“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
(Epictetus, AD 55-c.135 )
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( Sheremetev, Nikolay Petrovich, by N. I. Argunov
from the Online Collection of Historical Documents )
“With land in excess of 800,000 hectares and more than 200,000 ‘census serfs’ (which meant perhaps a million actual serfs), … the Sheremetevs were, by some considerable distance, the biggest landowning family in the world. In monetary terms, they were just as powerful, and considerably richer than the greatest English lords… . The Sheremetevs spent vast sums of money on their palaces – often much more than they earned, so that by the middle of the nineteenth century they had amassed debts of several million roubles. Extravagant spending was a peculiar weakness of the Russian aristocracy. It derived in part from foolishness, and in part from the habits of a class whose riches had arrived through little effort and at fantastic speed… .
A large part of the Sheremetevs’ budget went on their enormous household staffs. The family retained a huge army in livery. At the Fountain House alone there were 340 servants, enough to place a chamberlain at every door; and in all their houses combined the Sheremetevs employed well in excess of a thousand staff… . Even the grandest of the English households had tiny servant numbers by comparison: the Devonshires at Chatsworth, in the 1840s, had a live-in staff of just eighteen… .
In the Sheremetev household clothes were another source of huge extravagance. Nikolai Petrovich, like his father, was a dedicated follower of continental fashions and he spent the equivalent of several thousand pounds a year on imported fabrics for his clothes. An inventory of his wardrobe in 1806 reveals that he possessed no less than thirty-seven different types of court uniform, all sewn with gold thread and all in the dark green or dark brown cashmere or tricot colours that were fashionable at that time. There were 10 sets single-breasted tails and 18 double-breasted; 54 frock coats; 2 white fur coats, one made of polar bear, the other of white wolf; 6 brown fur coats; 17 woollen jackets; 119 pairs of trousers (53 white, 48 black); 14 silk nightgowns, … 39 French silk kaftans embroidered in gold and silver thread, … 63 waistcoats; 42 neck scarves; 82 pairs of gloves; 23 tricorn hats, 9 pairs of boots and over 60 pairs of shoes.
Entertaining was a costly business, too. The Sheremetev household was itself a minor court. The two main Moscow houses – Ostankino and the Kuskovo estate – were famous for their lavish entertainments, with concerts, operas, fireworks and balls for several thousand guests. There was no limit to the Sheremetevs’ hospitality. At the Fountain House, where the Russian noble custom of opening one’s doors at mealtimes was observed with unstinting generosity, there were often fifty lunch and dinner guests. The writer Ivan Krylov, who dined there frequently, recalled that there was one guest who had eaten there for years without anybody ever knowing who he was. The phrase ‘on the Sheremetev account’ entered into the language meaning ‘free of charge’.”