Princess Dashkova repaints history

On the night in question, Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova (née Vorontsova, 1743-1810) was traveling for her health. Married at fifteen and widowed at twenty-one, she’d had three children, lost two, and played a decisive role in the coup that brought Catherine the Great to the throne in 1762.

The Vorontsov family crest

The Vorontsov family crest

Now, at twenty-five, she resented the new Empress’s paying more attention to her lovers than to their friendship, formerly a warm and close one. She had helped bring Catherine to power, and although they would remain lifelong friends, it must have seemed to Dashkova that the most important events of her life were already behind her. She decided to tour Europe, and set out in 1768. According to her memoir (which I highly recommend, by the way), she only took enough money with her to cover food and horses for the journey.

Dmitrii Levitskii painted Dashkova in the dress an imperial lady-in-waiting, and wearing the Order of St. Catherine in diamonds.

Dmitrii Levitskii painted Dashkova in the dress an imperial lady-in-waiting, and wearing the Order of St. Catherine in diamonds.

On that night in 1768, Dashkova had already changed Russian history, and could have no idea of the role she would subsequently play in Russian literature and scholarship—indeed, she would become an important figure in the global Enlightenment. She was one of the first women to hold public office in Europe. She founded and served as President of the Russian Academy in 1783. Just one year later, when the Russian Academy of Sciences was created, Dashkova was appointed to lead it. She wrote plays, articles, and essays, and published one of the first journals ever to appear in Russian. Benjamin Franklin, after meeting Dashkova in Paris in 1781, nominated her to become the first ever female member of the American Philosophical Society. The second woman joined only after 80 years had passed.

There’s a lot I could say about Dashkova, but here I’d like to talk about her one-night stint as an artist.

Dashkova's home at Kiryanovo outside St. Petersburg

Dashkova's home at Kiryanovo outside St. Petersburg

That night, as I said, she was traveling for her health. She was still in Russian territory, staying at an inn in Danzig (present-day Gdańsk). In one room of this inn, frequented by rich Russians, Dashkova was embarrassed to see two paintings depicting the Russian Army being soundly defeated by Prussian troops. This affronted her patriotic spirit, and she demanded that the paintings be removed. When that didn’t work, Dashkova recruited two men who happened to be present—the military commander Aleksei Orlov and Chargé d’Affaires Rähbinder—and took matters into her own hands.

Dashkova locked herself in that room with Orlov and Rähbinder—a scandalous thing to do in 1768—ordered some oil paints to be brought, and spent all night carefully switching the soldiers’ uniforms. By morning, the paintings depicted Russians thrashing Prussians, not the other way around. Highly pleased with herself, Dashkova departed early, before her stunt was discovered, and continued her adventure.