The princess was born as Catherine Romanov Vorontsov in 1743 but for the purposes of this article, we will mainly call her by her married name of Princess Dashkova to differentiate from her friend Empress Catherine. Princess Dashkova’s parents were Count Roman Vorontsov and his wife Marfa who were closely involved with the Russian royal family. The sources on the princess’s family are sparse and not in agreement on the number of siblings she had, but it appears that she was the third of four children. Elizabeth was her older sister, followed by a brother Alexander and a younger brother called Semyon was born in 1744. All of the siblings made their mark on Russian history.
When Catherine Vorontsov was just two years old, she lost her mother and it seems her father lost interest in his children. Of her father, the Princess said he was “a man of pleasures not much occupied with the care of his children”. This early childhood neglect turned into an advantage for the princess who was sent off to live with her uncle Michael, the Imperial Chancellor, who provided her with the highest standard of education. Even as a child, Princess Dashkova would stay up late devouring the works of Voltaire and Bayle and she excelled especially in languages. It was clear from early on that the young girl was gifted.
At the age of fifteen, the Princess met the Grand Duchess Catherine who delighted in finding an equally intelligent young woman to converse with. The young princess was bored by gossip and parties and refused to wear makeup or ornate dress which made her stand out from her contemporaries. The Grand Duchess was impressed with the Princess’s knowledge of Enlightenment philosophes and the pair spoke to each other in French. The princess began to see the Grand Duchess as an idol from then on.
Within a year the Princess was married, her husband was Prince Michael Dashkova who was a high ranking and wealthy officer. The couple moved away to Moscow where they had three children in very quick succession. Princess Dashkova felt quite isolated in Moscow as her Russian was poor and many of her husband’s family spoke no foreign languages. During this time the Princess studied Russian further and devoted her time to reading.
In 1761, it was clear that the life of Empress Elizabeth was nearing its end and the Grand Duke Peter, the husband of the Princess’s friend Grand Duchess Catherine was officially proclaimed heir to the throne. It was at this time that the Dashkovas returned to St Petersburg and the Princess became more aware of how terrible a ruler Peter would be. Peter was rude and ill-tempered, he loved to play childish pranks and spent his time partying. He also undermined the current Empress Elizabeth by sending military tip-offs to Prussia to assist them, despite Russia being Prussia’s opponent in the war. In doing so, Peter was breaking his alliances with Austria and France and forging new ones in secret with Frederick II of Prussia. On top of this, Peter boasted of his plans to restructure the Russian Orthodox Church and the army once he became Emperor.
Most embarrassingly of all for Princess Dashkova, however, was the fact that Peter kept a mistress whom he openly flaunted at court. He discussed replacing his wife the Grand Duchess Catherine with this rival. The mistress was Princess Dashkova’s sister Elizabeth. Understandably Princess Dashkova was mortified by this and stayed out of Peter and Elizabeth’s social circle, siding with Catherine. Princess Dashkova was one of the few people who would speak their mind to Peter and the pair often bickered publically. On one occasion Peter and Princess Dashkova debated over the death penalty while at a meal together; Dashkova prevailed and Peter just mocked her and stuck out his tongue. Dashkova gained a lot of respect for this.
While spending time together in Finland over the summer, Princess Dashkova began to see Catherine as the solution to the problem of Peter being the heir to the throne. She saw her as a saviour of the nation and wrote in her memoirs that Catherine had “captured her heart and her mind”. Princess Dashkova became very protective of Catherine and even reported to her the goings-on of her sister Elizabeth and Peter, Catherine’s husband.
As Empress Elizabeth lay dying the political atmosphere was intense. The Empress had wished to defeat Prussia in her lifetime, but her heir Peter was sending them information to undermine the attacks before the Russian generals even knew the information. The powerful Orlov family began to rally support for Catherine; she was a powerful woman after all and mother to Paul the future heir. As support rallied around her, Catherine became more and more withdrawn and hid away from the public. At this time she was six months pregnant but not by her husband Peter, the child was Gregory Orlov’s. This scandal had to be covered up and was even hidden from Princess Dashkova when she came to visit the Grand Duchess to see if she had come up with a plan. It was clear that Catherine did not see herself coming to power as a ruler in her own right and due to her pregnancy, she could plan little for even her own safety. It is reported that Princess Dashkova said that their friends must act for Catherine and proclaimed “I have enough courage and enthusiasm to arouse them all”.
On Christmas day 1761, the Empress passed away and Peter and Catherine were proclaimed the new Emperor and Empress of Russia. In the following months, Catherine grieved publically for Empress Elizabeth and gained the respect of the Russian people. Peter, however, began to roll out immense changes in the church and the army which were deeply unpopular. Princess Dashkova and Catherine’s other supporters knew they had to act soon to help to topple Peter and make Catherine Empress in her own right.