By Marie MacSweeney
When Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova, otherwise known as Princess Dashkov, returned to her estates at Troikskoye, some sixty miles south of Moscow in the autumn of 1797 she set to work, farming, gardening, being, as she put it, her “own architect”. As recorded in her celebrated Memoirs things quickly settled down for her.
“I shall pass over in silence several years that followed,” she wrote, “They offer nothing of interest to the reader. And if the sorrows which oppressed my heart were such that I should willingly have concealed them from myself, I could not reveal them now to the general public”. Fair enough, you might say! But all changed in 1803, when her ‘precious consolation’ arrived in the person of Miss Martha Wilmot of Glanmire, Co. Cork.
Martha and her five sisters and two brothers were the children of Captain Edward Wilmot and Martha Moore. They were a well-to-do family enjoying a full social life both in Drogheda, where Edward was for a time the Port Surveyor, and in Glanmire where they settled after he had been transferred to Cork. While visiting England in 1776 Captain Wilmot met Princess Dashkov.
They developed a rapport straight away. She belonged to the prestigious Vorontsov family, and had at the tender age of sixteen, married Prince Mickhail Dashkov. A renowned intellectual, she was the first president of the Russian Academy. This body was founded, at her suggestion, to promote an increased study and use of the Russian language. She travelled widely and while in Ireland visited Killarney, Cork, Limerick, Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway in north Antrim.
She also developed connections with Mrs Wilmot’s uncle and left behind copious invitations to all and sundry to visit her Russian home. And so it was, in the year 1803, that twenty year old Martha Wilmot, in deep grief after the death of her youngest brother, travelled through Dublin, London, Yarmouth and on to St. Petersburg. She arrived at the Princess’ doorstep on August 25th 1803. She was to remain with the Princes for several years.
Although there was a thirty years age gap between these two women, a deep friendship developed. In a letter home Martha wrote “her reception of me was of the kindest affection. She addressed me in English which she speaks fluently, and in the course of the evening we had a good deal of conversation.” Yekaterina introduced Martha into the top echelons of Russian society.
Martha was greatly impressed too, to hear accounts of the older woman’s meetings with such historical figures as Voltaire, Marie Antoinette and Frederick the Great. She urged her friend to write her autobiography. Two years later the Princess indicated that Martha was the instigator and the owner of the memoirs she had just completed. “I wrote these memoirs because she earnestly desired me to do so,” she wrote. “She is their sole owner on one condition only – that they will not be published before my death.”
The Princess’ travels had a great deal to do with her on/off relationship with Catherine II. The then Grand Duchess first encountered Yekaterina when the latter was a mere child at her court. It seems she recognised profound intellect and courage in her, and without raising any suspicions, groomed the girl to be a useful ally in her plans to become ruler of Russia. For her part, the intellectually brilliant but immature young girl wallowed in these attentions.
This flawed association became, in ways, a foretaste of Yekaterina’s life in that she was at one time feted and lauded by Catherine and at others dismissed as totally unworthy and unimportant. For instance, Catherine sent word to the French Minister in St. Petersburg that he should “rectify Monsieur de Voltaire’s ideas on the role played by the Princess Dashkov” in changing the government of the Empire. The young princess had conceitedly imagined that hers was the crucial role in the conspiracy to depose Grand Duke Peter in favour of Catherine.
In 1769, Dashkova requested permission to go abroad for the sake of her children’s health. In fact, she was eager to see the cities, picture galleries and museums of Europe, without wasting time attending court receptions and other social affairs required of someone of her status. By travelling unofficially, she was able to investigate scientific collections and make serious observations on agriculture, industries, and public institutions.
While visiting a picturesque Belgian spa, Dashkova met two English families, named Morgan and Hamilton, with whom she made friendships that lasted to the end of her life. Many years later, two nieces of the Hamilton family, Catherine and Martha Wilmot visited Dashkova and became closer to her than her own children.
So, into the turbulent hot bed of Russian politics came Martha Wilmot, loving it all, finding her feet quite readily. The Princess was addicted to books – indeed, her brother Simon had protested that she had taken “the best books” from her father’s library. She was a writer, a gifted mathematician, and a woman of enormous energy – and all these attributes were attractive to Martha. She was someone who had met with some of the greatest minds in Europe.
And the fact the relationship of Princess Dashkov with her own daughter, Anastasia had broken down meant that young Martha was the recipient of all the affection that might have gone in that direction. When Martha’s father began to long for her to come home he sent his eldest daughter, Catherine to fetch her back. Martha refused to leave and Catherine ended up staying about two years.
It seems the Princess had some reservations about Catherine, but welcomed her when she arrived at Troitskoye. For her part Catherine thought that the Princess was endowed with superhuman energy. She wrote of the Princess “she helps the masons build walls. She assists with her own hands in the making of roads, she feeds the cows, she composes music, she sings and plays, she writes for the press, she shells the corn, she talks out loud in church and corrects the priest if he is not devout; she speaks out in her little theatre and corrects the performers when they are out in their parts, she is a doctor, an apothecary, a surgeon, a farrier, a carpenter, a magistrate, a lawyer …………”
And so Catherine continued, describing the Princesses multiple correspondences with authors, poets, philosophers and others, that life crammed with mental and physical activity which her sister Martha had encountered several years earlier and was loath to leave. Besides keeping a diary and writing frequent letters home, Martha persuaded the princess to write an autobiographical memoir. Dashkova did so and dedicated the work to her ‘young friend’.
Despite the distraction of frequent travels to Moscow, Martha transcribed a copy of the Princess’s completed memoirs, while her sister, Catherine later translated them from their original French. The sisters learned that they were in danger from the estranged daughter of the princess, Madame Shcherbenin, who appeared to some to be suspicious of their intentions, and Catherine departed Russia in 1807, bringing with her Martha’s transcript of the memoirs. Martha was eventually forced to leave the country, and that despite the protests of the obsessive Dashkova, who gave her numerous gifts, including a fan belonging to the Empress Catherine, and a watch once owned by Peter the Great.
Wilmot left St Petersburg, but was stopped by customs officials who believed she was in possession of secret documents, and was detained on Kronstad, a town and naval base on Kotlin Island, just west of St. Petersburg. There for five days and fearing for her safety, she reluctantly burned the original manuscript of the memoirs, and some items of the princess’s correspondence with Catherine II but luckily the damage was slight.
Wilmot sailed on board the Maria on 26 October 1808, but that ship was wrecked and she had to land of Stamieux, near Hamina, Finland; afterwards the passengers and crew remained on Aspo island for three weeks until a storm subsided. She eventually reached Harwich, England, on 26 December 1808, and returned to Cork in 1809. By then her sister was on her way back to Cork with another copy. Thus, it is through the efforts of these two Irish women that the life of this remarkable Russian, and much of that of Catherine II of Russia became known to a larger world.
The Princess did not long survive after the departure of Martha Wilmot for Ireland. “She was” wrote the Princess “an angel of comfort and solace sent to me by Heaven itself.” She also wrote that Martha had a mind and character “that can truly be said to be an object of admiration for all those who know her and are capable of appreciating her.” Martha waited until after the death of Simon Vorontsov in 1832 to publish the Memoirs.