Princess Dashkova's Mon histoire and Russian Classicist Tragedy

Marcus Levitt, University of Southern California

Dashkova's Mon histoire was written in French and at the start of the nineteenth century. Yet, as Kelly Herold has argued, it has every right to be considered part of Russian literature, and it may be best understood—I will argue in this paper—not as much within the contemporary literary context of the time of its writing (the 1810's) but as testimony to the specific cultural values of Catherinean Russia. Further, we will contend that Dashkova's view of herself is conceived in markedly dramatic, theatrical terms, reflecting the values of that earlier era, perhaps displayed most clearly in Russian Classicist tragedy.

As a literary and psychological document, Dashkova's autobiography has remained somewhat of a puzzle to scholars. On the one hand, Dashkova promises full revelation, famously declaring that "I want to disguise nothing in this narrative." On the other, as Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkov and others have shown, Mon histoire may be seen as a game of masks, a series of artificial poses that seem to put into question the underlying unity of the whole. This paradox, I will argue, is fundamental to Russian Classicist tragedy, in which there is a striking tension between a strongly authoritative sense of self conceived in sharply moral terms, and what might seem to be a contradictory assertion of its total altruism and selflessness. (The dramatic crisis in tragedy may be seen to flow from the problem of reconciling these two aspects of the self.) This is not to suggest that Dashkova consciously modeled her self-image on Russian drama—although she was intimately familiar with this tradition, and the text of Mon histoire is sprinkled with theatrical terminology. Rather, we will argue that Mon histoire echoes the moral discourse of the Russian tragic stage and enacts its own analogous display of virtue.

Tragic theater, after all, was meant to offer the highest model of human behavior, and as Gukovskij and others have asserted, the stage was meant as a "school of aristocratic virtue." The ethical system of the age was itself theatrical, public, idealizing the transparency of virtue. Dashkova conceives of herself as totally and transparently virtuous, portraying the kind of heroic "great soul" set forth in tragedies, surrounded by a world that cannot possibly equal or appreciate her. At one point she describes herself as "an unhappy princess over whom a wicked wizard had cast an age-long spell" (242), and this is an apt characterization of the tragic heroine's self-consciousness. The "tragic" element in some sense represents the "objective" element of reality that always intrudes to frustrate the happy ending. The princess remains "unhappy," although never a failure—as in the Classicist conception of tragedy, she firmly retains the high moral grounds.

The paper will focus on Dashkova's relationship to Catherine the Great, who served her as a never fully-realized ideal, a foil and role model, and it will also examine episodes concerning the problem of reward and recognition, which serve to illustrate Dashkova's negotiation of self-worth. It will offer speculation on what may be called a "Classicist" model of the "selfless self," and the "apsychological innocence" and "eighteenth-century transparency" of self-conception that Thomas Newlin recently remarked upon in his study of Andrei Bolotov.