Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Education and Enlightenment

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Education and Enlightenment

Article excerpt

DASHKOVA WAS BORN MARCH 17, 1743, in St. Petersburg, the new capital of Russia, during an unprecedented age of women's rule.1 Peter the Great founded the city only forty years earlier as a symbol of his determination to break with Russia's past and to improve links with the West. His imposition of reform and westernization on the institutions of Russia was to have a marked impact on the lives of all Russians, including noblewomen who abandoned the kokoshnik-a high-standing, colorful headdress - along with other forms of traditional clothing, donned European, décolleté dresses, and began to mingle in society. The Count de Ségur enthusiastically described the transformation and Europeanization of Russian women, writing that as opposed to their fathers, husbands, and brothers, they "spoke four or five languages, played various musical instruments, and were acquainted with the works of the most celebrated novelists of France, Italy, and England."2 Not the least of Peter's reforms was the revision in 1722 of the law of succession, which undoubtedly was intended to pave the way for the elevation of his wife Catherine I to the throne. In the edict, he stated that the succession would be dependent on the reigning monarch's personal choice, not on primogeniture in the male line, and thereby ushered in a unique time in Russian history when women governed the country.

The latter part of the eighteenth century (from Peter's death in 1725 to Paul's assassination in 1801) saw eight occupants on the Russian throne. Five were women, with Catherine II reigning for thirty-four years. During Dashkova's lifetime Russia was primarliy ruled by women, and indisputably, her remarkable achievements in the public sphere would not have been possible at any other time of Russian history. Her education and childhood intellectual experiences defined her potential and directed her into the area of public service. Precocious and gifted, her early reading exposed her to the ideas of the French Enlightenment with their emphasis on a life of the mind, science, progress, and social justice. She dreamed of eminence and achievement, of personal change through education and the transformation of society. Still, as a woman, 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.

Mystery surrounds Dashkova's birth. Her assertions that she was born in 1744 on the English Embankment, a fashionable row of houses in St. Petersburg on the Neva River, seem to be slips of the quill.3 Archival records show that the Vorontsov family did not own a house on the English Embankment in the middle of the eighteenth century. In the reigns of Elizabeth and Catherine II, St. Petersburg experienced a great building boom as marshes were transformed into squares and everywhere, on the islands and along the canals, palaces and churches appeared. Yet St. Petersburg was still a city in progress: Many of the streets were narrow and covered with boards and only those around the Admiralty were paved with stones. In the best areas, such as the embankment of the Neva near the Admiralty, the luxurious two- and three-story houses stood side by side, but in other locations such as the Vasil'evskii Island, brick buildings were interspersed with lowly wooden shacks. Dashkova's older sister Maria was born in 1738 in their father's house on the Fifth Line of the Vasil'evskii Island and was baptized nearby in the Church of St. Andrew the First-Called - but Dashkova's certificate of baptism has not been found.

Dashkova's years span a period of wars, shifting alliances, and Russian expansion through conquest and annexations in Europe, the Baltic, and the Ottoman Empire. A marked rise in the family fortune prepared and facilitated her active role in the historical events of her time. …

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