Eloquent, brilliant, unorthodox, poise, and loyal – all of these unique characteristics allowed Dashkova to gain the highest regard among the members of the elite society and more importantly, to earn the respect of Catherine the Great. Dashkova is a peculiar female character. She’s fully narcissistic, but at the same time, rejects her recognition and claims herself as unworthy of the credits Catherine II had given her.
In her autobiography The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova, Dashkova justifies her role as a noble woman, her early-life contribution in helping Catherine rise to the throne, and the frugal life she bore as a widow and a mother of two. Dashkova voiced her significance in a society where women had limited power and no opportunities to be intellectually involved. Dashkova was born to an aristocratic family in St. Petersburg in 1744. Her mother passed away when she was only two years old.
Her uncle, the Grand Chancellor, adopted her into his family when she turned four. In her memoir, Dashkova shared her unpleasant upbringing in her uncle’s household: “sharing the same room, the same masters, even dresses cut from the same cloth” with her cousin, Countess Stroganova. According to Dashkova, her “uncle had no time and her aunt had neither the ability nor the inclination” to impose knowledge or compassion in her heart and mind at all (pg. 32). Dashkova also shared that, as a kid, she craved attention and was often left feeling lonely.
All these misfortunes along with her determination to overcome her gender role stereotypes motivated her to achieve the accomplishments she made in her lifetime. Catherine the Great was a prominent figure in Dashkova’s memoir. Not only did they share many similar values, but the Duchess Catherine also “did any serious reading, … knew how to exert whenever she wanted to win over anyone” (pg. 36). She also acquired the mutual ambition of overthrowing her husband, Peter III, and claiming the throne.
Similar to Dashkova, Catherine II was rebellious and had a desire to take on a leadership role in the Russian society as a woman. Dashkova granted Catherine II unconditional trust and support to help her ascend to the throne because she wanted to see Catherine as the first female figure to hold a leadership position. Dashkova’s total devotion and affection toward Catherine Ii made the relationship appear more than just a friendship, but rather a daughter-mother relationship.
Similar yet different from Ivan the Terrible, Dashkova’s parents and spouse passed away when she was very young, which likely had a dramatic impact on her personality and childhood. However, Dashkova acquired the tenacity to become a strong, independent woman, who greatly contributed to Catherine’s success. Dashkova stated that, “apart from my husband and my children, I would have sacrificed everything for her sake” and her words were proven (pg. 46). Dashkova further asserted her prominent female role in the society by networking with various male nobles who significantly contributed to Catherine II’s success in the throne.
She displayed her authoritative leadership by selecting the conspirators and helped Catherine II plot a coup d’etates to overthrow Peter III. Dashkova also proved to be an effective negotiator. She took pride in how much the noble men respected her opinions and how they often surrendered in their arguments. Through this aspect, Dashkova represents a young, influential woman who plays a more important role in the Russian society than the other women. Unlike Dashkova, most women in Russia during the 17th century did not get involved in government affairs.
Much to Dashkova’s dismay, her friendship with Catherine II began to fade after the Empress had ascended to the throne. It appeared that Catherine II did not fully appreciate what Dashkova had done for her. Before Peter III’s exile, Catherine II needed someone to lean on and Dashkova was a convenient and useful option. However, Dashkova’s rebellious nature as well as her distaste for a few certain men might have offended Catherine II in the process. In Dashkova’s memoir, she gave credits to her large role in the plot of overthrowing Peter III; however, Catherine disagreed.
She rebutted that it was her plan of action after the death of the Empress Elizabeth and the vision of the coup was established long ago. My initial observation of Dashkova is her ability to be extraordinary despite her difficult upbringing. Her intelligence was compelling to the Empress Catherine and the men that she had encountered during her traveling. Dashkova portrayed herself as a strong, versatile woman, who’s not only different from most of the women during the time period, but can also outperform her male counterparts in various tasks (e. g. urgery, debate, carpenting, etc. ) (pg. 144). She surprised the readers at the first moment when she met Prince Dashkov, a Moscow man. She fell in love with him and got married at the age of 16. The proposal was informal and emotional unlike the traditional arrangement with its strict regulations. Just 5 years after, Prince Dashkov passed away, leaving Dashkova 2 children and his mountainous gambling debt. In the most hopeless scenario, Dashkova managed to raise her 2 children and provided her son a wonderful education while still remaining faithful to the Empress Catherine II.
She declared, “My own poverty affected me not at all” (pg. 149). Ironically, as a member of the aristocratic class, she “wore nothing but the oldest clothes” (pg. 64). According to Dashkova’s unconventional nature and her self-pride, it’s logical to assume that she refused help from everyone around her, including the Empress Catherine II. Dashkova possibly deemed her friend Catherine’s offer as a bribe in return for her loyalty. Therefore, there were several occurrences when she refused monetary gifts from Catherine. However, she proudly accepted accolades, such as the Order of St.
Katherine, an award for her loyal service. Dashkova’s friendship with Catherine II is rather complex. In the memoir, Dashkova gave an impression that her devotion to Catherine II was completely selfless. However, Catherine’s reign had granted women like Dashkova the rights to pursue an education and hold office positions. Dashkova’s memoir only offered a perspective of an aristocratic member of the society, which did not reflect the lives of the peasant women. As evidently seen in Dashkova’s memoir, Russia surprisingly granted property rights to noblewomen around 1753.
When Prince Dashkov passed away, Dashkova had the privilege to inherit her husband’s estate without his explicit consent. Although Dashkova regarded herself as a dominant and well-respected female figure, she seemed to not embrace her female status. In her memoir, Dashkova raved about her son at length. However, she wasn’t proud of her daughter Anastasiia because her daughter had a physical defect (pg. 143). In 1782, Dashkova declined the position as the Director of Petersburg Academy of Sciences stating that her female role makes her an unfit candidate (pg. 231).
Her attitude toward females in general and her narcissism are contradicting. Memoirs typically aren’t reliable because they only offer a single perspective and can be censored by the author. Dashkova’s memoir is no exception. The self-serving bias was clearly evident. Dashkova’s egoistic personality and her humble responses are contradicting throughout the book. It appears as if the typical women in Russia in the 18th century played an inferior role in the society and had limited opportunities to contribute to politics and family affairs. Dashkova was self-conscious by her gender role.
She wanted the audience to acknowledge her critical contribution to Catherine’s reign and her audacity dealing with challenges in her life. She received constant praise from the noble men and she mentioned each and every one of them in great details in her memoir. For example, Voltaire expressed so much joy seeing Dashkova even when he was bed-ridden. “Good Heavens! Even her voice is the voice of an angel! ” (pg. 133). This signifies how much he treasures her like a goddess. Also, during her stay in Rome, Mr. Byers and Cardinal de Bermis treated her with great respect and kindness.
She never admitted weakness or blemish of “bad pride” in herself. The King admired her so much that he offered several volumes of literature (pg. 176). The book was assigned to offer a perspective of an aristocratic member in Russia from mid-17th century to 18th century. Through Dashkova’s memoir, we learn about the gender roles and the internal conflicts between the noble classes. Like all other memoirs in nature, Dashkova’s view about the society and her life is bias and cannot be completely trusted. Dashkova’s account of the Empress Catherine was written with much caution.
It would be hard to disclose any negative inputs in the memoir when acknowledging that her close friend Catherine along with the noble class members are part of the audience. Nevertheless, The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova successfully fulfills the author’s purpose, which is declaring her prominent role as a female leader and justifying her complex relationship with Catherine the Great.
Source: Jehanne M. Gheith, The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova: Russia in the Time of Catherine the Great. Durham and London: Duke University Press 1995.