Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Arduous and Delicate Task: Princess Dashkova, the Academy of Sciences, and the Taming of Natural Philosophy

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Arduous and Delicate Task: Princess Dashkova, the Academy of Sciences, and the Taming of Natural Philosophy

Article excerpt

Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova has been a woman more often recalled than remembered. Born in St. Petersburg in the uncertain years that followed in the wake of the tumultuous reign of Peter the Great, Dashkova proved in the second half of the century to be an exceptional personage in an age when Russia was truly a boundary to Europe: a bastion of the Enlightenment with the most extensive slavery system in the world; a center of opulence amid a massive impoverished peasantry; and the stage for many of the century's most impressive women in a land of pious Orthodoxy and conservatism. Dashkova's own role in this period was visible and well documented, but historians, chroniclers, and the popular imagination-in Russia, where she is relatively well known, as opposed to the West, where she is almost unheard of-focus on two aspects of her career: the extent of her involvement in the coup that brought Catherine II (the Great) to the throne of Russia in June 1762; and her position as the head of both the Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts in St. Petersburg and the Imperial Academy of the Russian Language, posts she held for over a decade.1 She was the first female public appointee in Russia, and the first woman to head any learned society in the world. If this were not enough, she also penned (in French) autobiographical memoirs that stand as one of the great Russian literary achievements in the genre, notwithstanding the language of their composition and the fact that Dashkova spends most of the memoirs "hiding" her innermost thoughts from the reader.2

Dashkova stands out to observers today as a grand exception in the eighteenth century, and to a certain extent she appeared that way to her contemporaries as well. An Irish friend and companion of her later years, Catherine Wilmot, wrote a letter from Moscow to her sister Alicia on December 8, 1805, that set much of the tone for writing about Dashkova since:

I have since I came here often thought what a task it would be to attempt to draw the Character of the Princess Dashkaw! I for my part think it would be absolutely impossible. Such are her peculiarities & inextricable varietys that the result would only appear like a Wisp of Human Contradictions. 'Tis the stuff we are all made of to be sure, but nevertheless nothing is more foreign from the thing itself than the raw materials of which it is made! And woe betide individuality the moment one begins to generalize. You will always conceive her a piece of perfection when you take my experience of her, just as you would suppose Europe a Paradise if you never lived out of Italy & judged of the rest accordingly. But she has as many Climates to her mind, as many Splinters of insulation, as many Oceans of agitated uncertainty, as many Etnas of destructive fire and as many Wild Wastes of blighted Cultivation as exists in any quarter of the Globe! For my part I think she would be most in her element at the Helm of the State, or Generalissimo of the Army, or Farmer General of the Empire. In fact she was born for business on a large scale which is not irreconcilable with the Life of a Woman who at 18 headed a Revolution & who for 12 years afterwards govern'd an Academy of Arts & Sciences.3

Already the deck has been stacked against remembering Dashkova in her full context, for she is painted primarily as a woman. No one could sanely deny that she was indeed a woman, but there are limitations that come with such a narrow scope. In the nineteenth century, for example, Dashkova was primarily analyzed with an emphasis on her involvement in the Catherinian coup, because politics was a sphere in which women had virtually no presence, and therefore Dashkova was an anomaly to be treated as such.4 For instance, Aleksandr I. Gertsen (Herzen), Russia's great liberal socialist thinker, chided the Princess's erstwhile companion and chronicler for not focusing on this fact enough: "All of this is true, but Miss Wilmot forgets that, above all, Dashkova was born a woman and remained a woman her entire life. …

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