If not for her many accomplishments, Ekaterina Dashkova would have been a footnote in history, remembered merely as the younger sister of the mistress of Peter III, the Russian czar deposed by his better-known wife, Catherine the Great. Perhaps motivated by the prospect of this unflattering legacy, the Russian noblewoman—commonly called Princess Dashkova—strove to make a name for herself in the fields of politics, science, philosophy, literature and music, breaking free from the conventions that limited 18th-century women to restrictive gender roles.

Dashkova racked up titles and milestones like her close friend Catherine racked up lovers. She was the first female director of a national scientific academy, one of the first European women to hold government office and the first female member of the American Philosophical Society. She was also the co-founder and president of the linguistics-focused Russian Academy; the author of plays, speeches, letters, essays and a memoir; a journal and dictionary editor; and a composer of arias, songs and hymns. Nowadays, observers might call someone of such varied talents a Renaissance woman, but more accurately, Dashkova was a living symbol of the Russian Enlightenment, which saw Russia compete for the title of most advanced country in Europe.

Before Dashkova became an Age of Enlightenment powerhouse, she had to be properly enlightened. In the 18th century, Europeans were divided on whether girls should be educated. Though great minds like British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft campaigned for women’s scholarship, public opinion was generally against rearing daughters for work outside of the service industry, or even encouraging open-minded thought. No set curriculum existed, and the only subjects considered necessary for middle- and upper-class girls were needlework, reading, writing, etiquette, music and a bit of arithmetic. Only occasionally would extra subjects be added to young women’s schooling, mainly if their guardians felt the money and effort were worth it.

A 1784 painting of the Princess Dashkova
A 1784 painting of Princess Dashkova Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Peter III and Catherine the Great
Peter III and Catherine the Great Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dashkova was lucky enough to be born into an aristocratic set that had the means, resources and liberal mindset required for a more extensive education. But her relatives had a selfish motive: to prepare their blue-blooded daughters for life at Russian court, where they would be expected to not only serve as their family’s representatives but also use their cleverness to increase the family’s prestige. The sisters’ expensive upbringing was an investment that would yield returns when they made advantageous social connections and secured grand marriages to noblemen.

Dashkova’s early life

Dashkova was born Ekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova in St. Petersburg in 1743. Her parents were a Russian count and a merchant’s daughter whose massive dowry elevated her to the aristocracy. During Dashkova’s youth, she and her two sisters were farmed out to wealthier relatives—a common practice among nobility at the time—for the best possible upbringing in preparation for their already decided future. Under the guardianship of her uncle Mikhail Vorontsov, a Russian statesman who for a time served as the imperial chancellor, Dashkova studied languages, mathematics and literature, developing a particular interest in French philosophy. (Voltaire would become one of her favorite thinkers.) Astute for her age, she impressed her elders, who made note of her aptitude for all subjects, including politics. She seemed to genuinely enjoy her studies and intellectual pursuits.

Yet Dashkova was forced to remain perpetually conscious of the danger of learning too much and potentially driving away male suitors with her intimidating intelligence. Biographer Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff describes Dashkova’s situation as a treacherous balancing act in which she felt compelled to cultivate her mind and image to meet upper-class standards, as well as her family’s expectations.

“She was confronted by the discrepancies between her gender and her social goals, between her longing for self-affirmation and the requirements of a socially acceptable self-effacement, between a private and public life, and between a desire for public recognition and the more culturally appropriate roles for female behavior,” writes Woronzoff-Dashkoff in Dashkova: A Life of Influence and Exile.

Dashkova's uncle, Mikhail Vorontsov
Dashkova's uncle, Mikhail Vorontsov Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A tapestry of Dashkova's scandalous sister, Elizaveta
A tapestry of Dashkova's scandalous sister, Elizaveta Metropolitan Museum of Art under public domain

In 1758, Dashkova arrived at court as a maid of honor to the Empress Elizabeth, who had been a friend of her mother. Almost immediately, 15-year-old Dashkova aligned herself with 30-year-old Catherine, then a grand duchess married to the heir to the throne. The women shared two mutual passions: a love of French books and hatred for Catherine’s husband, Peter. Catherine was especially drawn to Dashkova’s drive to continually improve her mind through reading and cultural pursuits, long after her schooling ended. This very much matched Catherine’s intellectual prowess, and the two women often discussed new ideas.

The great blight on Dashkova’s adolescent life was her polar opposite older sister, Elizaveta. Hopelessly uncultured despite receiving a good education, Elizaveta was Peter’s paramour, and she hoped to one day replace Catherine as his wife. (This was not to be: After Catherine seized the throne in 1762, she had Elizaveta married off to a poor officer, consigning her rival to a miserable existence of poverty in the countryside.) Dashkova would never forgive her sister for bringing such shame to their family.

“Along with [Dashkova’s] political idealism, she was prudish and found her sister’s behavior a painful embarrassment,” writes historian Robert K. Massie in Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. “Dashkova considered her to be living in vulgar public concubinage.”

In 1759, Dashkova made a much more respectable romantic alliance by marrying Prince Mikhail Dashkov, a second lieutenant in the imperial guard. Theirs was a love match, and the two shared mutual respect for each other—a fact that Catherine, trapped in an arranged marriage to an unfaithful, immature boor, likely envied. The couple had three children between 1760 and 1763.

A portrait of Dashkova by Pietro Antonio Rotari
A portrait of Dashkova by Pietro Antonio Rotari Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Dashkova's husband, Mikhail Dashkov
Dashkova's husband, Mikhail Dashkov Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dashkova, Catherine the Great and the Enlightenment

Long-simmering tensions at the Russian court came to a boiling point in January 1762, when Peter succeeded his childless aunt, Elizabeth, as the new czar of Russia. Despite being raised in Russia as the heir to the throne, Peter much preferred his homeland of Prussia; he sought to reverse Elizabeth’s nationalist policies and situate Russia as deferential to Prussia.

Dashkova, a proud Russian, was one of many courtiers who refused to stomach Peter’s reforms. Certainly, the nobility wasted no time in getting rid of him. In June 1762, Dashkova participated in the coup that removed Peter from power and installed his wife, Catherine, on the throne. In the shadows, Dashkova and her husband gathered military support for Catherine’s cause, and they were at the ready when it was time to strike.

During the coup, Catherine famously rode out at the head of Russia’s army while wearing a man’s military uniform, symbolically presenting herself as a more competent leader than Peter. It was a clever romantic setup that Dashkova duly copied. “Here I was, dressed in uniform, with the red ribbon across my shoulder without its star, a spur upon one heel, and looking like a boy of 15 years of age,” the princess recalled in her memoirs. Within days, the deposed czar was dead; though the official cause was listed as “hemorrhoidal colic,” uncertainty surrounds Peter’s demise, with potential explanations ranging from assassination to suicide.

A painting of Catherine on the balcony of the Winter Palace on the day of the coup
A painting of Catherine on the balcony of the Winter Palace on the day of the 1762 coup Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of expressing gratitude for Dashkova’s allyship, the newly crowned empress grew increasingly jealous of her friend’s genius and talents, viewing her as a rival for prominence at court. Almost in retaliation, Dashkova openly expressed disapproval of Catherine’s promiscuity with men. She overestimated her influence with the empress, who turned to other advisers in matters of state.

In 1764, Dashkova—widowed following her husband’s death that August and by then thoroughly fed up with her diminished status at court—went into voluntary exile in Moscow. Five years later, in December 1769, she embarked on a tour of Europe, once again seeking to outdo her male counterparts. Most aristocratic men’s Grand Toursvoyages taken across Europe’s most sophisticated countries to absorb local culturelasted just a few years. Collectively, Dashkova spent nearly a decade abroad, splitting her visits between two lengthy trips.

As the princess traveled through France and the United Kingdom, she collected such star acquaintances as her beloved Voltaire, English painter Georgiana Hare-Naylor, English actor David Garrick and Scottish historian William Robertson. The English author Horace Walpole could barely contain his fascination with her in a 1770 letter to his friend Sir Horace Mann.

A 1791 painting of Catherine's court
A 1791 painting of Catherine's court Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Cooled as my curiosity is about most things, I own I am eager to see this amazon, who had so great a share in a revolution when she was not above 19,” Walpole wrote. “I have a print of the czarina, with Russian verses under it, written by this virago. I do not understand them, but I conclude their value depends more on the authoress than the poetry.”

But perhaps the greatest conquest Dashkova made on her travels was the American statesman Benjamin Franklin. “Dashkova, who rarely praised men, admired Franklin greatly; his brilliant mind, unassuming manner and straightforward appearance attracted her immediately,” writes Woronzoff-Dashkoff. Though the pair only met once, in 1781, they enjoyed a rewarding, multiyear relationship sustained mainly through letters. Impressed by Dashkova’s intellect, Franklin invited her to become the first female member of the American Philosophical Society in 1789.

When Dashkova returned to Russia in 1782, she quickly reconciled with the empress, who had missed her dearly and wasted no time in making peace offerings. They forgave each other for their trespasses and began anew. The following year, Dashkova began her tenure as director of the Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts, a role which she threw herself into entirely, ushering the country into a golden age of scientific discovery and global prestige.

Benjamin Franklin in London in 1767
Benjamin Franklin in London in 1767 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of Dashkova in the 1790s
A portrait of Dashkova in the 1790s Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Working together as a proper team at last, Catherine and Dashkova also established the Russian Academy, which was devoted to preserving and promoting Russian dialects and literature. As president of this institution, which later merged with the main scientific academy, Dashkova headed the publication of a six-volume dictionary. Even after so many years living abroad, Dashkova never shed a single ounce of her Russian pride.

Dashkova’s later life and exile

Catherine died on November 17, 1796, after suffering a stroke and falling into a coma. Her son and successor, Paul I, was perhaps one of Russia’s most controversial and tragic figures. It was something of an open secret in Europe that Paul was likely the biological child of one of Catherine’s lovers, Count Sergei Saltykov. Yet Paul remained emotionally attached to Peter, the father figure taken away from him when he was just a child by his mother’s coup. Catherine did little to instruct her estranged son in the way of leadership, so Paul spent his life feeling cheated of justice, attention and respect.

Following his accession, Paul wasted no time in weeding out undesirables, including anyone involved in the usurpation of his alleged father’s throne. He sent Dashkova away from court, barely giving her time to process her friend’s passing. Considering the turmoil of Paul’s short reign (he was assassinated by his own officers in 1801) and the wealth the princess had accumulated from her various properties and positions, this was hardly a staggering punishment.

A portrait of Paul I and his family
A portrait of Paul I and his family Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dashkova retired to her estate in Troitskoye, west of Moscow, where she lived out the rest of her days in relative comfort and ease. She certainly ruminated on her life, though perhaps not in the way the spiteful Paul expected. Encouraged by her female friends, she wrote her memoirs, which were composed in French and published in English and Russian in 1840 and 1859, respectively. Within the pages of the text, Dashkova puts to paper her feelings about the success of Catherine’s reign, in which she was such an active participant, and her sorrow at Paul’s spiteful efforts to unravel it:

My grief, I had almost said my despair, at a loss so irreparable as that which my country was called upon to suffer in the death of the empress, was not aggravated by any feelings of self-reproach from reflections on my own conduct, and the part I had uniformly acted; these were all indeed of a kind rather suited, in this moment of private distress, and alarming crisis of public affairs, to tranquilize and soothe my mind.

Dashkova’s extraordinary life ended in 1810, when she was 66. Unlike Catherine, the princess was never honored with the moniker “the Great.” But “Lady of the Firsts” would be a rather fitting substitute for a trailblazing woman who was centuries ahead of her time. Though Dashkova’s achievements have long been overlooked, she has received more recognition in recent years, including a 2006 American Philosophical Society exhibition about her relationship with Franklin.

As Woronzoff-Dashkoff writes, this “independent woman who dreamed of glory and political ambitions … demonstrated that women could do more than merely attend balls, run a household, serve their husbands and educate their children. They could take an active role in politics and be successful in a variety of areas traditionally dominated by men.”

The scholar concludes, “Self-sufficiency, self-reliance and a sense of one’s self-worth became her personal goals, as well as the cornerstones of her thoughts on education and the reconstitution of society for the realization of every individual’s potential.”

Catherine the Great's throne in the Winter Palace
Catherine the Great's throne in the Winter Palace Vikramjit Kakati via Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA 4.0

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