Svetlana Sivak Marina Tsvetaeva Sophia Parnok Richard Burgin Ruth Posselt

Was She or Wasn’t She? Only her Empress Knew for Sure.
(The Case of Princess Dashkova)
Nature invested me with the heart of a man…
— Ascribed to Princess Dashkova
By the second half of the eighteenth century the French-speaking Russian aristocracy and court society had been westernized in a superficially profound way – their lives, costume, manners and culture bore little resemblance to the lives and habits of the majority of Russians, peasants and town dwellers alike, and in a sense their lives from cradle to grave represented a kind of masquerade, and this was perhaps more true of certain elite women. One outcome of the Europeanization of the Russian upper classes initiated by Peter I (the Great) was the emergence of many powerful, educated and prominent elite women during the 18th century who left written testimony to their lives and their place in (and, in some cases, conflicts with) the traditional feminine norms and roles in their native Russian and adopted European (French) cultures.

As far as women are concerned, no culture presents a more starkly contrastive picture than Russia in the 18th century: on one hand a huge majority of Russian women continued to live exactly as their mothers, grandmothers, great-great-grandmothers and female ancestors going back to the fourteenth century had lived – short, hard-working lives focused on marriage, giving birth to and raising numerous children, running households, lives more or less controlled by male relatives and spouses; on the other hand, for approximately two-thirds of the eighteenth century this vast, illiterate, mostly male-managed if not always male-dominated female majority, and its male managers and patriarchs, were ruled by women who wielded absolute autocratic power in their persons. These
Vigilius Erichsen, Portrait of Catherine the Great on Brilliant. After 1762. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, Leningrad.
all-powerful Russian tsarinas (empresses) and regents, three of whom were ethnically German, were, in chronological order: Catherine I, Anna Ioannovna (a German), Anna Leopoldovna (a German), Elizaveta Petrovna, and Catherine II (the Great and a German). By the end of the century women had exercised the highest political power to be had in Russia to such an extent that a male backlash, in the person of Emperor Paul I (Catherine the Great’s son), passed an edict forbidding any woman from ascending to the Russian throne in the future. Russian women in the late 18th century had also begun to wield power through and over language, starting to write and publish in large numbers.

Trying to ferret out solid evidence of the personal habits, dispositions, preferences and/or orientations of educated elite Russian women, not to mention tsarinas, turns out to be more problematic and complicated than attempting to recover the history of more ordinary women, however. Ironically, the high-profile visibility of Russian elite and ruling women seems to have facilitated the invisibility of the more non-conformist and sex-variant women in this privileged group. Ready access to masks obviously increases the likelihood of adopting one. In addition, as the historian Brenda Meehan-Waters has argued, “stories of sexual excesses [and female same-sex desire has always been considered a “sexual excess”—DB] cling to the names of many female rulers, partially because if a woman is considered deviant in one aspect (rulership) she is assumed deviant in all” (Meehan-Waters, 300). Knowing this, one is not surprised if the “aura of scandal” that surrounds Cleopatra, Semiramis, Messalina and Elizabeth I of England, also informs both contemporaries’ and historians’ views of Catherine the Great, whose legendary sexual appetites have dominated most treatments of her life and reign until very recently. Those appetites have been alleged, in the most daring popular exposes, to include sadistic lesbian tendencies, which allegedly surfaced in Catherine’s later years and manifested themselves in the demands she put on her female servants.

Such stereotypical mythic allegations of sexual perversion in powerful women put the historian of personal life between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and especially so, if, as may be the case with Catherine the Great, the woman ruler in question had bisexual inclinations and experience. In such cases, one risks falling into the company of the scandal-mongers or rising to the rarefied priggishness of the deniers of the importance of personal and sexual life.

Fully aware of these pratfalls and complexities, and partially in an effort to demonstrate how they operate in writing women’s history in the Russian context, I shall consider in this chapter one of the most fascinating 18th-century Russian elite women, Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova (1744-1810), who enjoyed positions of power and prominence second only to Catherine the Great, her longtime intimate friend, and probably the only person truly in a position to know Dashkova’s “true nature.” Although Daskova’s “nature” (or what we might call her sexuality) struck many of her contemporaries and Russians in posterity as ambiguous, most people would and do agree that she was an unambiguously exceptional, independent and powerful woman in Russian public life, which reputation
Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova, detail of an oil painting by S. Ponci. The Hermitage, Leningrad.
makes her a rare female figure in her country’s history and perhaps exacerbates perceptions of her sexual oddities. Dashkova held the unprecedented positions of Director of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and founder and president of the Russian Academy. She authored many articles and plays, edited a journal, was nominated to membership in the Philadelphia Philosophical Society by Benjamin Franklin and she took an active role in the coup d’etat that brought Catherine to power in 1762. Oddly, yet typically enough, she died in obscurity and isolation.

One of the most moving tributes to Dashkova was written by Catherine Wilmot, the sister of the Princess’s last known woman-friend and so-called “surrogate daughter,” Martha Wilmot: “For my part I think she would be most in her element at the Helm of the State, or Generalissimo of the Army, or Farmer General of the Empire. In fact she was born for business on a large scale which is not irreconcilable with the Life of a Woman who at 18 headed a Revolution & who for 12 years afterwards govern’d an Academy of Arts and Sciences” (Quoted by Gheith, 1).

Dashkova’s close friendship with Catherine II was not viewed as untoward by the women’s peers since such a relationship was traditionally associated with females. Rather, Dashkova’s political influence and activity, of the sort traditionally associated with males, caused consternation, envy and inevitably contempt, especially among men who were her subordinates. As Jehann Gheith argues, Dashkova was successful in defusing male hostility in her public life by practicing self-effacement and deprecation of her achievements. On the other hand, one foreign (French) observer, Charles-Francois-Philibert Masson (1762-1807), whose Russo-phobic and misogynistic opinion of Russian women was cited as the epigraph to chapter one of this book, felt revulsion for Dashkova both personally and politically. In his Secret Memoirs, Masson condemns her for her public positions and arrogation of the masculine prerogatives of power, writing that Daskova “was masculine in her tastes, her gait, and her exploits [and] was still more so in her titles and functions of director of the academy of sciences, and president of the Russian academy” (Quoted in Vowles, 57. Emphasis in the original.—DB).

A contemporary Russian historian, Mikhail Safonov, revisits Dashkova’s exceptionalness among 18th-century Russian women in a 1997 popular-history article in which he tacitly reveals Dashkova’s “Sapphic” nature for his educated general Russian readership (during the 1990’s such revisionist revelations about famous Russians of the past were very popular and characteristic of the post-Soviet hunger for the “real” Russian history suppressed during the totalitarian Soviet period). The title of Safonov’s article, “Princess Sappho,” immediately signifies the nature of its revelations about the real Princess Dashkova. Yet, the title’s banal sensationalism does not exclude the possibility that the new view of Dashkova’s sexuality it implies may be correct. Igor Kon, for one, includes Dashkova in his section on lesbians in Russian history, asserting that “historians, not without reason, suspect that the prominent woman-friend (podruga) of Catherine the Second’s, Princess E.R. Dashkova, had this predilection [lesbianism—DB]” (Kon, op.cit., 304).

Therefore, Dashkova now appears, with hindsight, to have received yet another distinction: for first Russian ‘Lesbian-before-the Name’ to have been recognized as such by her compatriots and foreigners, alike. The “evidence” for Dashkova’s lesbianism, offered in two Russian sources, the 19th-century popular historian, D.L. Mordovtsev, and the above-mentioned Safonov, writing over a century apart, tell us not only about this remarkable Russian woman’s independent and idiosyncratic personality and personal predilections, but also what it was about her and her contemporaries’ perceptions of her that has persuaded and continues to persuade Russians then and now of her lesbianism.

Dashkova was orphaned at the age of two when her mother died and her young father had no wish to take care of a child. She was brought up first by her grandmother, then by her uncle, Vice-Chancellor Count M.I. Vorontsov, along with his daughter, Anna. From childhood she was drawn to serious reading, including philosophy, the Encyclopedists and Voltaire. “Never would the finest piece of jewelry have given me as much pleasure as those books,” she wrote in her Memoirs about the nine hundred volumes she claimed to have read by the age of fifteen.

Just about that time, in early 1759 at an evening party at her uncle’s, Dashkova met the Grand Duchess Catherine and the latter’s husband, Tsarevich Peter III, the heir to the throne. For the two Catherine’s that first meeting was love at first sight: during the whole evening Dashkova and the Grand Duchess (nearly twenty years her senior) socialized only with each other. In leaving, Catherine dropped her fan, Dashkova retrieved it and returned it to her, no doubt conscious of the obvious symbolism of this gesture in the semantics of gallantry that operated in the 18th century and originated in the Middle Ages when a lady’s gift of her fan was a gift of her love. Catherine gave the adolescent Dashkova a kiss and told her to keep the fan in memory of their first evening together. Later, Dashkova ordered that the fan be placed in her coffin when she died. The whole romantic ritual of the fan bears an uncanny resemblance to the twentieth-century poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s lyrical reminiscence of her gallant behavior to her future lover, Sophia Parnok, in similar circumstances (at a private evening party in Moscow) when they met for the first time:

I remember how our glasses
Clinked – above the blue vase.
“Oh, be my Orestes!” And
I gave you a flower.
Laughing – at what I was saying? –
From your black chamois handbag,
You drew out very slowly
And dropped – a handkerchief.

In the same year as she met the future empress of Russia, 1759, Dashkova got married, fulfilling the first of the basic life-style duties demanded by tradition of a proper lady. Dashkova wrote in her Memoirs that her husband was a powerful rival of Catherine’s for the affections of her heart, but then, he came to share her opinion of the Grand Duchess, and all rivalry ceased. Throughout her Memoirs Dashkova tends to equate her relationships with Catherine and Prince Dashkov. On one level, this suggests that they were both emotionally significant in her life. By the same token, comparing her friendship with a woman to her conjugal relationship with her husband suggests she viewed the former as a marriage, certainly a marriage of the minds since intellectual attraction was clearly paramount in Dashkova’s and Catherine’s fascination with each other, exercising a hold over them even during the off-periods in their long relationship.

However, Catherine and Dashkova’s “marriage” seemed to have emotional and erotic as well as intellectual aspects. In any case, Dashkova was widowed at twenty and although several very advantageous suitors paid court to her, she chose not to remarry despite what might have been expected of her in her society and what most women in her situation would have done. Catherine’s husband (the future Peter III) apparently was aware of his wife’s attraction to Dashkova and not above refraining from trying to cool Dashkova’s ardor by warning the young woman that Catherine would use her for her own aims and then drop her. According to D.I. Mordovtsev in his popular historical sketches of Remarkable Historical Women in Rus’, this is how Pyotr Fyodorovich phrased his warning: “‘Although I know that you have decided to live apart from the court, I hope to see you every day and I would wish you to spend more time with me than in the society of the Grand Duchess.’” On another occasion Pyotr Fyodorovich said to Dashkova: “‘My child, do not forget that it is incomparably better to have to do with simple and honest people like me and my friends than with great minds that suck the juice from an orange and then throw away the rind they do not need.’” (Mordovtsev, 125-26).

Dashkova had no fear that Catherine would misuse her and found the society surrounding her much more serious and attractive than Pyotr Fyodorovich’s friends and obsession with Prussian military drills and uniforms. Indeed, Dashkova played a leading role (at least in her own eyes) in the Guards’ conspiracy that led to the tsarevich’s death and Catherine’s ascession to the throne. She herself dressed as a guardsman and participated in the palace coup in 1762. She later described the days of the coup as some of the most exciting of her life. Of her meeting with Catherine II just after the latter had been declared Sovereign of all the Russias, Dashkova notes: “‘No happiness could ever have exceeded mine at that moment. It had reached its summit.’” (quoted by Gheith, 12). It may be, as some scholars have stated, that Dashkova exaggerated her role in the coup – it seemed to her that her role was uniquely important – or perhaps the exaggeration simply expresses through hyperbole her high spirits at the summit of happiness. It is also possible that scholars want to limit her role in a politically decisive event out of sexist motives of their own.

There is little doubt that Dashkova did not exaggerate her feelings of happiness, which one can appreciate not only through her own remembrance of them in her memoirs, but also, more negatively, in the bitterness that overcame her immediately after the successful coup when she realized that Count Grigory Orlov, one of the leaders of the revolt, was Catherine’s lover and official favorite. When Dashkova happened to see Orlov’s casual deportment in the empress’s apartments – he flung himself down on a sofa and proceeded to open Catherine’s mail – she immediately created a scene and read Orlov the riot act, telling him he had no right to take such liberties. He replied that he had been given the authority to open the letters by the empress herself. “It was only then that the naïve young woman realized that she had not acted alone in putting her intimate friend on the throne and that she was not first in Catherine’s affections. On that very day, the first after ascending the throne, Catherine expressed her dissatisfaction with Dashkova as an empress to her subject” (Mordovtsev, 137). This dissatisfaction originated in the imperiousness with which Dashkova behaved in the days immediately following the coup, for example, she took it upon herself to issue orders to the Guards without consulting Catherine. Nevertheless, Catherine thanked Dashkova royally (as she would all her favorites) with a gift of 28,000 roubles; she also made Dashkova a Dame of the Order of St. Catherine, and after the coronation (at which the Orlovs gave the princess a seat in a back row as a way of belittling her), she made her a lady-in-waiting.

Judging from Dashkova’s Memoirs, her most precious memories were of Catherine and herself, both dressed in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Guards, reviewing the troops and then leading them out of St. Petersburg to Peterhof on their way to overthrow Peter III. En route they spent three hours of the night in a village dwelling, lying together “on the only bed in the house and talking about the manifesto Catherine planned to propose and their fears and hopes” (quoted by Gheith, 13). They were unable to sleep from the excitement. Jehanne Gheith, in her thoughtful Introduction to a recent re-printing of Dashkova’s Memoirs in English, notes that this was the second time Dashkova describes sharing a bed with Catherine. The first occasion occurred in the winter of 1761 when the old empress, Elizaveta Petrovna, was lying near death. Dashkova, who was ill at the time, came to Catherine to warn her of the dangers implicit in the Empress’s death: If Peter were to become emperor, Dashkova believed there was the danger that he would send Catherine to a nunnery and marry someone else, the prime candidate being Dashkova’s own sister, Elizaveta Vorontsova. Dashkova’s visit ended with Catherine taking the younger woman into her bed.

Two years into Catherine’s reign Dashkova was widowed and left with two children. Her relations with Grigory Orlov were still (and always would be) strained and jealously competitive: they did not even exchange conversational pleasantries with each other, behavior that is characteristic of romantic rivals who are in love with the same woman.

At the end of 1769 Dashkova requested permission from Catherine to go abroad for two years and the empress rather coldly agreed to this leave of absence. Dashkova left Russia incognito, traveling under the name of Lady Mikhalkova, but her fame had preceded her to Europe and almost everywhere she went, people knew her as the famous Dashkova. In Paris, she became friends with Diderot (who would later be invited to Russia by Catherine, herself no mean groupie of “les philosophes”).

In 1770 during a stay at the waters in Spa, Dashkova made the acquaintance of an Englishwoman, Catherine Hamilton, daughter of Archbishop Rider, and the two women became close friends. Dashkova was enraptured with her second Catherine and again expressed her feelings in a kind of gallant enthusiasm replete with amorous symbolism. This time, the personal object belonging to her adored lady that she made a fetish of was a scarf that fell into Dashkova’s hands purely by chance. She kept Lady Hamilton’s scarf as a precious relic, saying, as she had about Catherine’s fan, that she wished the scarf to be laid in her coffin with her and that it take the place of the fan. In the medieval courtly love tradition, of course, a lady’s scarf was a symbol of her colors, which her beloved knight wore into battles and jousts.

When Dashkova returned to Russia in 1771, she found the empress’s attitude to her warmer. Instead of Dashkova’s enemy Orlov, Potemkin was now installed as Catherine’s favorite. Dashkova decided not to remain in Russia, however, and went abroad, this time for ten years. There she apparently continued her intimacy with Catherine Hamilton. Toward the end of 1782 she returned to St. Petersburg and soon entered public life in a manner unprecedented for a woman when Catherine named her director of the Academy of Sciences. Soon afterwards, Dashkova took the initiative in creating the Russian Academy, of which she became president. A successful, famous and imperious Princess Dashkova greeted Lady Hamilton in 1784 when the latter came to visit her friend in St. Petersburg.

After Catherine the Second’s death in 1796, her son Paul ascended the throne and set about reversing many of his hated mother’s decisions and policies as well as punishing her friends and supporters for his father’s death. Dashkova was exiled to the Upper Volga region where she remained until Alexander I (Catherine’s grandson) ascended the throne in 1801. He allowed her to return to court where, because of changed times, she was already an object of ridicule, a holdover from the 18th century, whose spirit Dashkova radiated with every fiber of her being.

Dashkova retreated from the public eye that no longer admired her or her world – one is involuntarily reminded at this juncture of the princess’s life of the fictional life of Virginia Woolf’s female Orlando when s/he senses the weather in England has changed from bright skies to unremitting clouds and chill and realizes that “The nineteenth century had begun.” From 1803 Dashkova began living in virtual isolation on her estate, suffering deep melancholia over her aloneness, which was exacerbated by unhappy and strained relations with her children. Her beloved son married a lower-class woman without informing his mother, then left his wife and began living with a mistress. Her daughter’s marriage also failed – a marriage Dashkova had arranged – and then the young woman fell into debt. Dashkova paid off her daughter’s debts begrudgingly, but when her daughter acted disrespectfully toward her mother’s new woman-friend (Martha Wilmot), Dashkova cut her daughter out of her will.

An Irish woman, Martha Wilmot was a cousin of Catherine Hamilton’s and it was the latter who sent Miss Wilmot to Dashkova in 1803. Dashkova became very fond of Martha. She called her “Mavra Romanovna” [Romanovna was Dashkova’s own patronymic] as if considering her a sister. Simultaneously, she clearly saw Martha as a daughter, half-jokingly saying that Martha’s parents had usurped her parental prerogatives. Dashkova had plans to make Martha her “adopted daughter” by marrying the young woman to her son, but nothing came of this fantasy. Her son was technically still married though living openly with his mistress and more important, wanted no part of Martha Wilmot. Martha later wrote of this ticklish situation, noting that Dashkova’s love for her led her to suppose that the princess really wished to see Martha as her daughter and sought to adopt her. (Safonov, 82)

Dashkova, whose fame as a miser had spread all over Russia, was uncharacteristically generous to Martha Wilmot, making her lavish monetary and other gifts and depositing 1000 pounds in an English bank in her name. When Martha returned to England in 1808, she brought a whole fortune with her including Catherine the Second’s fan and antiquarian treasures that Dashkova had evidently received during her presidency of the Russian Academy.

It is clear that in her later years Dashkova lived entirely in the world of 18th-century gallantry that informed her youthful same-sex relationships. One testimony to this is provided by a humorous challenge to a duel that Dashkova wrote in French and sent to Martha Wilmot’s cousin, Mary Marlowe Wilmot in Ireland. Dashkova’s letter, written at the end of 1803 or the beginning of 1804, reveals the fondness for macaronic word play, unveiled sexual allusions and gallantry that flourished in the 18th-century aristocratic milieu. Dashkova uses English, Italian and Latin phrases, combines French definite articles with English words and indulges in private puns, the meaning of which was clear only to the correspondent. Its hermeticism aside, Dashkova’s letter can be read as an example of 18th-century Sapphic (or lesbian) fantasy at play in an elaborate epistolary construction in the style of Choderlos de Laclos. For all its hyper-conscious artifice and playfulness, the letter reveals more than a hint of the real nature of the author’s feelings for her young woman-friend:

1. Whereas Miss Mary Wilmot loves Miss Wilmot from Moscow, and I love her too with all my heart, in consequence of which we are rivals and therefore, a duel is an utterly natural matter; and 2. whereas Miss Mary Wilmot has tormented her cousin with her inventive and charming pranks, and I am doing likewise as much as I am able, it remains to be determined with whom this has succeeded better and only a duel can make this clear. […]

Will you not be so kind as to tell me how you demonstrate your affection? How you make her happy so that I might be able to imitate you, or even more, surpass you, for being a true knight, I have never deferred to anyone in my attachments. How you effectuate the execution of your amorous play so that I might know who better deserves the laurels of victory. […]

You shall vouchsafe to me the object and means with which you put your mischievousness in motion, and I shall divulge to you those that I myself commonly use, and then peace shall become the price of our alliance. You shall torment her with epistles in regard to the hints which I shall divulge to you, and you shall supply me with what I shall initiate with the aid of the spoken word.

Princess Dashkova, Knighted in 1762
(quoted by Safonov, 82-83)

It is interesting that in wanting to delight Martha with the “means and objects” that Dashkova awaits from Mary, she simultaneously wishes Mary to excite Martha with her letters. It was namely in the context of 18th-century gallantry that the word was considered as effective a weapon of amorous passion as actual lovemaking. Mary Wilmot’s response to Dashkova’s letter is typical: knowing how generous Dashkova had been to Martha with gifts, she offered herself not as a rival of the Princess’s but as a second house guest.

Mikhail Safonov, who discusses Dashkova’s correspondence with Mary Wilmot (and translates portions of it into Russian) in his 1997 article on Dashkova, “Princess Sappho? Antique Passions on the Banks of the Neva,” published in the popular journal Rodina (Homeland), clearly believes without saying so straightforwardly that this correspondence can be read as proof of Dashkova’s Sapphism or lesbianism. Safonov writes: “The story about the challenge to the duel allows us to explain many ‘oddities’ in Dashkova’s behavior which bewildered her contemporaries” (Safonov, 83). Among these “oddities” – and, it can be argued, defining characteristics of lesbians in the perceptions of Russians both in Dashkova’s time and Safonov’s post-Soviet era – are the usual queer markings adduced to non-conformist women, worldwide. Safonov catalogs them:

Many people could not understand why Dashkova, a widow with small children and burdened with the debts of her late husband rejected many advantageous proposals of marriage. Her contemporaries noted that the man-like Dashkova neither rouged nor powdered her face and showed no desire to be pleasing and even shunned the latter art. But the thing that struck people most of all, perhaps, was Dashkova’s fondness for male attire. In 1770 the Princess visited England. ‘She rides horseback in boots and male attire,’ noted Elizabeth Montague, ‘and has manners of like sort.’ The English were especially struck by the fact that Dashkova even ‘danced in male attire.’ ‘Only by a freak chance of nature was Dashkova born a woman,’ said the French diplomat Louis-Philippe Segur. Dashkova herself apparently was of the same opinion. One contemporary testified that the Princess, like Queen Christina, wore male attire in which she appeared at public gatherings, joking that nature had invested her with the heart of a man. (Safonov, 83).

Dashkova’s oddities engendered a whole Russian salon genre of Dashkova anecdotes, which indeed suggest she might have been one of the great “apparitional lesbians” of Russian history. There is even some slight testimony – and from no less a lover of society gossip than Alexander Pushkin – that Dashkova anecdotes passed into posterity and were still relished a quarter of a century after the Princess’s death. The way one such anecdote was received in a 19th-century salon as described by Pushkin, is telling. The story was that once, in the Winter Palace, in order to shorten the distance she had to go to get from one room to another, Dashkova walked through the sanctuary of the Palace chapel. (In the Orthodox Church only males are permitted entry into the sanctuary; if a woman enters this sacred space the entire church has to be reconsecrated.) The priest complained to Catherine II, and she reproached Dashkova. Dashkova replied to the empress that she did not know she was prohibited from walking through the sanctuary, and the empress said, ‘How can that be? You, a Russian, are not aware of this?’ At this point in the telling of the story, Pushkin writes that one of the listeners remarked, ‘Dashkova evidently walked through the sanctuary in her person of President of the Academy.’ The listener’s quip reveals that in Pushkin’s time, even Dashkova’s official post at the Russian Academy served to masculinize her.

I believe that what we know about Dashkova’s private life – and there is a great, great deal more that we do not know – convinces me that she was not only “one of the most remarkable Russian women of the 18th century” (Safonov, 82), but also one of the most intriguing and impressive of the Russian non-conformist women known to us. She appears to have been comfortable either living as a man or as a masked woman and her emotional life seems to have been anchored from adolescence to old age in her relationships with women. As Jehann Gheith concludes, Dashkova “seems to have had a capacity for deep relationship, expressed mainly for women friends” (Gheith, 12). In a word, Dashkova strikes me as a woman who might today perceive herself as a lesbian.

In the end, however, my reasons for identifying Dashkova as a lesbian-before-the-name have little to do with any “oddities” of behavior and appearance ascribed to her by her contemporaries or posterity. Such oddities were already stereotypes of “Sapphists” and “masculine women” as well as Amazons and decadent elite women of Dashkova’s own day and reveal nothing about her inner emotional disposition. She herself could find no more succinct way of identifying that disposition than to say nature had invested her with “the heart of a man.” And who can say what she meant by that? Not to mention, whether she actually said the words ascribed to her?

Dashkova reveals her true emotional disposition to me – whether intentionally or not, I can not say – in her memoirs of how she experienced her intimate relationship with Catherine II. First of all, Dashkova understood her place in Catherine’s affections to be special and exclusive. Otherwise, she would not have felt such intense jealous enmity for Grigory Orlov, Catherine’s other lover. Within the court hierarchy of Dashkova’s day, everyone had his or her own niche and respected the principle of hierarchy itself. In the scene Dashkova describes of seeing Orlov on the morning after the coup (preparations for which included her most intimate and crowning moment with her beloved empress) sprawled on a couch opening and reading the empress’s mail, she conveys how struck she was by discovery that someone else was in her niche. Eighteenth-century courtiers vied with each other for first place, and Dashkova considered first place to be hers both emotionally and politically – she had already begun issuing orders to the Guard. Second, like any deceived lover, Dashkova made scenes to Catherine. When she was awarded the Catherine ribbon upon her appointment as Director of the Academy of Sciences, she noted the fact that Catherine treated her graciously, but coldly, an attitude typical in a person who has deceived an intimate. Finally, like any person who has something to hide, Dashkova writes with studied naturalness about her intimacy with Catherine up to a certain point while avoiding mention of what could be inferred or understood beyond that point. For example, she held dear her memories of the time Catherine took her into bed with her, and she writes about that occasion purposefully to convey sub-textually that it was all as usual and innocent between close individuals of the female sex. However, if the “bedroom scenes” (Gheith’s phrase) in Dashkova’s memoirs had not in actuality been fraught with homo-eroticism, they would not stand out so markedly as they do in Dashkova’s narration of them, but would create the impression of being simply remarks made in passing. Two negatives make a positive, as the saying goes, and in trying to mask her own masquerade, Dashkova, it seems to me, reveals her true identity as Catherine’s woman-lover – but only her empress knew for sure.

Works Consulted
A.G. Cross. “Contemporary British Responses (1762-1810) to the Personality and Career of Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova.” Oxford Slavonic Papers 27 (1994).
Kyril Fitzlyon, translator. The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova. Durham and London, 1995.
Jehanne M. Gheith. “Introduction,” The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova. Durham and London, 1995.
D.L. Mordovtsev. Zamechatel’nye istoricheskie zhenshchiny na Rusi [Remarkable Historical Women in Rus’]. Kaliningrad, 1994 (Reprint).
Mikhail Safonov. “Princess Sappho? Antique Passions on the Banks of the Neva,” Rodina, 1997.
Judith Vowles. “Marriage a la russe,” Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture. Stanford, CA, 1993.
Brenda Meehan-Waters. “Catherine the Great and the Problem of Female Rule,” Russian Review 34, no. 3 (Jul 1975): 293-307.