Prominent Russians: Ekaterina Dashkova
“She helps the masons to build walls, she assists with her own hands in making the roads, she feeds the cows, she composes music, she sings and plays, she writes for the press, she shells corn, she speaks out in church and corrects the priest if he is not devout. She speaks out in her little theater and steers the performers if they stray from their parts. She is a doctor, an apothecary, a surgeon, a veterinary, a carpenter, a magistrate, a lawyer. In short, she hourly practices every type of incongruity. She corresponds with her brother, with authors, with philosophers with poets with all her relations, and yet, appears as if she had time hanging on her hands.”
- Catherine Wilmot (the Anglo-Irish cousin of Catherine Hamilton and the eldest daughter of Edward Wilmot of Cork, Ireland, whom Dashkova had met in England in 1776 and again in 1780)
Ekaterina Dashkova was an outstanding figure and one of the most colorful and striking figures of the age of Catherine the Great. Through her education, travel abroad and
writings she became a prominent Russian educator and a leading figure in the introduction of eighteenth-century Russian culture to the West. Dashkova's foremost distinction was to be the first woman in the world to head a national academy of sciences. It is a rarity to this day. Dashkova is remembered as one of the first women in Europe to hold governmental office. The princess took over the directorship of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Russia and, though not a scientist herself, restored it to prominence and intellectual respectability. This came at a critical time in the history of science, its transformation from what was called natural philosophy, often practiced by gifted amateurs, to a professional enterprise. In 1783 she also became president of the Russian Academy. Dashkova was a very close friend of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. The princess ironically called herself “Catherine the Little.” She was a great conspirator, politician, philologist, linguist and memoirist. Her “Memoirs” were first published in 1840, and remain in print today because of their birds-eye view into the life and times of Catherine's Russia.
Ekaterina was born into a family of Old Russian nobility. Her father, Roman Dashkov, amassed a large fortune and, notorious for his arrogance and miserly ways, even earned the nickname of “Roman the Big Stasher” during the reign of Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizaveta. The Empress Elizaveta was her godmother, and Peter III, whom she subsequently helped dethrone, was her godfather. Ekaterina’s mother died when she was only two. Her father couldn’t care less about his children (she was the third daughter) and so the little girl was given to the care of her uncle Mikhail Vorontsov.
She was just 15 when she met and immediately fell in love with the dashing Prince Dashkov. She was still in her teens when she gave birth to a son and a daughter. Dashkova lost her husband to pneumonia at the still young age of 20. Dashkova received an exceptionally good education, unlike most European females during the eighteenth century. She studied mathematics at the University of Moscow. She learned French, Russian, German and Italian. She enjoyed reading Voltaire, Charles Montesquieu, Pierre Bayle, Nicholas Boileau and Claude Helvétius.
In 1758 Dashkova met the future empress, Catherine the Great. She became connected to the Russian court and together with her husband became one of the leaders of the party that supported Grand Duchess Catherine (later Catherine II, the Great). At that time, the Russian court was distinctly divided into two camps: one that supported Catherine's husband, the future Peter III, and the other that supported Catherine, the wife of the would-be Russian Emperor. Catherine felt in many ways suppressed by her husband and desperately needed someone to lean on. Princess Dashkova was in her good graces. Her prestige in society was very high. The two Catherines became close friends.
Ascending the throne as Peter III, Catherine’s husband remained as cold to her as he had ever been. Rumor had it that he even wanted to confine his wife to a monastery. Unhappy with the new monarch, the Guards were foursquare behind Catherine. Dashkova knew what was going on directly from her royal friend. The fact that Dashkova’s younger sister, Elizabeth, occasionally shared the bed with the Emperor did not prevent the two Catherinas from being intimately close with each other. In 1762 Dashkova played an important role in the coup d'etat by which Catherine dethroned her husband and took control of the Russian Empire. Dashkova was awarded the Star of the Order of St. Catherine, a gold and diamond emblem. Unfortunately, once Catherine had her throne, she cooled her friendship with Dashkova, but still remained loyal to her.
The estrangement saw Princess Dashkova find herself almost broke, with most of the family fortune squandered by her late husband who was a high-living gambler. Dashkova and her two children retired to their country estate where they lived a very poor life. This Spartan existence yielded fruit and five years later Ekaterina Dashkova decided to use whatever money she had managed to save up to make a journey abroad to give an education to her son and daughter and to see the enlightened European world.
She was received well at foreign courts and her literary and scientific reputation paved the way to many prominent European salons and connections. During her travels, Dashkova won the attention of some the best-educated men around. She met many famous enlighteners of the time, and even the idol of her youth, Voltaire, in Geneva. While in Paris she became good friends with Diderot. She expressed a distinct appreciation also for the English people and their culture, indeed, she arranged for her son to be educated in England. No matter how hard she tried, however, nothing eventually came out of her amazingly useless offspring.
In 1782, after her European triumph, Dashkova returned to Russia and found herself once again in Catherine's favor. Shortly after her return, the Empress appointed Dashkova to the position of Director of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and Sciences. And two years later she was named the first President of the Russian Academy of
Sciences, which was founded by Catherine at Dashkova's suggestion. Catherine professed to be a woman of the Enlightenment and, perhaps, wanted to show that Russia was as an enlightened country where women could serve in any public post. The 37-year-old Dashkova fully lived up to Catherine’s expectations literally resurrecting the Academy from a sorry state of disrepair.
During her 12-year stint as the Academy’s Director, Dashkova built a new building for the Academy, restored the print shop and resumed the practice of scientific expeditions. She arranged regular publication of academic works, including those by the great scientist Mikhail Lomonosov. Other accomplishments include much credit for the compilations of the first ever dictionary of the Russian language and its grammar using her drive and steel resolve to publish the indispensable dictionary in a matter of just six years. She edited a monthly magazine and wrote at least two dramatic works: “The Marriage of Fabian” and a comedy entitled “Toissioko.”
The increasingly paranoid Catherine the Great grew suspicious of Dashkova as a possible republican at heart. Not long before the death of the Empress, the two old friends had another falling out. The Empress did not like Dashkova’s growing fame and took a cool attitude to her onetime confidante. Increasingly alarmed by what was going on in France, the Empress didn’t allow any mention in the press of revolution, republican rule and things like that. Then, as if on purpose to bait the frightened Ekaterina, the Academy published a play extolling republican liberties. Apparently, Dashkova had somehow failed to read the script before it was sent to the press and she became the object of royal fury. Finally Dashkova tendered her resignation, which was promptly accepted. Dashkova took a two-year leave of absence but remained the academy's titular director until after Catherine's death, in 1796.
Upon the accession of Catherine's son, Paul I, in 1796, Dashkova and all of Catherine's favorites and supporters were exiled to a small village outside Novgorod. Dashkova spent several months living in a cramped peasant hut, with the recommendation that she ponder her involvement in the coup d'etat. Pavel was very much estranged from his mother and enacted a lengthy and extensive program of revenge against his father's murder. After Emperor Paul’s death, Ekaterina Dashkova moved to the Moscow estate of her late husband and spent the rest of her days in seclusion, writing memoirs.
Princess Dashkova and Benjamin Franklin
A noblewoman and a friend of a monarch, Princess Dashkova seemed to have nothing in common with Franklin, an elderly self-made man of the New World. They met only once, in Paris in 1781, when Franklin was 75 and Dashkova 37. Franklin enjoyed the company of intelligent women, and the two evidently left impressed with each other. Franklin soon wrote, inviting her to become the first woman to join the Philosophical Society, the only one to be so honored for another 80 years. Later, Dashkova reciprocated by making him the first American member of the Russian Academy.
Written by Tatyana Klevantseva, RT