Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Liberty Postponed: Princess Dashkova and the Defense of Serfdom

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Liberty Postponed: Princess Dashkova and the Defense of Serfdom

Article excerpt

For all the diversity that distinguished imperial Russia from the American colonies in the eighteenth century, both societies shared one crucial characteristic that set them apart from Western Europe: the presence of human bondage as a mainstay of economic power and social privilege. Since 1721, when Montesquieu launched his attack on the slave trade in The Persian Letters, Enlightenment thinkers had roundly criticized slavery on moral and utilitarian grounds. Slavery, they argued, was not only contrary to natural law, but hampered economic prosperity. The philosophes in France and Britain may have benefited indirectly from slave industries in the colonies, but-unlike their Russian and American counterparts-their economic well-being did not hinge on the labor of unfree servitors in their midst.1

By contrast, proponents of Enlightenment on the periphery of Europe could not escape the uneasy juxtaposition of ideals and experience in their everyday lives. To be sure, advocates of abolition could be found among America's founders. Other colonists, although aware of the inconsistency between principles and practice, maintained that unfree labor was a temporary evil that would pass away with the progress of human society. This was particularly true of plantation owners in the southern colonies. Most notoriously, Thomas Jefferson condemned slavery as an "abominable crime," yet remained a slave-owner throughout his life and even supported the expansion of slavery into the southwestern territories.2 For the eighteenth-century Russian nobility and its rulers, however, proposals for serf emancipation comprised little more than an intellectual exercise, a subject for essay competitions and debate among officials, rather than a prelude to reform. Only the most enlightened members of the Russian nobility were prepared even to acknowledge the abuses inherent in serfdom and to allow for state intervention in the relationship between proprietors and their human property.3

Among the most eloquent supporters of serfdom in eighteenth-century Russia was Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova. In addition to her more celebrated role as director of the Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts in St. Petersburg, throughout her life Princess Dashkova acted as the indefatigable manager of several landed estates. For Dashkova, as for other members of the ruling class, human bondage was central to the noble way of life: the princess relied overwhelmingly on serf labor for her income, for the care of her estates and children, and even as a source of entertainment and amusement.4 Far from passing over this dimension of her life in silence, Dashkova's relation to her serfs was a recurring theme in her memoirs and her correspondence. Indeed, Dashkova s conviction that she epitomized the patriarchal ideal of the "good proprietor" (dobryi barin), devoted to the well-being of her dependants, was a significant element in her self-representation and long predated the writing of her memoirs.

The contrast between Dashkova as a leading purveyor of Enlightenment philosophy in Russia and her status as proprietress of thousands of human "souls" struck many of the princess's contemporaries and, subsequently, her chroniclers as incongruous. Both before and after the 1917 revolution, Russian historians vehemently criticized Dashkova for her defense of serfdom, labeling her one of those "false liberals who ardently demand freedom-for themselves."5 In their denunciations of Dashkova, however, critics declined to consider the context of her apology for unfree labor, not to mention the similarities between Dashkova's views of the "lower classes" and the pronouncements of more renowned Enlightenment intellectuals. Indisputably, Dashkova's compatriots had their own interests at heart when they rejected the notion of serf emancipation as unviable in the economic and social conditions of eighteenth-century Russia. Yet Dashkova's espousal of serfdom, like that of her noble contemporaries, derived equally from her awareness of the state of corporate and individual rights in her native land. …

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