Dashkova, Ekaterina (1744–1810)

views updated

Dashkova, Ekaterina (1744–1810)

Russian princess, philologist, writer, and confidante of Catherine the Great, who became the first woman president of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science and of the Russian Academy. Name variations: Princess Katerina or Catherine Dashkoff; Ekaterina Vorontsova or Worontsova; wrote articles on moral and ethical problems under the pen-name Rossianka, and a number of dramas have been attributed to her. Pronunciation: KAT-eh-REEN-a Dosh-KOV-a. Born Ekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova on March 17, 1744, in St. Petersburg, Russia; died on January 4, 1810, in Trotskoye, Russia; daughter of prince Roman I. Vorontsov and Marfa Surmina; sister of Elizabeth Vorontsova; educated in the home of her uncle, as well as self-taught reader of serious literature and the philosophers of the enlightenment; married Prince Michail Dashkov, in 1760; children: a first son, and Paul (Pavel) and Anastasia.

Participated in the palace revolution that brought Catherine the Great to the Russian throne (1762); rejected by Catherine, left the court in disgrace, and retired with her husband to Trotskoye, where he died, leaving her to pay off his debts (1764); granted permission to travel in Europe (1769); accompanied her son to study in Edinburgh (1775); returned to St. Petersburg, and the good graces of Empress Catherine, where she was made director of St. Petersburg Academy of Science (1782); was founder and first president of the Russian Academy (1783); unofficially dismissed from academy positions (1794); after Catherine's death, exiled to Novgorod by the new tsar (1796); reinstated by the new tsar but rejected invitation to return to academic posts (1801).

When young Catherine Willmot traveled from England to visit the formidable Princess Ekaterina Dashkova on her Russian estate at Trotskoye early in the 19th century, she wrote home to relatives about the multifaceted talents of her vigorous host who knew how to feed cows and teach bricklayers to build a house. Dashkova also wrote plays and poems, composed music, had considerable knowledge of the theater, and demonstrated a willingness during Sunday services to correct the mistakes of the local priest. "Not only have I never met such a personality," wrote the young Englishwoman, "I have never heard about such a creature."

In addition, Ekaterina Dashkova was a recognized philologist, who had founded the journal Interlocutor of Russian Word-lovers, for which she had invited literary contributions from many distinguished Russian writers; she had also initiated the publication of the first Russian dictionary. Her progressive views on education and study of the works of contemporary philosophers had led her to work out her own program for the education and upbringing of Russian young men; and her memoirs were highly regarded by the famous Russian literary critic and writer, Aleksandr Herzen.

Princess Dashkova was fond of folk songs, and by all accounts she could sing well; she was an enthusiastic naturalist, collected numerous minerals, and made a herbarium during her European travels; at home, she was accomplished at gardening and planting orchards, and her opinions on architectural monuments and works of art were considered exact and profound.

In Dashkova one can feel a force, not quite organized yet bursting to free life out of the mustiness of Moscow stagnation—something strong, versatile, energetic.

—Aleksandr Herzen

Unfortunately, what this intellectually energetic woman never quite mastered was the ability to sail safely through the sea of political intrigues that ruled the Russian imperial court. While Voltaire and Diderot were among the great thinkers of the time she could claim as friends, she never quite adapted to the world of courtly gossip, servility, and dull routine; in later years, she wrote that she always felt ill at ease at court. At the time of her birth, family connections made her the godchild of Russia's Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, and the future emperor, Peter III, and, for a period during her youth, she considered herself a close confidante of the German princess who was to become the Empress Catherine II the Great , but a habit of outspokenness destined the Princess Dashkova to spend much of her life in exile.

Ekaterina was born in 1744 in St. Petersburg. Little is known about her mother, Marfa Surmina , who died when Ekaterina was only two, except that she was reputed to have been a very rich and beautiful woman and may have given money often to the empress, who was known for her prodigality. Ekaterina's father was Prince Roman Vorontsov, a lieutenant-general and senator who cared little about his children. After the death of his wife, only his eldest son, Alexander, remained with the prince, while his second son (a future ambassador to England) was brought up by his grandfather, and two elder daughters were appointed maids of honor at the imperial court; one of them, Elizabeth Vorontsova , became the favorite mistress of Peter III. Ekaterina, the youngest child, was raised in the household of her uncle, M. Vorontsov, who was a chancellor and spared no money in engaging the best teachers for his daughter and niece. The young Princess Ekaterina thus learned the elegant manners of the nobility, to draw and to dance, and to speak four foreign languages as well as Russian. She wrote later, however, that "nothing had been done" for her moral and spiritual education and believed this had begun for her only after she left her uncle's house.

When she was 14, Ekaterina fell ill with the measles and was sent to the country to recover. Thanks to the good library in the house where she stayed, reading became her passion. Voltaire, Bayle, Boileau, and Montesquieu became her favorite authors, with their Enlightenment faith in the power of reason. Under their influence, she began to question the political order of the time and a number of other social and political issues.

Returning to her uncle's house a more mature person, Ekaterina often sought solitude and wrote in her memoirs later about that period, "Profound melancholy meditations about myself and my relations changed my lively and mocking mind." In those years, she showed herself to be independent and touchy, proud and sensitive, trustful, but sometimes short-tempered. She abhorred society gossip, was bored at parties and balls, and cared little about being pretty or graceful. In her attempt "not to be like others," she refused to wear makeup, which was in common use among women of her position. Instead, Ekaterina preferred to collect books. "Never," she wrote, "had any jewelry given more delight than books," and she became one of the best-educated women of her time. Fortunately, her everinquiring mind could be satisfied by many of the outstanding people who visited her uncle's house, giving her opportunities to discuss law, forms of government, and culture.

Ekaterina was 16 when she fell in love with a handsome guardsman, Prince Michail Dashkov. According to a story related by Claude de Rulhieres, then the French ambassador in St. Petersburg, the marriage came about after the prince ventured to pay a few compliments to young Ekaterina, who went to her uncle and told him that the prince had proposed; since the young man did not dare to admit to the first official of the state that he hadn't meant to marry his niece, the marriage took place. True or not, the story fairly represents the quick wit and resoluteness that were widely recognized as Dashkova traits.

The wedding took place on February 12, 1760. Unfortunately, Dashkova did not feel well received at her husband's Moscow estate. According to her memoirs, "A new world, a new way of life opened before me. It was quite different from the life I was used to. I was frightened and embarrassed because my mother-in-law could not speak any foreign languages and my Russian was rather poor." To please her mother-in-law, she studied Russian again, and the first years of her marriage, lived far from the royal court, were apparently happy. By the time the prince was ordered to St. Petersburg by the grand duke, the future Emperor Peter III, Ekaterina was pregnant and "inconsolable" at the thought of separation.

Prince Dashkov was on his way back to his wife when he fell ill and, not wishing to worry her, stayed for a while at the home of an aunt. By chance, Dashkova learned of his illness and set off for the house where he was staying, accompanied by a midwife. Enduring attacks of pain along the way, she reached the house and fainted at the sight of her sick husband. The next day, she gave birth to their first son. "A woman who was capable of such love," wrote Herzen, "who could fulfill her will despite dangers, fears and pain, was destined to play a great role in the society she belonged to."

In 1761, the couple had returned to St. Petersburg when the Grand Duke Peter was pronounced heir to the throne, as the reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna neared its end. Peter was an unstable man who openly disliked his wife, the German Princess Catherine, and made no secret of his affair with the sister of Ekaterina Dashkova, Elizabeth Vorontsova, whom he called "Romanovna." At court, Peter failed to maintain even a minimum of decorum, he antagonized many by ignoring the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church, and he was generally unpopular throughout the country. Because his idol was Frederick II the Great of Prussia, he had appointed Holshtinia generals to head the Russian guard units, and Dashkova wrote that there had never been generals in Russia "less deserving of their position." In her memoirs, she describes the "barracks-like" behavior of Peter at parties with disgust.

As Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, Peter's aunt, neared death, Peter attempted to widen his following by drawing more guardsmen and courtiers, including Prince Dashkov, into his retinue. When the prince was ordered to attend Peter's court at Oranenbaum, the Princess Dashkova followed her husband, but she never hid her antipathy for the grand duke, and she never hesitated to argue with him. This straightforwardness and bravery quickly

made her popular among the officers of the military guard.

While Dashkova clearly disliked Peter, she was fascinated by his wife, whom she had first met in the home of her uncle. Indeed, the German-born Princess Catherine charmed many people. Much has been written about the appeal of her smile, her sober mind, and her equanimity; the Princess Dashkova was also impressed by her intelligence and erudition. When they first met, Dashkova was 15, half the age of the future empress; Catherine had heard about the chancellor's erudite young niece and showed she was favorably impressed by presenting the girl with her fan. The two subsequently exchanged small confidences and books, and, when Dashkova wrote verse in rapturous praise of the empress-to-be, Catherine considered Dashkova a talented poet. At court, the two became known as the Catherines "Big" and "Small" and exchanged notes and messages of devotion and love. Both were interested in the French philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment and believed in the importance of education for the future well-being of society. But when Peter recognized the extent of Dashkova's adoration of his wife, he warned her: "My dear child, you should remember that it is much safer to deal with such honest simpletons like your sister and myself than with certain clever ones, who will squeeze juice out of an orange and then throw away the peel."

In December 1761, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna died and was mourned by all of St. Petersburg except Peter, who did not even try to hide his joy at finally becoming tsar. His reign was not to last long, however. The following June, he was dethroned by the military officers and replaced by his wife, who became Russia's Empress Catherine II, known in history as Catherine the Great.

Some historians, including S. Solovyev, believe Dashkova's role in the coup was less significant than Dashkova imagined it to be. There were many officers furious with Peter III's adoration of the German emperor and his treacherous policies as well as his inane orders and immoral private life. Dashkova's familiarity with the officers may have helped to strengthen their resolve; without question, she was determined to see her friend brought to the Russian throne, and she helped to stir up discontent by speaking of the danger to Catherine if Peter were to divorce her.

As a foreigner, Catherine also knew the value of being backed by the Princess Dashkova, a member of the Russian aristocracy whose father was a senator and whose uncle was chancellor. Dashkova, at age 18, was elated by the revolution and dreamed of working with Catherine to spread the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers in Russia. "I was happy that the revolution happened without bloodshed," she later wrote, and she even tried to engage experienced diplomats, including Kirill Rosomovsky and Nikita Panin, in the overthrow. But they were too shrewd politically to become directly involved, and disillusionment for Dashkova set in once she saw the role Catherine intended for her lover, Gregory Orlov.

Panin had agreed to the dethronement of Peter III but had wanted Peter's son Paul to be made tsar, with his mother as regent. Catherine had listened to Panin bare this plan without revealing her own intentions, or being frank with Dashkova. Panin was, in fact, given responsibility for the upbringing of Paul as successor to the throne, but, once the overthrow of Peter was achieved, Dashkova, who had never concealed her distaste for Orlov, found herself, with what Herzen describes as "the quickness of truly regal ingratitude," estranged from the new empress.

Catherine II expressed her gratitude to Dashkova by mandating that she be awarded the Order of St. Catherine "for her excellent services" and given 24,000 rubles. This "payment" was, of course, an insult; not at all what the idealistic Dashkova desired. During the coronation, Dashkova, as the wife of a colonel, found herself standing in the last row according to court etiquette (a very modest place). Gradually, her friendship with the empress was painfully shattered.

The empress had other reasons for showing her former friend such shabby treatment. On June 28, after Peter III had been dethroned (and later died under mysterious circumstances), the two women had appeared together, dressed in the same military uniforms worn many years before by guards during the reign of Peter the Great, and had ridden from St. Petersburg to Peterhof at the head of a regiment about to engage in battle against Peter's few remaining supporters. What the empress could not afford to forget about that day of her triumph was the sight of soldiers carrying Dashkova across the square to the Winter Palace. It was a show of obvious affection for her that could also be taken as a demonstration of their approval of Dashkova's hostile attitude toward Orlov.

After the coronation, Dashkova moved with the court to St. Petersburg but was treated there with distrust and suspicion. She was also alienated now from her family, who had hoped that her sister Elizabeth Vorontsova, the lover of the now defunct tsar, would become empress. Even after reports of foreign ambassadors labeled Dashkova "an instigator and conspirator," and she and her husband were forced to leave St. Petersburg for Moscow, she never said a resentful word against Catherine II.

In 1764, at age 20, Dashkova endured the greatest sorrow of her life; both her husband and her elder son died. Widowed with two children, she found that her husband had also left behind massive debts. "For 15 days," she later wrote, "I was between life and death." Once she recovered, she settled onto her estate at Trotskoye, not far from Moscow, and applied her energy to paying off her husband's creditors and restoring her family to well-being. When the house on the estate proved too decrepit to live in, she had strong logs cut and a smaller house built for her and her children; to meet expenses, she was forced to sell her jewelry, and most of her silver and other valuables. Brought up in luxury and extravagance, she now lived in a modest country house and became practical and economical in the day-to-day management of the estate, wearing the simplest of clothes and acting as nurse and governess to her children. In five years, she was able to settle her husband's debts.

In 1769, Dashkova requested permission to go abroad for the sake of her children's health. In fact, she was eager to see the cities, picture galleries and museums of Europe, without wasting time attending court receptions and other social affairs required of someone of her status. By traveling unofficially, she was able to investigate scientific collections and make serious observations on agriculture, industries, and public institutions.

While visiting a picturesque Belgian spa, Dashkova met two English families, named Morgan and Hamilton, with whom she made friendships that lasted to the end of her life. Many years later, two nieces of the Hamilton family, Cat and Martha Willmot , paid visits to Dashkova and became closer to her than her own children. In England, when Dashkova was shown the library at Oxford University, her attention was drawn to Russian manuscripts and a Russian-Greek dictionary, which may have led to her compilation of a Russian grammar and a Russian dictionary.

In France, according to Dashkova's memoirs, she met the philosopher Diderot and enjoyed daily talks, which "started at dinner time and lasted until two or three in the morning." Dashkova was rather short and far from pretty, with a high, open forehead, plump cheeks, deepset eyes, a large mouth, dark hair and black eyebrows. She was slightly stooped, her movements were quick and not graceful, but Diderot wrote of her that she was "Russian soul and body." It is possible that their acquaintance led him to visit Russia. In Switzerland, she was also received by Voltaire, the famous free thinker, who was then 76.

Dashkova returned to Russia. There, she led a solitary life, reading a great deal, particularly about the sciences and education, and took part in founding the Free Russian Society, a scientific group at Moscow University. She contributed articles on various topics to its journal. As her son Paul Dashkov grew older, she plunged into problems of pedagogy and worked out a program of education for her children. She viewed the English system of higher education as the best, and, in 1775, she asked permission of Catherine II to accompany Paul while he completed his education at Edinburgh University. In the British Isles, she made friends with many scientists and professors, studied political economy and composed music, some of which was performed in a Dublin church. One who appreciated the elegant simplicity of her musical compositions was the great English actor David Garrick.

In 1779, after Paul Dashkov had completed his study at Edinburgh, his mother wrote to Prince Gregory Potemkin, the powerful Russian diplomat and favorite of Catherine the Great, in search of a career for her son but received no answer. Discouraged, she traveled in Europe with her son until December 1781, when she received a letter from the Empress Catherine saying that Paul could be enlisted in any regiment his mother chose for him. In 1782, after seven years abroad, Dashkova returned to Russia, where she was received warmly by the empress and presented with an estate and houses in St. Petersburg and Moscow. That same year, she was appointed director of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science, the first woman ever to occupy the post.

The reputation of the academy had suffered under its president Kirill Rosomovsky, who had occupied the post for a half-century since his appointment at age 18. Rosomovsky had little interest in the development of science but was a "person inviolable" because of his support of the Empress Catherine during the coup of 1762, when he had been in command of the Izmilovsky regiment. Dashkova's post of director had been instituted in order to get the work done that was not being carried out by the president, and the princess received wide powers, including the right to address the empress directly on all problems. Also, she was now politically more shrewd than she had been 20 years before. Before entering the academy, she paid a visit to the respected mathematician, Leonard Euler, who had not attended sessions at the academy for several years, and persuaded him to go with her and introduce her to other academicians and professors.

In the history of the academy, there had been many developments in physics, chemistry, geography, astronomy, geology, and metallurgy, as well as considerable study of the country's natural resources, very little of which had been implemented. Taking a thoroughly practical approach, Dashkova began by balancing the academy's budget (which had been in a deplorable condition), improving the working conditions of scientists, and promoting and organizing scientific expeditions. She also enlarged the library, adding many books from her private collection, and reorganized its printing house so that many academicians were finally paid wages long overdue. Recognizing the literary and scientific achievements of one of its most important past members, Mikhail Lomonosov, Dashkova also arranged for the academy to publish his complete works.

Not a scientist herself, Dashkova utilized her exceptional administrative skills to motivate the academicians. Her economic policies yielded savings that were used to sponsor a series of public lectures on the main branches of exact and natural sciences, and she increased the number of students admitted into the academy gymnasium. During this same period, she also founded The Interlocutor of Russian Word-lovers, a journal that contributed much to the development of Russian literature and journalism.

In 1783, she became president of the new Russian Academy, founded on her initiative, which was to play an important role in the history of Russian philology and literature. Where the previous position had demonstrated her administrative skills, this one gave greater latitude to her own creativity. Taking the time to write the new institution's regulations, she made the enrichment and purification of the Russian language its top priority and insisted that its members become familiar with Russia's great literary works and important events in Russian history. She also oversaw the compilation of a Russian grammar and the first Russian dictionary, for which she personally contributed many entries in the six volumes, produced 1789–94.

In a poem honoring the founding of the Russian Academy, Dashkova was described as "the Minerva of our day." Her straightforward, sometimes even quarrelsome nature drew contradictory opinions from her contemporaries, however, and she continued to provoke members of the imperial court, even criticizing Empress Catherine and the procurator-general for political closed-mindedness and poor ethics. In 1793, when the French Revolution was still recent enough to have a frightening impact on the monarchs of Europe, including Catherine, the Russian writer Aleksandr Radischev had already been exiled to Siberia for writing about the terrible conditions of Russian serfs. That year, Dashkova again antagonized the empress by authorizing the Russian Academy to publish Vadim of Novgorod, by Knyzhnin, the tragic story of a republican leader in the popular assembly of an ancient Russian city that paralleled conditions in the current regime. The incensed monarch again made life in St. Petersburg difficult for Dashkova, and in 1794, given a two-year leave from her duties, which was actually an unofficial dismissal, she returned to her home in Trotskoye. No less energetic at age 50, Dashkova now turned her attention to improving the living conditions for her serfs, building parks, orchards, and better homes for their use.

In 1796, Dashkova learned of the death of Catherine, her old friend and foe. The empress was succeeded by her son Paul, who had never forgiven his mother for her participation in dethroning his father. Now he took out his wrath on Dashkova, as Catherine's accomplice in the coup, by exiling her to a remote village in the Novgorod district. Confined to a small log cabin with a shortage of writing paper and few books, Dashkova lived cut off from the rest of the world, since writing letters to a disgraced lady-in-waiting could be dangerous. To occupy herself, she painted landscapes on a wooden table top, which she would wipe clean for reuse after the completion of each painting. A secret letter from an influential relative advised Dashkova to appeal to the Empress Marie Feodorovna (Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg ), who was wife of the tsar. The empress Marie interceded on her behalf, and Dashkova was allowed to return to her residence in Trotskoye but could visit Moscow only when the court was not in the city, effectively cutting her off from members of the court and political life.

The reign of the new tsar lasted only five years. After his death in 1801, Dashkova was no longer in disfavor, and members of the Russian Academy requested her return to her former post, but she was now in her late 50s, and declined the honor. She did attend the coronation of Alexander II, grandson of Catherine the Great, but left the court soon after, never to return. Known by then as "Moscow's most famous person," she spent the rest of her days in Trotskoye except for occasional visits to Moscow.

Dashkova's relations with her son and daughter were complicated. Her daughter Anastasia Dashkova was an extravagant woman, and mother and daughter often quarreled; Dashkova's son married against her will, and she did not meet her daughter-in-law until after his death, in 1807. She had closer relationships with the nieces of her English friend, Mrs. Hamilton, and her last years in Trotskoye were brightened by the visits of Martha and Catherine Willmot. It was largely for them that she wrote her memoirs, which reveal her rich spiritual world, her wide-ranging interest in political, military, and social events, and her valuable comments on the achievements of Russian and foreign science. At the end of the 20th century, Ekaterina Dashkova remained the only woman to have occupied the post of the president of the Academy of Science.

sources and suggested reading:

Feinstein, M.Sh. Raised to a Pedestal. Moscow, 1992.

Losinskaya, L.Ya. At The Head of Two Academies. Moscow, 1978.

Memoirs of Princess E.R. Dashkova. Moscow, 1990 (English edition: London: Trubner and Co., 60 Paternoster Row, 1859).

The Russian journals of Martha and Catherine Willmot.

Solovyev, S. The History of Russia. Vol. 25, Moscow, 1978, pp. 102–124.

suggested reading:

Fitzlyon, Kyril, ed. and trans. The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova: Russia in the Time of Catherine the Great. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Galina Kashirina , teacher of the English language at State Gymnasium #11, St. Petersburg, Russia