The Real Life Origin of the Comely Cook

Olia Prokopenko-Garrison, Ohio State University

Prigožaja Povarixa by Mixail Čulkov was Russia’s first picaresque novel. As such, it has attracted the attention of a number of scholars (Šklovskij, Segel, Garrard, Titunik, Bajkova, to name just a few). Their research focuses on the literary merits and shortcomings of Prigožaja Povarixa, as well as on the role it played in the evolution of Russian novel. My paper investigates the real-life source of the story told by Čulkov, which I believe has its basis in the biography of Russia’s first Empress, Catherine the First. I compare characters in Čulkov’s novel with historical figures and events with episodes from Russian history as described by scholars and witnesses.

One of the first elements shared by Prigožaja Povarixa and the life story of Catherine the First is the name: the name of the protagonist resembles the one received by Catherine the First at birth and used by her till she became Peter the Great’s mistress. Another detail in common is the age when they “come into light.” At the beginning of Prigožaja Povarixa we learn that the “comely cook” is a nineteen-year-old widow who has just lost her husband in the Poltava battle. Strangely enough, the biography of Catherine the First is documented from precisely the same age: the future Russian Empress was about nineteen when Russian soldiers took her prisoner during the attack of Marienburg. Martona from Čulkov’s novel ascends the social ladder—much like Catherine the First, who became an Empress from a simple peasant. Moreover, there are indications by the end of the novel that the former “comely cook,” like Catherine the First, has become quite wealthy and acquired some cultural sophistication.

Both Martona and Catherine profit from their appearance, which together with their shrewdness serves as their main capital. The chain of Martona’s lovers bears a striking resemblance to the list of Catherine’s known “benefactors.” In fact, some of Čulkov’s fictional characters share characteristics with prominent figures from Russian history. Numerous unflattering rumors about Marta/Catherine circulated in the eighteenth century both in Russia and abroad. Some of them were included in books of anecdotes published in France and England. Some sources also suggest ambivalence in Catherine the Great’s attitude towards her namesake, which might explain a certain liberty in Čulkov’s treatment of the subject. Nevertheless, he took every precaution to protect himself against possible repercussions: Prigožaja Povarixa was the only novel by Čulkov that was published anonymously. Yet, the tongue-in-cheek “Preduvedomlenie” gives us a hint, that the novel has more under the surface. If the reader does not take the text too straightforwardly, it will open its subtext, namely, the life story of Russia’s first Empress, who was once nothing but a “comely cook.”