“She helps the masons to build walls, she assists with her own hands in making the roads, she feeds the cows, she composes music, she sings and plays, she writes for the press, she shells corn, she speaks out in church and corrects the priest if he is not devout. She speaks out in her little theater and steers the performers if they stray from their parts. She is a doctor, an apothecary, a surgeon, a veterinary, a carpenter, a magistrate, a lawyer. In short, she hourly practices every type of incongruity. She corresponds with her brother, with authors, with philosophers with poets with all her relations, and yet, appears as if she had time hanging on her hands.”
- Catherine Wilmot (the Anglo-Irish cousin of Catherine Hamilton and the eldest daughter of Edward Wilmot of Cork, Ireland, whom Dashkova had met in England in 1776 and again in 1780)
Ekaterina Dashkova was an outstanding figure and one of the most colorful and striking figures of the age of Catherine the Great. Through her education, travel abroad and writings she became a prominent Russian educator and a leading figure in the introduction of eighteenth-century Russian culture to the West. Dashkova's foremost distinction was to be the first woman in the world to head a national academy of sciences. It is a rarity to this day. Dashkova is remembered as one of the first women in Europe to hold governmental office. The princess took over the directorship of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Russia and, though not a scientist herself, restored it to prominence and intellectual respectability. This came at a critical time in the history of science, its transformation from what was called natural philosophy, often practiced by gifted amateurs, to a professional enterprise. In 1783 she also became president of the Russian Academy. Dashkova was a very close friend of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. The princess ironically called herself “Catherine the Little.” She was a great conspirator, politician, philologist, linguist and memoirist. Her “Memoirs” were first published in 1840, and remain in print today because of their birds-eye view into the life and times of Catherine's Russia.
Ekaterina was born into a family of Old Russian nobility. Her father, Roman Dashkov, amassed a large fortune and, notorious for his arrogance and miserly ways, even earned the nickname of “Roman the Big Stasher” during the reign of Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizaveta. The Empress Elizaveta was her godmother, and Peter III, whom she subsequently helped dethrone, was her godfather. Ekaterina’s mother died when she was only two. Her father couldn’t care less about his children (she was the third daughter) and so the little girl was given to the care of her uncle Mikhail Vorontsov.
She was just 15 when she met and immediately fell in love with the dashing Prince Dashkov. She was still in her teens when she gave birth to a son and a daughter. Dashkova lost her husband to pneumonia at the still young age of 20. Dashkova received an exceptionally good education, unlike most European females during the eighteenth century. She studied mathematics at the University of Moscow. She learned French, Russian, German and Italian. She enjoyed reading Voltaire, Charles Montesquieu, Pierre Bayle, Nicholas Boileau and Claude Helvétius.
In 1758 Dashkova met the future empress, Catherine the Great. She became connected to the Russian court and together with her husband became one of the leaders of the party that supported Grand Duchess Catherine (later Catherine II, the Great). At that time, the Russian court was distinctly divided into two camps: one that supported Catherine's husband, the future Peter III, and the other that supported Catherine, the wife of the would-be Russian Emperor. Catherine felt in many ways suppressed by her husband and desperately needed someone to lean on. Princess Dashkova was in her good graces. Her prestige in society was very high. The two Catherines became close friends.
Ascending the throne as Peter III, Catherine’s husband remained as cold to her as he had ever been. Rumor had it that he even wanted to confine his wife to a monastery. Unhappy with the new monarch, the Guards were foursquare behind Catherine. Dashkova knew what was going on directly from her royal friend. The fact that Dashkova’s younger sister, Elizabeth, occasionally shared the bed with the Emperor did not prevent the two Catherinas from being intimately close with each other. In 1762 Dashkova played an important role in the coup d'etat by which Catherine dethroned her husband and took control of the Russian Empire. Dashkova was awarded the Star of the Order of St. Catherine, a gold and diamond emblem. Unfortunately, once Catherine had her throne, she cooled her friendship with Dashkova, but still remained loyal to her. ...