by Douglas Smith It was the winter of 2005 and I had been invited to dinner at the Connecticut home of Nikita and Maïko Cheremeteff. I was writing a book on one of Nikita’s ancestors, an eccentric aristocrat from the reign of Catherine the Great who had fallen in love with and secretly married one of his serfs, a brilliant opera singer who performed as “The Pearl.” We talked for hours about Russia, its beauties and tragedies, and about the fabled history of the Counts Sheremetev (as the surname is most commonly anglicized), one of the richest families under the tsars with palaces in St. Petersburg and Moscow, vast estates, and over 300,000 serfs. And then, in 1917, came the revolution. Within a few months the Sheremetevs, like the rest of the nobility, lost everything. Some in the family were arrested and executed, many, like Nikita’s father, fled the country with nothing more than what they could carry. At one point during dinner, Nikita held up piece of silverware, something vaguely resembling a small pâté knife. “Douglas,” he said with a slight grin, “this is all that remains of the Sheremetev fortune.” I felt something click in my head. I had the subject of my next book: the final days of the Russian aristocracy.