Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkov on the Establishment of a Russian Academy

[excerpted from Anthology of Russian Literature From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Leo Wiener, ed. and Tr. Pt. 1 (New York, 1902), pp. 233-241]

One day, whilst I was walking with the Empress in the gardens of Tsarskoe Selo, our conversation turned on the beauty and richness of the Russian language, which led me to express a sort of surprise that her Majesty, who could well appreciate its value, and was herself an author, had never thought of establishing a Russian Academy.

I observed that nothing was wanting but rules, and a good dictionary, to render our language wholly independent of those foreign terms and phrases, so very inferior to our own in expression and energy, which had been so absurdly introduced into it.

" I really know not," replied her Majesty, " how it happens that such an idea has not been already carried into effect; the usefulness of an establishment for the improvement of our own language has often occupied my thoughts, and I have even given directions about it."

" That is very surprising -, madam," said I, " for surely nothing can well be easier than the execution of such a project. There is a great variety of models to be found, and you have only to make choice of the best."

" Do you, Princess, I beg," returned her Majesty, " give me a sketch of one."

"It would be better, madam," replied I, "were you to order one of your secretaries to present you with a plan of the French Academy, the Academy at Berlin, and a few others, with remarks on such particulars as might be better adapted to the genius and habits of your own people."

" I entreat of you, I must beg to repeat it," said the Empress, " that you will take upon yourself this trouble, for then I can confidently look forward, through your zeal and activity, to the accomplishment of an object which, with shame I confess it, has been too long delayed."

" The trouble, madam," I said, " will be very trifling, and I will obey you as expeditiously as possible; but I have not the books I wish to refer to at hand, and I must be allowed the liberty of again assuring your Majesty that any of the secretaries in the ante-chamber would execute the commission better than myself."

Her Majesty, however, continuing to express herself of a different opinion, I found it useless to offer objections.

When I returned home in the evening, I set myself, therefore, to consider how I might best execute her orders, and before I went to bed I drew up a sort of plan, which I thought might furnish some ideas for the formation of the establishment in view, and sent it off to the Empress, more, indeed, for the purpose of complying with her wishes than from any serious thought of furnishing a design worthy of her choice and adoption. My astonishment may therefore be imagined, when I received back, from the hands of her Majesty, this imperfect outline of a scheme hastily conceived and informally drawn up, with all the ceremonial of an official instrument, confirmed by the sanction of her Imperial signature, and accompanied with an ukase which conferred on me the presidentship of the embryo academy. A copy of this ukase, I at the same time learned, had been transmitted to the Senate.

Though this had the air of the Empress's being in earnest, and resolute in her intentions with regard to me, I nevertheless went to Tsarskoe Selo two days afterwards, still hoping to prevail on her Majesty to make choice of some other president. Finding my efforts unavailing, I told her Majesty that as Director of the Academy of Arts and Sciences I had already at my disposal sufficient funds for the maintenance of the new establishment, and that she need be at no other expense, at present, than the purchase of a house for it. These funds, I observed, in explanation, would arise out of the five thousand roubles which she gave annually, from her private purse, for translations of the classics. The Empress evinced her surprise and satisfaction, but expressed her hopes that the translations should be continued.

" Most assuredly, madam, " said I, " the translations shall be carried on, and I trust more extensively than hitherto, by the students of the Academy of Sciences, subject to the revision and correction of the professors; and thus the five thousand roubles, of which the directors have never rendered any account, and which, to judge from the very few translations that have appeared, they seem to have put into their own pockets, may now be turned to a very useful purpose. I will have the honour, madam," added I, " of presenting you soon with an estimate of all the necessary expenses of the proposed establishment; and considering the sum I have stated as the extent of its means, we shall then see if anything remains for the less absolute requisites, such as medals and casts, -a few of which may be deemed, indeed, almost indispensable, in order to reward and distinguish the most deserving of its students."

In the estimate, which I accordingly made, I fixed the salary of two secretaries at goo roubles, and of two translators at 450 roubles each. It was necessary, also, to have a treasurer, and four persons, invalid soldiers, to heat the stove and take care of the house. These appointments together I estimated at 3300 roubles, which left the 1700 for fuel, paper and the occasional purchase of books, but no surplus whatever for casts and medals.

Her Majesty, who had been accustomed to a very different scale of expenditure, was, I think, more surprised than pleased at this estimate; but signified her desire to add whatever was wanted for the purposes not provided for in it, and this I fixed at I25o roubles. The salary of the president, and contingent perquisites of office, were not usually forgotten in estimates of this nature, but in the present I had not assigned myself a single rouble; and thus was a most useful establishment, answering every object of its institution, founded and supported at no greater expense to her Majesty than the price of a few honorary badges.

To sum up all that may be said on the subject of the Russian Academy, I may be allowed to state the following particulars: viz., in the first place, that with three years' arrears of her Majesty's bounty, originally granted for the translation of the classics, which had not been paid to Mr. Domashnev, -that is to say, with 15,ooo roubles, in addition to what sums I could spare from the economic fund,-- I built two houses in the court of the house given by the Empress for the Academy, which added a rent of 195o roubles to its revenue; I furnished the house of the Academy, and by degrees purchased a very considerable library, having, in the meantime, lent my own for its use; I left 4900 roubles as a fund, placed in the Foundling Hospital; I began, finished and published a dictionary; and all this I had accomplished at the end of eleven years. I say nothing of the new building for the Academy, the elevation of which has been so much admired, executed, indeed, under my directions, but at the expense of the Crown, and therefore not to be enumerated among those labours which were more especially my own. Besides, had it been, strictly speaking, a work of mine, I could never have considered it as one of my labours; for with so decided a taste, or rather passion, as I had for architecture, such a work would have formed one of my highest gratifications.

I ought to observe, before I dismiss the subject, that many things occurred at Court relative to the concerns of my office both to vex and disgust me. The enlightened part of the public, indeed, rendered me more than justice in the tribute of praise they bestowed on my zeal and public-spiritedness, to which they were pleased to refer all the merit of the institution of a Russian Academy, as well as the astonishing rapidity with which the first dictionary of our native language was completed.

This latter work was the subject of a very clamorous criticism, particularly as to the method of its verbal arrangement, which was not according to an alphabetical, but an etymological order. This was objected to, as rendering the dictionary confused, and ill adapted for popular use; an objection very loudly echoed by the courtiers as soon as it was known to have been made by the Empress, who asked me more than once why we had adopted so inconvenient an arrangement. It was, I informed her Majesty, no unusual one in the first dictionary of any language, on account of the greater facility it afforded in showing and even discovering the roots of words; but that the Academy would publish, in about three years, a second edition, arranged alphabetically, and much more perfect in every respect.

I know not how it was that the Empress, whose perception could embrace every object, even those the most profound, appeared not to comprehend me, but this I know, that I experienced in consequence much annoyance, and notwithstanding my repugnance to declare the opinion which her Majesty had pronounced against our dictionary, at a sitting of the Academy, I determined to bring forward the question again at our first meeting, without entering into some other matters connected with it for which I had often been made accountable.

All the members, as I expected, gave their judgment that it was impossible to arrange otherwise the first dictionary of our language, but that the second would be more complete, and disposed in aphabetical order.

I repeated to the Empress, the next time I saw her, the unanimous opinion of the academicians, and the reason for it. Her Majesty, however, continued to retain her own, and was, in fact, at that time much interested in a work dignified by the name of a dictionary, of which Mr. Pallas was the compiler. It was a sort of vocabulary, in nearly a hundred languages, some of which presented the reader with about a score of words only, such as earth, air, water, father, mother and so forth. Its learned author, celebrated for the publication of his travels in Russia, and for his attainments in natural history, had dared to run up the expense of printing this work, called a dictionary, to flatter a little prejudice of her Majesty, to a sum exceeding 20,000 roubles, not to mention the very considerable cost it brought on the Cabinet in dispatching couriers into Siberia, Kamchatka and so forth, to pick up a few words in different languages, meagre and of little utility.

Paltry and imperfect as was this singular performance, it was extolled as an admirable dictionary, and was to me at that time an occasion of much disgust and vexation.