’s ‘Russian Performers’ Memoirs’, Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1993.

20.A. Gertsen, ‘Soroka-vorovka. Povest’. (Posviashcheno Mikhailu Semenovichy Shchepkinu)’, in Povesti i rasskazy (Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1974), pp. 271–92. N.S. Leskov, ‘Tupeinyi khudozhnik. Rasskaz na mogile. (Sviatoi pamiati blagoslovennogo dnia 19-go fevralia 1861 g.)’, Sobranie sochinenii, t. 7 (Moskva: Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1858), 220^2.

21.For a description of the actor Mikhail Shchepkin’s performance of the anecdote on which Herzen’s story is based, see T. S. Grits, ‘K istorii “Soroki-vorovki”’, Literaturnoe nasledstvo, vol. 63 (Gertsen i Ogarev, III, ed. by V. Vinogradov, I. S. Zil’bershtein, S. A. Makarov and M. V. Khrapchenko) (Moscow: Izd. Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1956), 655–60.

22.Gertsen, p. 279.

23.Gertsen, p. 279.

24.Gertsen, p. 280.

25.Gertsen, p. 281.

26.Gertsen, p. 282. These expectations for the great Russian actress bear comparison with what Rosenholm and Savkina describe as ‘the reciprocal permeability of life and art by appealing to the authenticity of women’s inner intonation’ in women’s prose at mid-century: Arja Rosenholm and Irina Savkina, ‘“How Women Should Write”: Women’s Writing in the Nineteenth Century’ in this volume.

27.Gertsen, p. 289.

28.Gertsen, p. 285.

29.Gertsen, p. 285.

30.Leskov, p. 225.

31.Leskov, p. 221.

32.Gertsen, p. 292.

33.Leskov, p. 242.

34.Gitta Hammarberg, ‘Poor Liza, Poor Èrast, Lucky Narrator’, Slavic and East European Journal 31.3 (1987), 305–21 (306). Hammarberg expands her analysis of ‘Poor Liza’ in From the Idyll to the Novel: Karamazin’s Sentimentalist Prose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 138–59.

35.Hammarberg, ‘Poor Liza, Poor Èrast, Lucky Narrator’, p. 307.

36.Hammarberg, ‘Poor Liza, Poor Èrast, Lucky Narrator’, p. 312.

37.Meisel, ‘Self-Presentation on Stage and Page’, p. 160.

38.The one exception to this trend is Douglas Smith’s recent and masterful study of Zhemchugova, which represents a unique attempt to cull the actual facts of her life from the seemingly countless legends and acknowledges the extreme difficulty of reconstructing her story from what little remains of her life: Douglas Smith, The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

39.For other discussions of Zhemchugova-Kovalova, see Christine D. Worobec, ‘Russian Peasant Women’s Culture: Three Stories’ and Philip Ross Bullock, ‘Women and Music’ in this volume.

40.N. A. Elizarova, Teatry Sheremetevykh (Moscow: Izd. Ostankinskogo dvortsa-muzeia, 1944), p. 300.

41.Elizarova, p. 307.

42.For French sources documenting this meaning of ‘perle’, see Pierre Guiraud, Dictionnaire historique, stylistique, rhétorique, étymologique, de la littérature érotique (Paris: Éditions Payot et Rivages, 1993), pp. 42, 490; Jean-Marc Richard, Dictionnaire des expressions paillardes et libertines de la littérature française (Paris: Filipachhi, 1993), p. 188 and Marie-Françoise Le Pennec, Petit glossaire du langage érotique aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Éditions Borderie, 1979), p. 50.

43.‘Iz bumag i perepiski grafa Nikolaia Petrovicha Sheremeteva’, Russkii arkhiv, 34 (1896), 457–520 (512). As Smith points out, Sheremetev’s own use of sentimental language to describe his relationship with Zhemchugova had a profound impact on her legacy, in effect transforming her into a saint immediately after her untimely death (pp. 61–63, 72, 254).

44.Elizarova, p. 299.

45.Elizarova, p. 303. See also, S. V. Istomin, ‘Praskov’ia Ivanovna Zhemchugova, 1768–1803’, in Samye znamenitye artisty Rossii (Moscow: Veche, 2000), pp. 14–20 (16–19).

46.Elizarova, p. 305; Istomin, p. 19. Evreinov even goes so far as to reconstruct the conversation in which the two first met, while Sukhodolov exclaims, ‘Yes, she was happy! And although by the ideas of that time and even later, love could not exist between a female serf and a grandee, love existed nonetheless, an unusual, if you wish – fairytale [love], but it existed’. N. N. Evreinov, Krepostnye aktery: Populiarnyi istoricheskii ocherk (vtoroe, zanovo pererabotannoe i znachitel’no dopolnennoe izdanie) (Leningrad: Izd. Kubuch, 1925), pp. 13–14; V. N. Sukhodolov, ‘Graf N. P. Sheremetev i Praskov’ia Zhemchugova’, Otechestvo (1994), pp. 99–108 (100). See also E. S. Kots, Krepostnaia intelligentsiia (Leningrad: Knigoizd. Seiatel’, 1926), p. 160.

47.Kots, p. 160. Smith confirms Sheremetev’s preference for serf women, as well as his propensity to exercise his droit du seigneur among his serf actresses (pp. 26–27).

48.One historian even feels the need to fend off possible accusations of paedophilia: ‘It is impossible to suppose that Nikolai Petrovich, who was already thirty years old in 1781 [when Zhemchugova was only thirteen], could take an interest at this time in Praskov’ia Ivanovna as a woman’. Vladimir Staniukovich, Domashnii krepostnoi teatr Sheremetevykh XVIII veka (Leningrad: Izd. Gosudarstvennogo russkogo muzeia, 1927), pp. 32–33. Sheremetev’s testament to his son also emphasizes that Zhemchugova was the unique love of his life. ‘Iz bumag i perepiski Grafa Nikolaia Petrovicha Sheremeteva’, pp. 510–19. Stites has astutely pointed out in his study of the arts in nineteenth-century Russia that sometimes ‘“theatre” was simply a ruse for maintaining a collection of concubines. The female body, in some cases, served multiple functions as an acting device, a sexual object, and a target for the knout’ (p. 240).

49.Kots, p. 161. Emmanuil Beskin repeats this claim in Krepostnoi teatr (Moscow-Leningrad: Kinopechat’, 1927), p. 19. In addition, Evreinov connects the folksong ‘ … U Uspenskogo sobora / V bol’shoi kolokol zvoniat. / Nashu miluiu Parashu / Venchat’ s barinom khotiat.’ [… By the Uspenskii cathedral / in the great belltower rings the bell. / Our dear Parasha / they want to marry to a gentleman…] to Zhemchugova (p. 16).

50.Although Schuler describes Zhemchugova as ‘a sort of fairy-tale princess’, the clear parallels between her story and those in Herzen’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’ and Leskov’s ‘The Toupée Artist’ point to its fundamentally sentimental nature. Catherine Schuler, ‘The Gender of Russian Serf Theatre and Performance’, Women, Theatre, and Performance: New Histories, New Historiographies, ed. by Maggie B. Gale and Vivien Gardner (New York: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 216–35 (229).

51.Biographical information about Semenova comes primarily from N. Medvedeva, Ekaterina Semenova: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo tragicheskoi aktrisy (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1964) and R. Ben’iash, Katerina Semenova (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1987).

52.Ben’iash, p. 93.

53.Pushkin, p. 10.

54.A. N. Sirotinin, ‘Ekaterina Semenovna Semenova (Ocherk iz istorii russkogo teatra)’, Istoricheskii vestnik (Sept. 1886), 474–508 (480).

55.S. P. Zhikharev, ‘Dnevnik chinovnika’, in Zapiski sovremennika. Vospominaniia starogo teatrala, 2 vols, ed. by A. V. Lisitsyn (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1989), II, 3–328 (265–66). Batiushkov’s encomium to Semenova can be found in Sirotinin, p. 479.

56.Aksakov repeats a similar critique of Semenova in his description of her acting in S. T. Aksakov, ‘Iakov Emel’ianovich Shusherin i sovremennye emu teatral’nye znamenitosti’, in his Sobranie sochinenii, 4 vols, ed. by S. Mashinskii (Moscow: Gos. Izd. Khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1955–56), II (1955), 337–99.

57.P. A. Pletnev, ‘Dramaticheskoe iskusstvo g-zhi Semenovoi’, in Sochineniia i perepiska P. A. Pletneva, 3 vols, ed. by Ia. K. Grot (St Petersburg: Tip. Imperatorskoi Akademii Nauk, 1885), I, 44–53 (50).

58.For more detailed discussions of acting in the Alexandrine era, see Istoriia russkogo dramaticheskogo teatra, ed. by E. G. Kholodov, 7 vols (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1977–87), II (1977), 148–90, 361–98 and T. Rodina, Russkoe teatral’noe iskusstvo v nachale XIX veka (Moscow: Izd. Akademii nauk SSSR, 1961), pp. 61–104, 211–274. Stites also provides an insightful overview of nineteenth-century acting and the century’s dramatic repertoire in the imperial theatres of Moscow and Petersburg (pp. 173–220), as well as a useful description of the country’s growing network of provincial theatres (pp. 221–80).

59.A. E. Asenkova, ‘Kartiny proshedshego. Zapiski russkoi artistki. Glava 1-ia’, Muzykal’nyi i teatral’nyi vestnik, no. 36 (1857), pp. 492–94 (492). For the remainder of Asenkova’s memoirs, see the following 1857 editions of Muzykal’nyi i teatral’nyi vestnik:, no. 37, pp. 492–95; no. 39, pp. 529–32; no. 42, pp. 578–80; no. 44, pp. 606–07; no. 46, pp. 642–44; no. 49, pp. 699–700; no. 50, pp. 709–13 and no. 51, pp. 720–25. Karatygina’s memoirs appear as ‘Vospominaniia A. M. Karatyginoi’, in P. A. Karatygin, Zapiski, 2 vols, ed. by B. V. Kazanskii (Leningrad: Academia, 1929), II, 121–330.

60.Liubov Nikulina-Kositskaia, ‘Notes’, trans. by Mary F. Zirin, in Russia Through Women’s Eyes: Autobiographies from Tsarist Russia, ed. Toby W. Clyman and Judith Vowles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 124–25. For the original Russian of Nikulina-Kositskaia’s memoirs, see ‘Zapiski L. N. Nikulinoi-Kositskoi, artistki Imperatorskikh Moskovskikh teatrov’, Russkaia starina, 21 (January 1878), 65–80; (February 1878), 281–304 and (March 1878), 609–24.

61.Schuler, Women in Russian Theatre, pp. 53, 72, 77.

62.For an overview of Komissarzhevskaia’s career, see Schuler, Women in Russian Theatre, pp. 155–88. Victor Borovsky also provides a detailed biography, which preserves the zealous and almost religious veneration of Komissarzhevskaia’s fans, in A Triptych from the Russian Theatre: The Komissarzhevskys (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001), pp. 72–231.

63.Schuler, Women in Russian Theatre, p. 164.

64.Schuler, Women in Russian Theatre, p. 164.

65.For a discussion of what Schuler calls ‘The Nina Zarechnaia Epidemic’, see Women in Russian Theatre, pp. 19–40.

66.A. P. Chekhov, Chaika, in his Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v tridtsati tomakh, 30 vols, ed. by N. F. Bel’chikov (Moscow: Nauka, 1974–1983), XIII (1978), 3–60 (58).