Discourses of the Self in the Eighteenth-Century Russia: E. R. Dashkova's Mon Histoire

Lyubov Golburt, Stanford University

Princess E. R. Dashkova's autobiography Mon Histoire (1805) is usually studied either in relation to her achievements as the first-ever female director of two scientific academies and a sophisticated correspondent of several Enlightenment luminaries, or as an interesting specimen of autobiographical écriture feminine, which exhibits multiple ambiguously gendered roles to its reader. Prominent features of her narrative, these themes nevertheless do not shape the very rhetoric of Dashkova's self-representations. It is precisely through an idiosyncratic rhetoric that a potentially episodic memoir achieves narrative cohesion and a fragmented identity acquires unity of character. In my paper, I propose to analyze several discourses, which Dashkova uses to portray herself to her audiences. I will focus on three interconnected discourses in particular: fidelity to Catherine central to presenting a coherent private self, misplacement in society crucial for promoting a public individuality, and self-spectacularization as a way to place oneself in the general Enlightenment context.

Dashkova undoubtedly writes her memoir for a Western audience. It is composed in French, dictated to her Scottish friend Martha Wilmot, and repeatedly proclaims the rectification of foreign slanderous opinions about Russia as one of its main goals. In replying to the Western texts on Russia, Dashkova focuses mainly on those concerning Catherine II's rule. She explicitly positions herself as a devoted defender of Catherine's cause, whose fidelity even Catherine's disfavor could not undermine. In Catherine's lifetime, Dashkova adopts the role of Russia's (Catherine's) cultural ambassador to the West. After the Empress's death and at the time when the princess takes up her autobiographical pen, Dashkova introduces herself as a reliable witness. Her reliability hinges in part on her very devotion and constancy toward Catherine.

Catherine's intimate friend (or so Dashkova would wish us to believe), the princess nevertheless stresses her misplacement at the St. Petersburg court. She fashions herself as an ingenuous country girl, "a Ninette à la cour" a heroine of Favart's eponymous play (1755), whose straightforward speeches and frank manners make her more comfortable in the country than at the capital. It is obviously important to Dashkova to portray herself not as just another court lady, but as a distinct public figure. In addition, pretending to aspire to rustic bliss, Dashkova once again flaunts the conventional, pastoral values for the sake of her autobiographical reliability.

Abroad, among her potential Western readers, Catherine the Little feels uncomfortable as well, or rather she parades her otherness. In Ireland, for example, the princess composes music and imagines herself as a "Russian bear" in the eyes of the curious public. Even as an illustrious Russian princess plays at envisioning herself as a nameless Russian bear or an anonymous Mme Mixalkova, an itinerant author, who in the travelogue tradition would arrive abroad in order to observe the foreign mores, instead turns herself into a spectacle.

From all these discourses, it appears that a coherent self is expected to arise out of the various roles the autobiographer adopts throughout her life and narrative. Role-playing was an important mode of the eighteenth-century self-fashioning. Toward the end of the century, it disconcerted such thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who opposed the theatricalization of selfhood. It is precisely such a theatricalization that seems to be at play in Dashkova's memoir. Curiously, the roles do not hinder narrative reliability but rather augment it. Dashkova's example seems to illustrate that the 18th century Russian behavior was theatricalized not only because the mores were largely imported, but more importantly because the very models of selfhood were predicated upon successful role-playing. The specificity of Dashkova's late eighteenth-century autobiography lies for me not in the problem of the feminine vs. masculine writing, nor in the engaging interplay between the narrator's public and private lives, but in the feminine, masculine, public, private, Russian, West European, urban and rustic roles the narrator successfully performs and the discourses she engages in this performance.