Dashkova, Princess Catherine (1743–1810)

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DASHKOVA, PRINCESS CATHERINE (17431810), confidante of Catherine the Great and educator. Princess Catherine Dashkova, a contemporary and confidante of Catherine the Great (ruled 17621796), in which capacity she is sometimes termed "Catherine the Small," was born into one of the most prominent noble and diplomatic families of eighteenth-century Russia, the Vorontsovs. Known for their Anglophilia (two of her brothers served as ambassador to the Court of St. James), the Vorontsov family created a tone of sociability that enabled Catherine to participate relatively comfortably in the salons and intellectual life of Catherinian Russia. It also enabled her, almost alone among women of her era, to have a career in public service, first as the president of the new Russian Academy of Arts (1783), and in the same year as the director of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As director of the Academy of Arts and Sciences she had relatively little impact on scholarship. But she did strengthen the academy's financial footing, leaving it with a healthy surplus when she stepped down in 1794, embittered by the conservative tone of Russian politics in direct reaction to the growing radicalization of the French Revolution. She also presided over a significant growth in the academy's output of literary journals.

Dashkova's activities in the Russian Academy were rather different. Modeled after the French Academy, or L'Académie française, the Russian Academy's primary agenda was to compose an authoritative dictionary of the Russian language. Between 1789 and 1794 the academy published six large volumes listing over 40,000 words. Although the dictionary never had the prescriptive power of its French counterpart, it did constitute a significant cultural achievement, marking the rapid evolution of vernacular Russian and the emergence of an eighteenth-century literary language.

Dashkova, along with her patroness the empress, was one of a veritable handful of eighteenth-century Russian women to compose a memoir. Written in French and entrusted to her friend Martha Wilmot, an Anglo-Irish woman who spent five years in Russia, the memoir was first published in English translation in 1857 in Alexander Herzen's émigré journal, the Polar Star. Some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the memoir and suggested that Martha Wilmot and her sister may have at least significantly rewritten it. Most specialists, though, accept the text as Dashkova's own. It provides an insider's account of some of the most important political events of the day, including the coup that brought Catherine the Great to power in 1762 and much of the intrigue so characteristic of everyday life at the Russian court. If one takes her at her word, she spent most of her time interacting with the leading men of state and foreign dignitaries, much in the manner of male courtiers, rather than with their wives, daughters, or ladies-in-waiting. Dashkova also wrote and translated a great deal, including plays, poetry, and moralistic essays.

Like most of the empress's entourage, Dashkova quickly lost influence once Paul I (ruled 17961801) ascended the throne. Seeing her, not unreasonably, as an enemy of his late father, Peter III, he exiled her to a distant estate and only later allowed her to return to her primary estate of Troitskoe. Like several other wealthy nobles, male and female, she became an active, even domineering, presence on her own estate, acting very much as an absolute lord of the manor in her own private estate-within-a-state.

See also Academies, Learned ; Catherine II (Russia) ; Dictionaries and Encyclopedias ; Russian Literature and Language ; Women .


Primary Sources

The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova. Translated and edited by Kyril Fitzlyon. Introduction by Jehanne M. Gheith. Afterword by A. Woronzoff-Dashkoff. Durham, N.C., 1995.

The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot, 18031808. Edited by the Marchioness of Londonderry and H. Montgomery Hyde. New York, 1971.

Secondary Sources

Hyde, H. Montgomery. The Empress Catherine and Princess Dashkov. London, 1935.

Gary Marker