Dashkova, Yekaterina Romanovna

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(17431810), public figure, author, and memoirist.

As director of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and president of the Russian Academy, Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Dashkova (née Vorontsova) was one of the first women to hold public office in Europe. By any standard, Dashkova led a remarkable life: She was born in 1743 to a prominent Russian noble family, the Vorontsovs. After losing her mother at the age of two, Dashkova grew up in the household of her uncle, Count Mikhail Vorontsov, where she received the best instruction available for young women. Yet, as she points out in her Memoirs, Dashkova felt compelled to supplement her education with intensive reading of authors such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Helvétius, and demonstrated a lively interest in politics from her earliest years. Her passion for learning, and for theories of education, would prove constant throughout her life.

In 1759 Dashkova married Prince Mikhail Ivanovich Dashkov and bore him three children in quick succession: Anastasia (17601831), Mikhail (17611762), and Pavel (17631807). Their marriage was happy, but short-lived: Mikhail died after a brief illness in 1764, leaving Dashkova with the task of paying his debts and rearing their two surviving children. Significantly, Dashkova chose never to remarry. Moreover, her relationship with her children became the source of recurring sorrow to Dashkova, who outlived her son and disinherited her daughter.

By far the most significant figure in Dashkova's life, however, was Empress Catherine II, whom Dashkova met in 1758, while the former was Grand Duchess and twice the age of the fifteen-year-old Dashkova. According to Dashkova, the attraction between the two was immediate, if only becauseas she writes with some exaggeration in her Memoirs "there were no other two women at the time who did any serious reading" (p. 36).

The defining moment in Dashkova's life took place in 1762, when the young princess took part in the palace revolution that overthrew Peter III and brought Catherine, his wife, to power. While historians continue to debate the precise role that Dashkova played in the coup, Dashkova places herself at the center of the revolt in her Memoirs. Catherine initially rewarded Dashkova's loyalty with gifts of money and property. Within a short time, however, the relationship between the two women deterioratedthe result, perhaps, of Dashkova's exalted claims for her role in Catherine's ascension to the throne.

Following the death of her husband in 1764, Dashkova spent much of the next two decades in self-imposed exile from the Russian court. From 1769 to 1771, and again from 1775 to 1782, Dashkova traveled abroad, overseeing her son's education in Scotland and meeting with prominent figures of the Enlightenment, such as Diderot, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Adam Smith. After Dashkova returned to Russia, in 1783 Catherine appointed her director of the Academy of Sciences, which the previous director had left in considerable disarray. Not only did Dashkova restore the fortunes of the Academymuch as she would affairs on her various estatesbut she also inspired Catherine to found the Russian Academy, with the goal of compiling the first Russian etymological dictionary and fostering Russian culture. In her role as director of both academies, Dashkova was instrumental in bringing Enlightenment ideas to Russia. Dashkova also wrote and published extensively: She translated works on education, travel, and agriculture; composed verse and several plays; and oversaw the publication of several journals.

After quarrelling with the empress over the publication of the Yakov Knyazhnin's play Vadim Novgorodsky, which Catherine claimed was an attack on autocracy, Dashkova requested a leave of absence from the Academy in 1794. Catherine's death in 1796 brought further misfortune to Dashkova: In order to punish her for the role she played in the downfall of his father, Emperor Paul exiled Dashkova to a remote estate in northern Russia. One year later, after Dashkova appealed for clemency on the grounds of ill health, Paul permitted her to return to Troitskoye, her estate near Moscow. Paul's death and the accession of Alexander I to the throne in 1801 brought an end to Dashkova's exile, but she chose to spend her remaining years at Troitskoye, managing her holdings and writing her celebrated memoirs.

As a historical figure, Dashkova remains significant for her prominent role in the intellectual life of eighteenth-century Russia: She exemplified the Enlightenment ideal of the educated woman, or femme savante, and inspired both admiration and anxiety among her contemporaries for her unusual achievements. Furthermore, her accomplishments illuminate central themes in the social and cultural history of Russia: female intrigue and patronage during the era of empresses; the persistence of noble family politics in the emerging bureaucratic state; and the Russian reception of the Enlightenment.

See also: academy of sciences; catherine ii; peter iii


Dashkova, E. R. (1995). The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova: Russia in the Time of Catherine the Great, tr. and ed. Kyril Fitzlyon, with an introduction by Jehanne M. Gheith. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Michelle Lamarche Marrese

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