Vorontsov and Dashkov princes

Sometimes one noble family needs another to boost its status slightly into the ranks of the dukes and princes. The Vorontsovs were an old noble family of middle rank who significantly influenced the history of Russia in the 18th century. The Dashkovs were an equally ancient family, and though of higher, even princely, rank, rarely made much of an impact on the national stage. The two families were linked through marriage in the mid-18th century, in the person of probably their most famous member, Ekaterina Vorontsova, Princess Dashkova, the first woman to lead a major academic institution. In the wake of this union, the Dashkov family name and arms were willed to the Vorontsov family, allowing them to become princes themselves in the 19th century. This blog post will therefore look at these families together.

Princess Dashkova

To start, the Dashkovs were amongst that class of highest ranking nobles in Russia known as the ‘Rurikovichi’, or the descendants of Rurik, the semi-legendary founder of the Russian state. Rurik was a Viking who, instead of travelling west like many of his countrymen, ventured east in search of adventure, riches and conquest. He became ruler in the 860s of the Slavs in the area east of Finland, built a new fort called Novgorod (lit. ‘new fort’), and established the principality that would be called Rus’. His son Oleg moved the capital to Kiev, and the dynasty continued to grow and spread over the next several centuries. In contrast to western Europe where primogeniture increasingly concentrated rule into the hands of just one male per dynasty, consolidating the state, in Kievan Rus’ each son was given territories to rule, and the number of principalities, as well as the number of branches of the House of Rurik, grew and grew. By the 15th century there were dozens and dozens of branches and sub-branches, taking their names from the estates they ruled or the nickname of the founder of the lineage. Several of these lines maintained rule over larger territories, and became known as Grand Princes (or Grand Dukes—the word ‘knyaz’ in Russian can be translated as either prince or duke). The last Grand Prince of Smolensk (Yuri, d. 1407), had a younger brother known as Alexander Sviatoslavovich ‘Dashek’ (from the old Mongol word for ‘courageous’).

Dashkov coat of arms, with princely bonnet and mantle

The family that then took the name ‘Dashkov’ remained fairly obscure in the next two centuries, though, like many of their class, they served as boyars (leading nobles in the administrations of Muscovy and Russia) and voivodes or governors of provincial towns or fortresses. In the 17th century, two brothers, Ivan and Andrei Ivanovich, rose to greater prominence, the elder as a magistrate, granted the rank of okolnichy (the noble rank given to the closest companions of the tsars) in 1685, and the younger as a steward in the household of Tsarina Natalya Naryshkina, the mother of Peter the Great. It seems confusing, but the hereditary rank of a Rurikovichi prince and the earned rank of an okolnichy were not incompatible, and though the latter seems much lower in status, as a ‘close person’ to the Tsar, he had great influence. Ivan’s son Peter Dashkov, who also worked in the Tsarina’s household, married into the family of Eudoxia Lopukhina, the wife of Tsar Peter, so they were thus related to the Imperial dynasty itself.

In the 18th century, the Dashkovs continued to rise, again through marriage: Peter’s son Ivan, Captain of the elite Preobrazhensky Guards Regiment, married the wealthy heiress Anastasia Leontyeva, daughter of the Imperial General-in-Chief and great-niece of Peter the Great’s favourite, Prince Menshikov. She was also related to Count Panin, a member of the influential circle in the administration of Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. Another of this ruling circle was Count Mikhail Illarionovich Vorontsov, and the marriage between his niece, Ekaterina Vorontsova, and Ivan’s son, Prince Mikhail Dashkov, in 1759, united these two powerful families. Mikhail Dashkov died on campaign in 1764 as a brigadier general in the Polish wars, leaving behind a son, Pavel, the last Prince Dashkov, who we will come back to below.

Prince Mikhail Dashkov

The Vorontsov family came from a lower rank of the Russian nobility. They and another boyar family, the Velyaminovs, claimed to be two branches of a family descended from a Varangian (that is, a Viking) warrior named Shimon who came to Russia in the 11th century. The Velyaminov branch held important positions in Muscovy in the 14th century, solidified by the marriage of one of their daughters, Alexandra, to Grand Prince Ivan II, in 1345—she was the mother of Prince Dmitri Donskoi, one of the greatest rulers of medieval Muscovy. A younger son, Fedor Vasilievich, was given the nickname ‘Voronets’ (from voron, ‘the raven’), and his descendants then took the name Vorontsov. One of them, Fyodor, rose to great authority in 1543 when he was entrusted with the government of the Russian state by the teen-aged Tsar Ivan IV after having thrown off the more prominent boyars who had so far dominated his reign. Though he had long been a royal favourite, Fyodor Vorontsov’s rule was short, and as the Tsar began to assert his independence, he bristled at the older man’s control and had him executed in 1546. This youngster would of course grow up to earn the nickname ‘Ivan the Terrible’.

Vorontsov coat of arms

A few generations later, three brothers, Mikhail, Roman and Ivan, brought the family once again to national prominence. Mikhail was a favourite of Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. His link with her was strengthened by his marriage in 1742 to Anna Karlovna Skavronskaya, who was the Empress’s first cousin (the niece of Catherine I, born Martha Skavronskaya). His wife would remain one of her royal cousin’s favourites, and rose to the position of Chief Court Mistress in 1760. Empress Elizabeth named Mikhail Vorontsov Vice-Chancellor of the Empire and a Count in 1744, then towards the end of her reign he rose higher to the post of Chancellor of the Russian Empire, effectively the premier minister.

Count Mikhail Vorontsov, Chancellor of the Russian Empire
Anna Skavronskaya, Countess Vorontsova, cousin of Empress Elizabeth

Chancellor Vorontsov built the Vorontsov Palace in St. Petersburg, designed by the most fashionable architect of the day in Russia, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, but it cost him too much and he sold it to the Crown. Today it houses the exclusive Suvorov military academy, and dominates Sadovaya Street next to the National Library of Russia. He also built the beautiful Vorontsov dacha outside the city on the road towards the Imperial residence at Peterhof.

Vorontsov Palace, Saint Petersburg
the Vorontsov dacha, southwest of Saint Petersburg

The Chancellor’s brother Roman was one of the richest men in Russia, having married the daughter of a wealthy merchant. He served at court as a chamberlain. The third brother, Ivan, was a captain of the prestigious Preobrazhensky Guard and was appointed a Gentleman of the Chamber of Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. This is where the fun begins. Roman’s three daughters, Maria, Elizabeth and Catherine, were brought to court in about 1750 to serve in the households of Empress Elizabeth and Grand Duchess Catherine, the new wife of Grand Duke Peter. Maria was a maid of honour to the Empress, and Elizabeth and Catherine maids of honour to the Grand Duchess. But Elizabeth Vorontsova had different ideas than quietly attending her new mistress. A bold and brassy character who is described as being quite uninterested in the fineries of female life at court (‘She swore like a soldier’ and dressed ‘like a scullery maid’). But she appealed very much to young Peter, no doubt due to their shared love of soldiers and marching and drills. By the time the Grand Duke became Emperor Peter III in 1761, there were rumours that he planned to divorce Catherine and marry his mistress.

Countess Elizabeth Vorontsova

The Vorontsovs took sides. The Chancellor weakly backed Peter, as of course did his niece Elizabeth. But the youngest Vorontsov sister, Catherine, whose intellectual interests were more aligned to those of her mistress, backed her namesake, and was part of the court faction that was instrumental in the coup that placed Catherine II on the throne of Russia. With Peter III disposed of, Countess Elizabeth Vorontsova was forced to leave court and marry a nobody deep in the countryside, where she remained for another thirty years. Their uncle the Chancellor was effectively side-lined by the new Empress and ultimately resigned his post and retired to the country.

Catherine Vorontsova, by now known by her married name, Princess Dashkova, travelled widely in the 1760s, took part in the Paris salon culture, studied in Edinburgh (where she was wounded in a dual with a Scottish lady), then returned in the 1780s to resume her position as one of the closest friends and companions of Catherine the Great. Capitalising on the vast experience of the burgeoning Enlightenment she had gained abroad, and the Empress’s great passion for this, she was appointed Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1782, then President of the Russian Academy in 1784. These were unheard of positions for a woman, even in the enlightened 18th century. Princess Dashkova shepherded many projects in both organisations, but the one most close to her heart (she was known as a philologist) was the launch of a major Russian dictionary. When the Empress died in 1796, however, her petulant son, Paul I, immediately dismissed his mother’s friend from all of her offices and sent her away from court.

Catherine Vorontsova, Princess Dashkova, c1790

Like most aristocrats of the age, the Princess built a residence in grand style. Of particular note is her suburban dacha, Kiryanovo, built in the 1780s by the successor of Rastrelli, Giacomo Quarenghi. After a century of neglect, the building has recently been renovated and houses a museum devoted to the life of the Princess.


Her son, Pavel, Prince Dashkov, with similar interests as his mother (being named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1781 while he was studying in Edinburgh), managed to retain the Emperor’s favour and was appointed Military Governor of Kiev in 1798. He married, but left no children, so when he died in 1807, he willed his name and arms (and several large estates) to his Vorontsov cousins.

Prince Pavel Dashkov–the last of his line

But before we move on to these cousins, descendants of Count Ivan, we need to look at the careers of the two brothers of the three Vorontsov sisters. Their father, Count Roman, became a general under Catherine II, and was named Governor of Vladimir Province in 1778. He built the large family palace of Andreevskoye near Vladimir. His elder son, Alexander, was a diplomat, Ambassador to Great Britain at the very start of Catherine’s reign, then a member of the Russian Senate. Late in life he attained his uncle’s old job of Chancellor of the Russian Empire, in 1802, and was one of those responsible for leading the new young Emperor, Alexander I, to break with Napoleon and resume fighting the wars against France. His brother, Count Semyon, took over the post of Ambassador to Great Britain but he remained there for years and years, from 1785 to 1806, and even remained there as a fixture of London society (known in England as ‘Count Woronzow’) until his death in 1832. His children, Mikhail and Catherine, grew up in London, and the latter would remain in England the rest of her life, as wife of George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke.

Count Semyon Vorontsov, painted by the English portraitist Thomas Lawrence

Count Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov returned to Russia to serve in the wars against Napoleon, and was a commander of the occupation troops in Paris in 1815-1818. In 1823 he was named to the prestigious post of Governor-General of ‘New Russia’—the provinces north of the Black Sea, from Moldavia to Azov, that had been added to the Empire during the reign of Catherine the Great. Here he acted in many ways like a petty sovereign: on the western side of his domains he commanded troops that invaded Bulgaria (then a province of the Ottoman Empire) in 1828; while in the east he expanded Russia’s control over the Muslim regions of Daghestan and Chechnya. His base was in Odessa, where he built the Vorontsov Palace, but he also built the spectacular Alupka Castle, in Moorish style, in the Crimea. As someone acting as a near sovereign, he was appropriately rewarded with a princely title in 1845 (and the rank of ‘serene highness’), and transferred to the post of Viceroy of the Caucasus, 1854, and named Field Marshal of the Empire, 1856.

Prince Mikhail Vorontsov
Alupka Palace in the Crimea

Prince Vorontsov died the same year, and was succeeded by the second prince, Semyon, who died in 1882 without a male heir, leaving the family estates (but not the princely title) to his sister’s daughter, Countess Elizabeth Shuvalova, who just happened to be married to her cousin, Count Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov, from the cadet branch of the family. She also inherited the Shuvalov property of Pargolovo, north of Saint Petersburg.

Vorontsov-Dashkov villa of Pargolovo

This junior branch were confirmed as counts of the Russian Empire by decree of Paul I in 1797. The female members of the first generation of the nineteenth century were instrumental in transforming German princesses into Imperial consorts, as their chief ladies-in-waiting. In the next generation, Count Illarion, who joined together the names Vorontsov and Dashkov, was a close friend of Tsar Alexander III who appointed him Minister of Imperial Properties in 1881, and a general of cavalry. Alexander’s son, Tsar Nicholas II, appointed him Councillor of State in 1897, and Viceroy of the Caucasus in 1905—and I suspect would have raised him to the rank of prince had politics allowed. Count Vorontsov-Dashkov held his post in the Caucasus, based in Tbilisi, until deep into the First World War, when heavy defeats in the region forced the Tsar to replace his old family friend—now nearly 80—with someone more vigorous. He retired to his estate at Alupka in the Crimea and died a year later in 1916.

Count Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov

Surprisingly, nearly all the sons and daughters of Count Illarion survived the Revolution, and dispersed across Europe. The fourth son, Alexander, had been an aide-de-camp of the Tsar from 1905, and became a leader of the counter-revolutionary Whites in the Crimea in the 1920s. His nephew Roman emigrated to the United States and was head of the family until 1993, when he was succeeded by another Alexander, who married Alexandra Mironova, an opera singer who went by the name of Barbara Nikish—if her maiden name looks familiar, it is because she was a relative of Vasily Mironov, whose daughter Helen anglicised the name to Mirren. Roman and Alexander’s sister, Maria, kept the family’s profile high in the circles of exiled royals through her marriage in 1922 to Prince Nikita Alexandrovich of Russia, son of Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of Tsar Nicholas. She was created ‘Princess Romanovska’ in 1951 by the Russian pretender in exile. The headship of this branch passed in 2004, with the death of Count Semyon Vorontsov-Dashkov, to Count Alexander, who died in 2016, and left children, but I don’t have details about them.

Count Alexander Illarionovich Vorontsov-Dashkov

There are a few other names that pop up in Russian history who are more distant relatives of the princely Dashkovs or the Vorontsovs. Dmitri Vasilievich Dashkov was Minister of Justice in the 1830s, while Andrei Yakolevich Dashkov was the first Russian ambassador to the United States, 1808-17. In an interesting parallel, Yuli Mikhailovich Vorontsov was also ambassador to the United States, 1994-98, having previously been Soviet ambassador to India, France, and critically, to Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He also served as Deputy Foreign Minister in a time of great change in the USSR (1986-90) and later Russian envoy to the United Nations 1990-94. Others include Vasily Vorontsov (d. 1918), an economist and sociologist who was an early advocate of the ideas of Marx but rejected revolutionary communism; and Boris Vorontsov-Velyaminov (d. 1994), an astrophysicist who specialised in classifying galaxies and nebulae. Distinctive names like this continue to appear in Russian politics and culture and connect its present to its rich and varied past.

(images from Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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