Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontstova-Dashkova or as she is better known, Princess Dashkova, was the closest friend of the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. In 1759 she married Prince Mikhail Ivanovich Daskov and went to live with him in Moscow. After his death in 1764 she dedicated herself to politics, her children and to literature which she had loved from an early age.
Although she as a close friend of the Empress, they did not always tend to get along very well. More often than not, she disliked the men Catherine courted. Her manners left a lot to be desired and she had an argument with the Empress where she expressed the wish to travel abroad. Although far away from Catherine, she remained a loyal friend of the Empress.
Although Yekaterina was a princess, she was also an author, a playwright, founder and director of the Russian Academy, President of the Academy of Sciences and one of the first women to hold public office in Europe. She was the first woman to start writing her autobiography in Russia. She was very intelligent, outspoken and a public figure of her time.
“The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova” were originally written in French and published in English. She tells the story of the coup that brought Catherine the Great to the throne. She writes in her memoirs that it was she who played an important part in bringing Catherine to the throne. However, Catherine discarded her story later in and said that it was untrue. This could well be the truth as Princess Yekaterina liked being in the limelight and wanted to take credit for being the ringleader in the coup.
In her memoirs she makes herself out to be a person of authority who holds a lot of power. She liked to imagine herself as being important and liked to tell people what they should do. She was a very controlling person but during the coup, she seemed to have her doubts and worried about the outcome.
The relationship between the two women changed once Catherine was on the throne. Catherine did not seem to trust her friend and treated her with coldness. Although she was made her lady-in waiting, the coldness pervaded. However, later on, Catherine seemed to relent and was very worried about her friend when she became ill. She even offered to buy her a house in the country.
Needless to say, Princess Dashkova was surprised at this turn of events as she had been treated coldly by Catherine the Great for the past ten years. Much of “Memoirs of Princess Dashkova” is about political issues and the daily running of court life. Princess Dashkova was avant garde regarding equality of the genders. She thought that women were equal to men and that any position a man could hold, a woman could hold equally well.
Princess Dashkova was a very intelligent woman who was well-travelled and academically alert. She was very proud of her Russian heritage. She was made Director of the Science Academy and the Russian Academy because of her profound intellect and loyalty to her country. We have her to thank that the first Russian dictionary became published. Apart from academics, she loved manual work such as gardening and farming and strove to improve her villages and estates.
This proved to serve her in good stead as after the death of Catherine the Great, her son Paul 1, ordered that she should be moved to an estate far from civilized life although her health was poor. She lived the life of a peasant and was held in very high regard of the villagers. One of them told her, “though we are sorry for you in the misfortune which has brought you here among us, it is a great happiness for us to see you, for it is as if we had been allowed to see an angel”.
Later on, she was allowed to move to St. Petersburg but by this time, she had become old and tired. The final chapters of her memoirs indicate that she had become old and sad. She seemed to be comforted by happier times and pleased to have written Catherine the Great’s story. One has to assess the book in terms of when it was written since there are a lot of outdated parts and terminology which have also been lost in translation.
As a conclusion, these memoirs are an ideal window on the life and times of Catherine the Great. We get to enter the world of this magnificent Empress whose foibles and tastes are laid bare by the observant Dashkova who seemed to be quite au courant and privy to all that went on in the Russian court. They are an entertaining read and are surely recommended to all those who wish to learn more about life in the Russian high society in the 18th century.
Ekaterina Dashkova (1995): The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova; Duke University Press