Romance or Martyr’s Life: Towards Understanding of the Genre and Composition of Natal’ia Dolgorukaia’s Memoir

Anna Gessen, Harvard University

This paper approaches from a new perspective one of the most striking and most understudied gems of Russian letters—the Self-written Notes (Svoeruchnye zapiski) by Princess Natalia Dolgorukaia. The Notes can be considered the second Russian autobiography and the first secular text written by a woman. There is very little scholarship on the work: a 19th-century introduction by Bartenev, a linguistic study by Charles Townsend in 1976, a German introduction to the 1972 German edition by Alois Schmucker.

Dolgorukaia was born in 1714 in the family of Feldmarschal Boris Sheremetev, a popular nobleman of Peter II’s reign. At the age of 16, right before Peter’s death, she become betrothed to Peter’s favorite, the notorious Ivan Dolgorukii, from the family of suspected regicides. Natalia chose to marry the fallen courtier against the wishes of her family and followed the outlawed Dolgorukiis into permanent exile to the Siberian town of Berezov. Eight years later, Dolgorukaia’s husband was executed on the wheel. She and her two sons returned to Moscow after the Empress Anna’s death; after her sons grew up, Natalia entered a monastery and witnessed her younger son’s death in 1769. Two years later she died and was buried in Kievo-Pecherskaia Lavra.

What pushes Dolgorukaia to overcome her medieval collective mentality and to elevate her individual life-story—a profoundly modern concept in itself—to the status of a saint’s passion? What makes a semi-literate aristocrat-turned-humble-nun into an insatiable storyteller? What is the explanation for the peculiar genre and composition of the resulting tale? Dolgorukaia is haunted by the magnitude of her suffering—and also by depression, as she herself admits. Writing down her story is devised as a means of consolation, which never comes and I try to explain why. I distinguish two irreconcilable plots in her life-script: a romance plot with marriage as its necessary happy ending and a Christian martyr’s passion which aims at ever-increasing suffering and culminates in death. The tension between a saint’s life and a love story produces almost modern stylistic effects and turns Dolgorukaia into the Niobe of Russian letters who is forever torn between the unrealized romantic possibilities and actual lifelong suffering.