Queen of the Muses

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What value to put on a life? What values to apply when analyzing an era totally different from one's own? What values are universal and enduring and beyond the shifting fashions of time and ideology and circumstance?

The Pilgrim Princess (Constable, 288pages), Maria Fairweather's well-researched account of the catholic life of Princess Zinaida Volkonsky, provokes the reader to address such dilemmas. Born in 1789 into one of Russia's oldest and wealthiest families, and married into an even more influential clan, she died in Rome in 1862 having converted to Roman Catholicism and taken vows of poverty. In the intervening 73 years the princess was a friend and lover of Czar Alexander I, a confidante of Pushkin, Goethe and Gogol, a lavish society hostess in Moscow, Paris and Rome, a writer and singer of some talent and a lifelong supporter of liberal causes as diverse as Russian constitutional reform, Polish independence and the education of Europe's new urban poor.

Without the privileged position she acquired through birth and marriage none of this would have been possible, or even conceivable, in the period in which Zinaida Volkonsky lived. The Volkonsky family--into which she married in 1811 to avert a scandal caused by her closeness to Czar Alexander--was one of the greatest in Russia. Even when Prince Sergei Volkonsky supported the Decembrist uprising in 1825 and was exiled to Siberia for 30 years, Zinaida had the connections to ride out the resultant storm. Her own wealth was derived from vast estates and mines and the thousands of "souls," as serfs were known in Russia, that went with them. For most of her life she moved from palace to palace writing to kings, emperors and popes on the assumption that, as of right, she would be answered--as she always was.

It is to Fairweather's credit that she avoids this judgmental posturing over a life like the one lived by Zinaida Volkonsky and manages to tease out those enduring human qualities that transcend generations and eras. And what a life she unravels. As the wife of one of the Czar's aides-de-camp, Princess Volkonsky followed closely the German and French campaigns that overthrew Napoleon in 1812-14. As a trusted friend of Czar Alexander throughout his reign, she was at the heart of the struggle--which continues to this day--between authoritarianism and law-based reform in Russia. Through her talents as a singer and musician she became a friend of the composers Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Mikhail Glinka. Her books and poetry and generosity made her a true European of her time--accepted as a worthy interlocutor by Polish poets, Scottish novelists and French liberals alike. Pushkin dubbed her the Queen of the Muses and of Beauty.

Famous across Europe for her beautiful voice, in a different era Zinaida could have acted professionally. The foremost Russian literary critic of her time rated her one of only four women worthy of mention in the Pushkin period of Russian literature. As hostess of the leading literary and musical salon, she became a legend in her own lifetime in Russia.

Beautiful, influential and talented though she was, the highly strung Zinaida did not sail smoothly through her life. Her marriage to Prince Nikita Volkonsky was neither close nor happy. The princess was also dogged by bouts of severe depression. After the birth of her son Alexander in 1811 she endured a serious nervous breakdown. Throughout her life illnesses--as her husband and friends referred to her inner malaise--left her haunted by guilt, fearful and restless. Change and travel often became a psychological necessity, complicating her attitude to Russia (which she loved), Russians and her family and home. "Our friends and brothers are everywhere," she wrote in her travel notes, "wherever life flows and hearts beat. Slavs--be proud of your land, give your lives to it, but stretch out your hand to everyone."

By the end of 1828 this turmoil had turned Russia into a prison for Zinaida. A longing for Italy, where she spent the first five years of her life, began to grip her and the following year she left Moscow with relief. Settling in Rome, Zinaida built the Villa Volkonsky (now the residence of the British Ambassador to Italy) and gradually committed her life to helping the poor and educating the illiterate. She died supposedly from a severe cold after having handed over her petticoat to a poor woman. Her funeral cortege included beggars, nuns, princes and cardinals. "She was an example of most rare virtues, particularly of penitence and abstinence," said an admiring obituary in the Vatican newspaper Giornale di Roma. As Fairweather capably demonstrates, those are qualities that endure and have meaning even in our own era.