Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova
Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova
28 March 1743
|Died||15 January 1810 (aged 66)|
|Spouse(s)||Prince Mikhail Dashkov|
Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova (Russian: Екатери́на Рома́новна Воронцо́ва) (28 March 1743 – 15 January 1810)[note 1], later Princess Dashkova, was an influential noblewoman, a major figure of the Russian Enlightenment and a close friend of Empress Catherine the Great. She was part of the coup d'état that placed Catherine on the throne, the first woman in the world to head a national academy of sciences, the first woman in Europe to hold a government office  and the president of the Russian Academy, which she helped found. She also published prolifically, with original and translated works on many subjects, and was invited by Benjamin Franklin to become the first female member of the American Philosophical Society.
Born Countess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova, she was the daughter of Count Roman Vorontsov, a member of the Senate, and his wife Marfa Surmina. Her uncle Mikhail Illarionovich and older brother Alexander both served as Imperial Chancellor. Her younger brother Semyon was Russian ambassador to Great Britain, and a celebrated Anglophile. She had two older sisters: Maria, later Countess Buturlin, who married Count Peter Buturlin, and Elizabeth, who married state advisor Alexander Polyansky. Among her godparents were Empress Elizabeth and Grand Duke Peter Petrovich, later Emperor Peter III; her mother was a lady-in-waiting and very close friend of the Empress. When Yekaterina was just 2 years old, Marfa died and Count Roman was an absent father, so the children were sent to different places. Alexander continued to live with their father, but Semyon was raised in the countryside by their grandfather and the three sisters went to live with their uncle Mikhail at the lavish Vorontsov Palace. He provided his nieces with an exceptionally good education and spared no expenses with them, the girls being treated by the best doctors and spoiled with fine clothes and jewellery. Yekaterina learned several languages (Russian, French, Italian and German), studied Mathematics at the University of Moscow and read French literature - according to her memoirs, her favourites were Bayle, Montesquieu, Boileau and Voltaire. She also developed an interest in politics at a very young age and was allowed by her uncle to go through his papers, reading diplomatic letters from Russian ambassadors to illustrious foreigners like the Emperor of China (the content of which she describes in her memoirs), which gave her an inside look at how diplomacy worked. She grew up a well-educated, well-read, bright and intelligent girl.
Just like her older sisters, Yekaterina went to live at the Russian court when she became a teenager and, by favour of her godmother the Empress, appointed as one of her maids-of-honour. There, she became acquainted with the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alexeyevna, 14 years older than her, and the pair bonded over their love of literature, particularly French Enlightenment authors, like Voltaire. She supported the Grand Duchess through her difficult marriage to Grand Duke Peter Petrovich. For Yekaterina's embarrassment, her sister Elizabeth became Peter's mistress.
At 15, she met 22 year-old Second Lieutenant Prince Mikhail Dashkov of the Imperial Guards and the two fell in love. The couple went to live in Moscow and married a year later, in February 1759. She became known as Princess Vorontsova-Dashkova or simply Princess Dashkova. The couple had three children: Anastasia (born in February 1760), Mikhail (born in January 1761) and Pavel (born in May 1763). Her son Mikhail died in the Autumn of 1762.
The couple was close friends with Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alexeyevna and disliked the Grand Duke Peter, fearing for the future of Russia under the rule of the pro-Prussia tsar. In December 1761, Empress Elizabeth became severely ill and died January 5, 1762. Her nephew ascended the throne, began undoing her legacy and was submissive to his idol and Russia's enemy, Frederick the Great, much to the displeasement of his court and military. Yekaterina, along with several nobleman and members of the Imperial Guards, lead a coup d'état against him, that put his wife on the throne.
She continued to be loyal to the newly crowned Empress. However, their friendship gave place to a more estranged relationship as Yekaterina often disliked the men the Empress took as lovers, and often resented the graces and devotion shown to them. She was also disapointed when her request to become a colonel of the Imperial Guards was denied. There were also some tensions over what Catherine the Great called in her letters an exagerated account of her friend taking the lead part in putting her on the throne. She may have also done this to belittle Yekaterina's resolve and ambition, which made her a potential rival in her eyes, capable as well of taking her away from the throne. When Prince Dashkov died in 1764, Yekaterina decided to ask to leave court and was granted permission, starting in 1768 a 14 year-long journey through Europe, where she was welcomed in several courts with respect and admiration.
In Paris, she secured the warm friendship and admiration of Diderot and Voltaire. She showed in various ways a strong liking for Britain and the British. She corresponded with Garrick, Dr. Blair, and Principal Robertson; and when in Edinburgh, where she was very well received, she arranged to entrust the education of her son, Pavel Michailovich, Prince Dashkov to Principal Robertson. She lived in Edinburgh from 1777 to 1779, and donated a collection of Russian commemorative medals to the University of Edinburgh. She was involved in a in a sword duel with a Scottish lady, where she was wounded. Her son became an adjutant of Grigory Potyomkin.
Having recovered from her duel wound, she travelled to Ireland to visit her friend Catherine Hamilton, daughter of John Ryder, the Archbishop of Tuam, where she can be seen watching a review of the Irish Volunteers in a picture by Francis Wheatley in November 1779. She was friends with Georgiana Shipley, daughter of Jonathan Shipley, in London.
In 1782, Dashkova returned to the Russian capital, and was at once taken into favor by the empress, who strongly sympathized with her in her literary tastes, and especially in her desire to elevate Russian to a high place among the literary languages of Europe.
Immediately after her return, the princess was appointed Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences (known now as the Russian Academy of Sciences). Theoretically the head of the Academy was always its president; however, Count Kirill Razumovsky, who had been appointed president in 1746 (when he was just 18) played only a nominal role and the actual leadership belonged to the Directors.
Dashkova was the first woman in the world to head a national academy of sciences. Famous in her own right as a philologist, she guided the ailing Academy to prominence and intellectual respectability. This came at a critical time in the history of science, in its transformation from what was called natural philosophy (often a mere hobby practiced by gifted amateurs) to a fully professional enterprise that included such historical scientific luminaries as the polymath Mikhail Lomonosov and the great mathematician Leonard Euler.
In 1784 Dashkova was also named the first president of the newly created Russian Academy. In this position, too, she acquitted herself with marked ability. She launched the Russian Academy's project for the creation of its 6-volume Dictionary of the Russian Languages, arranging its plan, and executed a part of the work herself.
Shortly before Catherine's death, the friends quarrelled over a tragedy, in which the princess had allowed to find a place in the publications of the Academy, though it contained revolutionary principles, according to the empress. A partial reconciliation was effected, but the princess soon afterward retired from court.
On the accession of the Emperor Paul I in 1796, she was deprived of all her offices, and ordered to retire to a miserable village in the government region of Novgorod, "to meditate on the events of 1762." After a time, the sentence was partially recalled on the petition of her friends and she was allowed to spend the last few years of her life in Trostkoye,on her own estate near Moscow, where she died on 4 January 1810.
Her son, the last of the Dashkov family, died in 1807 and bequeathed his fortune to his cousin Ivan Vorontsov, who thereupon by imperial licence assumed the name Vorontsov-Dashkov. Ivan's son, Count Illarion Ivanovich Vorontsov-Dashkov, held an appointment in the tsar's household from 1881 to 1897 before gaining wide renown as a General-Governor of Caucasus from 1905 to 1915.
Besides her work on the Russian dictionary, Princess Dashkova edited a monthly magazine, and wrote at least two dramatic works: The Marriage of Fabian, and a comedy entitled Toissiokoff. Her memoirs were published in French in Paris in 1804 (Mon Histoire) and in English in 1840 in London in two volumes (Memoirs of the Princess Daschkaw, written by herself). The English version of her memoirs was edited by Mrs. W. Bradford. (This is Martha Wilmot, who lived with the princess from 1803 to 1808; her family missing her, elder sister Katherine Wilmot went to bring her home, but the pair decided to stay another couple of years.)
"The Princess and the Patriot: Ekaterina Dashkova, Benjamin Franklin and the Age of Enlightenment" exhibition was held in Philadelphia, U.S.A., from February to December 2006. Benjamin Franklin and Dashkova met only once, in Paris in 1781. Franklin was 75 and Dashkova was 37. Franklin and Dashkova were both evidently impressed with each other. Franklin invited Dashkova to become the first woman to join the American Philosophical Society in 1789, and 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. The correspondence between Franklin and Dashkova was the highlight of the exhibition.
|Wikisource has the text of an 1879 American Cyclopædia article about Princess Dashkova.|