Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Banishment

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Banishment

Article excerpt

EVENTS AT COURT ASSOCIATED WITH CATHERINE and a proximity to power shaped and determined Dashkova's expectations and disappointments. Early on, these events included her first meeting with Catherine in 1759, the palace revolution of 1762, and the discovery of Orlov in Catherine's boudoir. The latter, fueled by Orlov's hostility toward her, led to the first major falling out with the empress and for the next twenty years of her life, 1763-1782, banishment, travel in Russia, and journeys abroad characterized her life. For her part, Dashkova, always uneasy with the strictures of court life, was too unconventional and inflexible to adapt to the life of a noblewoman among Catherine's courtiers. Gradually, as her disappointment in the empress grew, she realized that ostracism and isolation would follow upon the alienation she had known in the court of Peter III.

Yet even with her disillusionment in Catherine, Dashkova would remember with great satisfaction the glory of her participation in the palace revolution that brought down Emperor Peter III. To the end of her days she would celebrate June 29, the anniversary of Catherine's accession to the throne, with "a sentiment of pleasure and delight which beams over her countenance as often as the idea recurs."1 While she might have been disappointed in Catherine and disapproved of her personal life, Dashkova never gave up on her deeply held ideals of an enlightened monarch - a philosopher on the throne, enacting rational legislation for the good of the people with the aid of enlightened advisers such as Dashkova herself. Unfortunately, she freely admitted that she could never adapt to the exigencies of court life. Well-read and one of the best-educated women in Russia, she held strong opinions and did not hesitate to defend them forcefully. She was too intelligent, too energetic, and most of all too straightforward to feel comfortable in an atmosphere of empty pomp, frivolous activities, and petty intrigues. Rather than the company of courtiers and careerists, she preferred the intellectually challenging conversations of contemporary Russian writers and intellectuals.

Dashkova's energy, directness, and drive were indispensable qualities during the coup, but subsequently they were not valued at court and in diplomatic circles. Although Count Merci reported that she "possesses a romantic imagination and exceptional intellectual capabilities, but combines them with a talent for intrigue," Dashkova was not an adept and skillful courtier.2 She never mastered the necessary proficiency in the art of double-dealing, disingenuousness, and sycophancy-deceit did not come easily to her. Her candor, impatience, and lack of diplomatic tact made her many powerful enemies, chief among them the empress's favorites from Grigorii Orlov to Platon Zubov. Catherine Wilmot would observe many years later that Dashkova exacted deference "and lucky it is that she has sensibility and gentleness in nature, for if she had not, she wou'd be a public scourge."3 The assessments of her contemporaries, especially at court, were often openly hostile, or in the very least highly critical. While agreeing that she was highly educated and well read, many felt that age had not yet tempered the rage of her passions, nor had it ripened her judgment: "During her discussion with others, her behavior would often become extreme, demonstrating excessive obstinacy and intolerance."4 Her primary shortcomings at court were the inability to remain silent - to hold her tongue even when in the right - and her inflexibility.

Dashkova was far too unconventional and independent and found it difficult to conform to the expected behavior of eighteenth-century Russian noblewomen. Years after her death, she was still a topic of conversation, and those who had known Dashkova would comment on the inappropriateness of her attitudes and deportment. On December 4, 1833, Aleksandr Pushkin described in his diary a story he had heard from Natal'ia Zagriazhskaia, a close acquaintance of the Vorontsov family who had been in the galley with Peter III when he attempted to escape to Kronstadt. …

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