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Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova: the woman who broke through the ‘august sanctuary’ of the male-dominated Russian Academy

Dr Angela Byrne writes about Princess Dashkova for the fourth Blog post in our series on the five Honorary Members featured in our exhibition ‘Prodigies of learning: Academy women in the nineteenth century’.

Corkwoman Katherine Wilmot wrote in December 1805 that to ‘draw the character of the Princess Dashkova’ would result only in ‘a wisp of human contradictions’. One of the most important women of the European Enlightenment, the seeds of Dashkova’s legendary status were sown at just 19 years of age, when she played a central role in Catherine II’s 1762 coup that climaxed with the assassination of Peter III, Dashkova’s own godfather.

Dashkova was born in Petersburg in 1743 into one of Russia’s most politically influential families. She was a bookish child and by her teens was fluent in five languages and had amassed a library of 900 volumes. She later recalled, ‘Never would the finest piece of jewelry have given me as much pleasure [as a book]’.

She was widowed at just 20, left with two small children and her late husband’s ruinous gambling debts. Emerging from those years of hardship, in the 1770s she spent several years in Western Europe, partly for her children’s education. She befriended Enlightenment philosophers, English and Irish ‘bluestockings’, and the Wilmot family, who played an important role in her later life.

Left: Journal of Katherine Wilmot, 1806-7. (RIA MS 12 L 31). Right: 1796 copy of a Church Slavonic manuscript describing the marriage of Tsar Mikhail (1613–45), a gift to Martha Wilmot from Dashkova. (RIA MS 12 L 16)

Returning to Russia in 1782, Dashkova shed her former role of lady-in-waiting for that of an academic and correspondent with the greatest thinkers of the age. Catherine II appointed her Director of the Academy of Sciences and the Imperial Academy of the Russian Language, roles that she performed with efficiency and financial acumen. She became an avid promoter of the Russian language, and was the driving force behind the Academy’s six-volume Russian dictionary. Published in 1789–94, it was the first of its kind.

Dashkova also published translations of Hume and Voltaire; articles on education, agriculture, travel, and the influence of French culture in Russia; papers, speeches, letters, plays and poetry. She bequeathed her rich mineralogical collection to Moscow University.

On 23 April 1791, Dashkova became the first woman elected Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy. This period saw the peak and gradual decline of her civic life; in 1794, under gathering clouds of political disfavour, she retired from the Russian academies.

Royal Irish Academy Minutes, 23 April, 1791, volume 1, p.70.

Catherine II died in 1796, and was succeeded by her son, Paul I. He resented Dashkova’s role in the coup that killed his father, so he exiled her for a year. Thereafter, she devoted herself to running her rural estate, only visiting Moscow seasonally.

Her memoirs remain one of the most important of the period. They only survive thanks to the efforts of Martha and Katherine Wilmot, who encouraged Dashkova to write her autobiography during their residence with her in 1803–8. Katherine smuggled her copy of the manuscript to Ireland in 1807, while Martha was forced, under pressure from Russian customs officials, to burn her copy when leaving Russia in 1808.

Martha had Dashkova’s permission to publish the memoir, but she did not do so until 1840 due to resistance from Dashkova’s surviving family. Maria Edgeworth, herself elected to honorary Academy membership in 1842, wrote personally to congratulate Martha on the publication, stating, ‘young, old, and middle aged all agree that it is one of the most entertaining pieces of biography we ever read’.

Dashkova would doubtlessly have been pleased with this review, and with the renewed attention paid to her life and legacy in recent years.

By Dr Angela Byrne
DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, and Research Associate at Ulster University

Princess Dashkova featured in our exhibition ‘Prodigies of learning’: Academy women in the nineteenth century.

Listen back to Dr Angela Byrne’s lecture ‘A Woman in an August Sanctuary’: Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, Director of the Russian Academies.

Sources and further reading:

Martha Bradford, [née Wilmot] (ed., trans.), Memoirs of the Princess Daschkaw, Lady of Honour to Catherine II, Empress of All the Russias (2 vols, London: Henry Colburn, 1840). Available at:

Angela Byrne, ‘Princess Dashkova and the Wilmot Sisters,’ Bernadette Cunningham and Siobhán Fitzpatrick (eds), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2009), 248–55.

Angela Byrne, ‘Supplementing the autobiography of Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova: The Russian diaries of Martha and Katherine Wilmot,’ Irish Slavonic Studies, 23 (2011), 25–34.

Maria Edgeworth to Martha Bradford [née Wilmot], 27 July 1840. BM Add. MS 41295: National Library of Ireland microfilm p1284, 121–6.

H.M. Hyde and Edith Stewart (eds), The Russian journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot (1934; reprinted New York, 1971).

Michelle Lamarche Marrese, ‘Princess Dashkova and the politics of language in eighteenth-century Russia’, in Derek Offord, Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, Vladislav Rjeoutski and Gesine Argent (eds), French and Russian in Imperial Russia: language, attitudes and identity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 31–47.

Sue Ann Prince (ed.), The Princess and the patriot: Ekaterina Dashkova, Benjamin Franklin, and the Age of Enlightenment (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2006).

Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff, Dashkova: a life of influence and exile. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 97/3 (Philadelphia, 2008).

Main image of Princess Dashkova © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg