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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pilgrim's Progress

She was a lover of Tsar Alexander I; a friend and patron to Pushkin and Gogol; a writer, amateur singer, actress and composer; and, during the 1820s, host to the most important salon in Moscow in a house on the corner of Ulitsa Tverskaya and Kozitsky Pereulok. For more than 20 years she was close to the center of power in the country and a prominent player in the arts scene, especially the emerging literary culture. But the circumstances of sex and class ganged up on Princess Zinaida Volkonskaya to shove her if not quite to the periphery of cultural history then certainly far enough from the center to make her name all but unrecognized overseas.

In The Pilgrim Princess, Maria Fairweather does a creditable job illuminating the details of Volkonskaya's life (in the text Fairweather drops the feminine ending and refers to her subject as Princess Volkonsky, or simply Zinaida), but one of the problems, as she herself acknowledges in the introduction, is that there is scant primary source material from which to draw. Since Zinaida has been all but submerged by the tumultuous events of history that occurred in the first half of her life, Fairweather has decided to place that life in context. Thus, the major historical events of her youth tumble out like a popular history: the 1796 death of Catherine the Great, the accession and murder of her son, Paul I, Alexander's complicity in his father's death and his early years as an enlightened despot, the Napoleonic Wars and the Metternich-influenced aftermath in which the increasing conservatism of the once-liberal Alexander was outshone by his reactionary brother, Nicholas I. This first section takes up more than half the book's length and, with the exception of the chapter describing Volkonskaya's friendship with Gogol, is its most interesting part.

Zinaida was born in Dresden on Dec. 3, 1789, (though an endnote tells us even this date is not a hard and fast one) and died in Rome on Feb. 5, 1862. Her father was Prince Alexander Beloselsky, a diplomat (hence Zinaida's foreign birth), writer, patron of the arts and, clearly, a major influence on Zinaida's life.

Zinaida first caught the tsar's eye in 1809 as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager. When rumors of an affair between the two became hot and heavy, a marriage between Zinaida and Prince Nikita Volkonsky was arranged. Volkonsky, himself a womanizer, served as an excellent decoy for Alexander's affair with Zinaida. In fact, during the campaign against Napoleon, Volkonsky's main purpose seems to have been delivering love letters between the two, who referred to him as the "ordinary post." Fairweather quotes from some of these letters at length, but they don't provide very much insight into Zinaida's character (or the tsar's for that matter). A high-strung character, Zinaida suffered throughout her adult life from varying degrees of depression, especially after the birth of her son, Alexander (conveniently named for Beloselsky and not the tsar).

In the triumphant aftermath of 1812, the well-placed Volkonskys formed part of the royal retinue that followed in the wake of Alexander and his forces as they drove back Napoleon. We are treated to a sort of whirlwind tour of Europe (including the endless balls and the related bedroom farces), taking in Paris, the Congress of Vienna and London. By now Zinaida was no longer Alexander's lover but still a close friend.

It was during this postwar Grand Tour that Zinaida cemented her reputation in the arts. She sang and acted in amateur theatricals with such grace that a certain Mademoiselle Mars, herself a celebrated actress at the Com?die Francaise, remarked, "What a pity that so much talent should have been wasted on a lady of high birth." Zinaida's friends at this time also included Madame de Stall, Rossini and Stendahl (who observed "she sings contralto like an angel"). A few years later Zinaida composed an opera of her own, "Giovanna d'Arco."

In London an infant was left on the Volonskys' doorstep, who may or may not have been Nikita's illegitimate son. Fairweather, perhaps because it further supports her characterization of Zinaida's overall saintliness, leans in the direction that Nikita was the father. At any rate, Zinaida took him in and thereafter treated him almost as an equal to her own son.

After acquiring an Italian lover, Zinaida returned to Moscow and established the grand salon to which Pushkin and Adam Mickiewicz were frequent guests. But eventually she would tire of autocratic, cold Russia and decamped for Italy, sans Nikita, in 1829. She visited her homeland only twice thereafter.

Fairweather quotes numerous letters from various sources wherein Zinaida is praised with the overblown flattery that the upper-class never seemed to tire of bestowing upon each other. But in a different vein she also quotes Pushkin on Zinaida, showing him to be clearly bored with her doyenne performance. Again the hypothesis is that she was too demanding - this time not as a lover but as a muse.

In Italy, Zinaida did the unthinkable: She converted to Roman Catholicism. Likewise, she switched her patronage from the arts to the working-class poor. She not only resisted efforts to convince her to return to Orthodoxy but she did more than a little proselytizing herself. The most notable person she tried (unsuccessfully) to convert was Gogol, who spent time at the Villa Volkonsky in Rome while working on "Dead Souls." Ironically, Fairweather is more successful in capturing Gogol on paper than Zinaida. He comes off as petulant, embarrassed, angry, dreamy, in love (with Prince Iosif Vielhorsky) and contradictory - but more important, the reader understands his motives. With Zinaida there is seldom the opportunity for such perception. Instead we are dished the various archetypes of her character piecemeal: mother, lover, muse and, finally, saint in all but name. This leaves an impression in which Zinaida comes off as the heroine of a historical fiction rather than the subject of a biography. Still, her life wasn't a bad adventure at all.

"The Pilgrim Princess: A Life of Princess Zinaida Volkonsky," by Maria Fairweather. 316 pages. Constable. pounds 25.

Frank Caso is a freelance writer based in the United States.