In early 1762, Russian politics and Princess Dashkova’s life were both in a state of turmoil. Russia had a new Emperor, Peter III, who was the husband of Empress Catherine, Princess Dashkova’s close friend. As we learned earlier, though, Peter’s policies were deeply unpopular, and people were beginning to favour the idea of Catherine ruling as monarch in her own right.
For the time being, however, Princess Dashkova was trapped in a difficult situation. She had devoted herself to her friend Catherine’s cause, but Catherine’s husband and Princess Dashkova’s sister Elizabeth were caught up in an affair. Peter was determined to divorce his wife and supplant her with Elizabeth Vorontsov. Princess Dashkova tried as best she could to stay out of Peter and her sister’s circle but could not get out of some social events. At one event that Dashkova was forced to attend, Peter warned her “my little friend, you will take my advice; pay a little more attention to us…repent of any negligence shown to your sister.”
Peter’s reign continued with more and more unpopular policies. When he signed an ‘eternal alliance’ with Prussia and waged war on Denmark, a lot of people decided enough was enough. In July 1762, Peter decided to take a trip out of the country and visited Mecklenburg with many of his supporters. It was at this time that Catherine decided to listen to the opinions of her friends and overthrow her husband. On the 9th of July, the clergy was prepared to declare Catherine as the sole ruler of Russia, Empress Regnant; she also had widespread support from the public and the backing of the army. She rode in army uniform with her own 14,000 troops, and Princess Dashkova was by her side during the following days, sleeping next to her at night.
Peter III was captured and imprisoned at Ropsha under Catherine’s orders. It is not known what she planned to do with Peter in the long-term, but in the end, this problem was solved for her when Peter died at the hands of his Orlov guards after he had abdicated. His death was announced to have been caused by a stroke; Princess Dashkova had said: “It is a death too sudden, Madame, for your glory and for mine.” This was clear to Catherine, she had not ordered Peter’s death, but she had to at least make it look natural to protect her own reign.
With her best friend now reigning as Empress of Russia, Princess Dashkova expected to be by her side as a principal advisor. In reality, this could not happen, as Empress, Catherine had to limit the power of those around her. Princess Dashkova spoke openly about her ideas for reforms and policies and for the Empress this was a problem, the Princess could soon be at the head of her own faction and cause divisions at court. Empress Catherine had to limit her friend’s power.
This is not to say that Princess Dashkova was not rewarded for her part in the coup; Empress Catherine made her a lady-in-waiting and promoted Dashkova’s husband to the rank of colonel and rewarded the princess with thousands of rubles and a yearly pension. The couple were well-liked and resided in the Winter Palace where they dined with the Empress daily. This position meant that Princess Dashkova could be carefully watched by the Empress.
Over time as the Empress became busy with the daily running of the country, the pair’s friendship dwindled for some time, and it was reported across Europe that Dashkova was becoming a burden. In 1763, tensions were brought to the surface when Dashkova was implemented in a plot to murder the Orlov family. She was innocent in this, but the claims caused scandal. Princess Dashkova replied to the claims, “if the Empress wants to me lay my head upon a block as a reward for having placed a crown upon her own, I am quite prepared to die.” The Empress was furious at this and told Dashkova’s husband to bring his wife into line.
Princess Dashkova got on with life at court for the next few years until the death of her husband made her seek a change. The Princess received permission from the Empress to go travelling and set off on an extended trip around Europe. On her travels, she was warmly received at many courts and was able to meet many of the writers and philosophes she had studied for years. In Paris, she spent time with Voltaire and Diderot before travelling on to England and Scotland.
In Scotland, Dashkova spent several years in Edinburgh where she arranged for her son Pavel’s education. She then travelled to Ireland, back to London and then returned to Paris where she even met Benjamin Franklin. President Franklin was impressed with Dashkova’s ideas and education, and at the age of 37, she became the first woman to join the American Philosophical Society.
In 1782, Princess Dashkova returned to Russia after almost fifteen years of travelling. She was warmly welcomed back by Empress Catherine, and the pair rekindled their friendship. The Empress was impressed with Dashkova and believed she had promoted Russia well on her travels and that she could be useful in helping to continue Russia’s enlightenment transformation.
As soon as she got back, Dashkova was given the position of the Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was the first woman in the world to head a national scientific academy and was not even a scientist herself! Two years later she was awarded the post of President of the new Russian Academy where she oversaw the creation of a six-volume Dictionary of Russian languages.
Sadly upon the accession of Emperor Paul in 1796, Princess Dashkova lost all of the positions she had worked tirelessly in for over a decade, and she retired to Novgorod. The Princess continued to write in later life and worked on dramas on top of writing her extensive memoirs. In 1804, the Princess published her own memoirs before her death in 1810. These memoirs give a great insight into life at the Russian court and into the remarkable life of Princess Dashkova.