If you ever visit Moscow, you will probably fly into Moscow’s international airport. It’s called Sheremetievo. Where does it name come from? Well, the land where the airport is now used to belong to the Sheremetiev family, which was among the most ancient, the most politically connected, the richest of Russia’s aristocratic landowning families. At one time, the family owned 300,000 serfs—an unbelievable number given that in 1820, there were 400,000 slaves in the whole state of Virginia.
Count Nicolai Petrovich Sheremetiev (1751-1809) experienced his own mixture of wormwood and honey. As was the fashion in late 18th and early 19th century, Count Sheremetiev established a full-fledged theater and opera on his estate. He trained his serfs to perform. Among them was a young serf girl, Praskovya, who turned out to be an extraordinarily gifted actress and singer. She became her owner’s lover; over time, he fell in love with her, freed her, and finally married her. The marriage was a secret for a long time but in the end it became known. Count Sheremetiev was shunned, even after his wife’s death. He wrote:
“I thought I had friends who loved me, respected me and shared my pleasures, but when my wife’s death put me in an almost desperate state I found few people to comfort me and share my sorrow. I experienced cruelty. When her body was taken to be buried, few of those who themselves were my friends displayed any sensitivity to the sad event or performed the Christian duty of accompanying her coffin.”
After strenuous efforts, Count Sheremetiev was able to have his and Praskovya’s son Dmitri recognized as his official heir. Years later, in 1856, Emperor Alexander II and his wife came to Moscow for their coronation. In special recognition of the Sheremetiev family, they spent a week at Dmitri’s estate in Ostankino. In 1861, Alexnder II emancipated Russia’s serfs and became known as the Liberator. Twenty years later he was assassinated by radicals of the National Will.