Ekaterine Chavchavadze (1816-1882)
Ekaterine Chavchavadze was frequently described as proud, self-assured, strict, and demanding. Governor N. Muraviov provided the following description of her:
Aspiration to nobility was evident in Ekaterine since her childhood. She was regarded as a very beautiful girl, but haughtiness always prevailed. She was always smart and restrained; she seldom laughed. Because of her haughtiness, I called [her] "princess," and predicted that she would be enthroned. It came true.
Ekaterine was born in Tbilisi on March 19, 1816. Her father, Alexandre, named her in honor of his godmother, Russia’s Tsarina Ekaterine. After obtaining her primary education, Ekaterine entered the exclusive private boarding school of Praskovya Nikolaevna Arsenyeva Akhverdova in St. Petersburg. Like her older sister Nino, Ekaterine met her future husband—David Dadiani, the heir and future prince of the Georgian principality of Samegrelo—at Akhverdov’s school, where David, a fellow student, was attracted by her beauty, grace, intelligence, and wit.
Ekaterine had many admirers both before and after she married David Dadiani in 1839. One was her childhood friend, Nikoloz (Tato) Baratashvili. Ekaterine continued to harbor tender feelings toward him throughout her entire life, and she played a vital role in popularizing his poetic works. Baratashvili, who died at age 27 in 1844, gave Ekaterine a notebook with his works, and she always carried it with her—even while living with her children in St. Petersburg and subsequently in Europe in the 1850s and 1860s. When the young poet Ilia Chavchavadze, visited Ekaterine in St. Petersburg, she showed him this notebook; Ilia immediately appreciated Baratashvili’s talent, and used his influence to get the works of this deceased poet published posthumously. Another of Ekaterine’s famous suitors was the Spanish Ambassador, Duke d'Osuna, who first met her at the coronation of Alexandre II in St. Petersburg in 1857.
On several occasions, the strength of Ekaterine’s character was evident in her devotion to her family. She always maintained the honor of the Dadiani family and of Samegrelo, first as wife of the Prince David Dadiani and later as a princess, a role in which she contributed to the inculcation of Western values in the province, the furthering of its people’s education, and defense of the territory of Samegrelo. She also played a vital role in maintaining and preserving the Dadiani’s impressive ancestral library.
Early Years in Samegrelo
Ekaterine’s husband, David Dadiani (1813-1853), who became ruler of Samegrelo after the death of his father, Levan Dadiani, in 1840, advanced a series of progressive reforms in the province, including efforts to attract foreign capital and develop trade. He was also deeply involved in cultural, scientific, and educational activities. For example, in 1839, David was one of the founders of the Dadiani museum in Samegrelo’s principal city of Zugdidi; he also initiated archeological excavations in Nokalakevi, a city in Samegrelo, where the mythical city of Aea was located and from which the Argonauts reportedly seized the golden fleece.
Initially, the couple was happy, but they soon experienced, in rapid succession, the deaths of three of their young children. Ekaterine was deeply affected by this trauma; she became restless and avoided staying at the palace in Zugdidi. Searching for peace, she began to travel within Georgia. To occupy her troubled mind, David asked her to redesign the palace gardens; the couple invited gardeners from abroad, brought in exotic plant species, and transformed the garden into a paradise in three months. A short time later, their son, Niko Dadiani, was born, followed closely by three siblings: Andrei, Salome, and Tamar.
In August 1853, at the age 42, David contracted malaria and died after a month-long illness; at the time, Ekaterine was 37 years old. Because David’s heir Niko was too young to assume his administrative powers, Ekaterine became de facto ruler of Samegrelo in her capacity as princess. She appointed Platon Ioseliani, David’s friend, as her chief advisor; he actively participated in state decisions and undertook guardianship of her children. Ekaterine continued to pursue David’s domestic and foreign policy goals, which included suppressing obstinate landlords and arrogant clergymen, and controlling the income of church.
War with Turkey
In 1853, the Crimean, or Russian-Turkey, war began. In 1854, after invading Abkhazia, the Turks turned toward Samegrelo. Omar Pasha, the Turkish military leader, encamped 20 kilometers away from Zugdidi, with the intention of pushing through Samegrelo to Tbilisi through the city of Kutaisi. Ekaterine asked Russia for military support, but no help was forthcoming, as Russia was already fighting on two fronts—against the Turks and against Shamil in the Caucasian Mountains. Thus, in the early stages of the Turkish incursion, Samegrelo was largely on its own.
On October 25, 1855, Grigol Orbeliani, Ekaterine’s uncle, and his soldiers attacked at Rukhi fortress, causing Omar Pasha's detachments to withdraw. Prior to the attack at Rukhi, Ekaterine addressed the commanders-in-chief of the Russian army in these words: "I am ready to begin an operation against the Turks. I am waiting for your order and if you do not assist, I will lead the army myself. I will manage to relieve my province or I will die in this battle. We will calmly die for our home country."
When the Turkish army moved into the province of Samegrelo, she inspired the population to fight against Turkish invaders. The entire population was involved in the battle against the Turks; detachments of peasants and detachments of nobles both joined in the defense. The defenders also included a guerrilla force led by the Dadianis’ former serf, Utu Mikava. Ekaterine divided the Megrelian forces into two parts: cavalry and infantry, led by Grigol Orbeliani and by Constantine Dadiani. Meanwhile Russian forces took Kartsi on November 15, 1855, and later assisted Ekaterine in response to an order from Governor Muravyov. The decisive battle, led by Ekaterine herself, was held at the Nokalakevi fortress, where the Turkish army suffered a terrible defeat.
The Loss of Samegrelo
In spring of 1857, the Province of Samegrelo was liberated, and the princess turned her attention to the restoration of the burned palace. She had barely begun when she and her children received an invitation to the coronation ceremony for Tsar Alexandre II, the son of Tsar Nikolas I, in Moscow. After his coronation, Alexandre rewarded the princess with the Cross of St. Ekaterine and the Eight Sided Star for her role in defeating Turks; she was also honored with the order of St. Andrea and the bronze medal of St. Georgia.
All these apparent honors, in fact, masked ulterior political motives. After the ceremony, representatives of the new Tsar invited Ekaterine’s children to stay in St. Petersburg to acquire an education, assuming that she would remain with them and would thereby relinquish her rule of Samegrelo—something which she had no intention of doing. Within Samegrelo, she was becoming increasingly unpopular; her priorities including reconstruction of the palace and its gardens did not align with the population’s basic needs. Indeed, prior to her departure, she told the manager of her house, David Chikovani: "Everybody avoids me as much as possible and wants me to desist from ruling the province. But I will never concede my province. Nobody has a right to deprive me of the right granted by God and the King; everything is becoming more and more complicated. Even the people whom I regarded as friends and relatives are now betraying me."
Ekaterine was referring to a rebellion that had erupted in Samegrelo in 1857 the aim of the uprising was not just to depose the princess, but to free the peasants from servitude. While Ekaterine was in Russia, the political situation continued to deteriorate in Samegrelo, and efforts to quell the opposition failed. Ekaterine, her sister, Nino Chavchavadze, and Constantine Dadiani returned from St. Petersburg to Samegrelo to negotiate with the rebels.
The Russians saw this as a political opportunity. During that period, the other provinces of Georgia (Kartli, Kakheti, Imereti, Guria) had been abolished by the Russian Tsar. Only Samegrelo retained its semi autonomous status. The Russian authorities contrived to use the clamor raised by the rebellion as a pretext to abolish the province of Samegrelo as well. Russian military officers assured Governor Alexander Bariatinski that the rebellion against the Dadiani family could be resolved without bloodshed if Ekaterine surrendered her rule. In response, Bariatinski asked the new Tsar to recall Ekaterine to St. Petersburg and to establish direct Russian governance over Samegrelo.
On August 1, 1857, Governor Alexander Bariatinski sent the Russian army to Samegrelo. At the same time, he sent instructions to Ekaterine to form a council in Samegrelo under the auspices of the Tsar to govern the province until Niko Dadiani came of age.
Seeing the strength of the forces lined up against her, Ekaterine departed for Russia, where she took up residence in St. Petersburg and was provided with a summer palace at Tsarskoe Selo—a part of the lovely estate of Peter Bagrationi. Living in some luxury, she was soon hosting a steady stream of visiting Russian and Georgian aristocrats, generals, officers, writers, and painters.
Years in St. Petersburg and Europe
Shortly after Ekaterine’s arrival in St. Petersburg, tragedy struck, as her youngest daughter, ten-year-old Tamar, fell seriously ill. Attending physicians recommended that the child be taken to a warm country, and Ekaterine immediately made plans for a trip to Italy. But sadly, Tamar died before they could depart. The tragedy was made more bitter for Ekaterine because she could not accompany the child’s body back to Georgia.
In 1861, Ekaterine traveled to Dresden and Paris, where she became reacquainted with the renowned French historical novelist Alexandre Dumas, an old friend of the Chavchavadzes. Through her relationship with Dumas, Ekaterine acquired many influential French friends, and decided to reside for a time in France.
The Tsar had formally preserved the title of Prince of Samegrelo for Ekaterine's son, Niko Dadinai, until he came of age in 1867—at which time Ekaterine and Niko planned to return to Georgia. However, in 1866, the Tsar recalled Ekaterine and Niko from Paris to St. Petersburg, to persuade Niko to abandon his claim to Samegrelo, which the Tsar wished to abolish as a separate province and to incorporate into the neighboring region surrounding Kutaisi. Ekaterine tried to convince the Tsar to reconsider, but he refused. The last prince of Samegrelo was deposed and his principality was abolished in 1867. Thus Ekaterine and Niko Dadiani returned to Paris, this time without any hope of returning to Samegrelo as its ruling family. Niko Dadiani officially renounced his rights to the throne in 1867.
When her daughter Salome turned 18 in 1866, Ekaterine invited France’s Empress Eugenia to Salome’s birthday party. In return, the Queen invited the Dadianis to the Louvre palace, where Salome met Ashil Murat, the nephew of the French Emperor Napoleon III, who soon asked for her hand in marriage. In 1868, their wedding was held in the Church of the Royal Palace, followed by a reception at the Louvre. The toast master was Ekaterine’s brother David Chavchavadze, who arrived from Tbilisi for the event. A month later, the Dadianis, with their new son-in-law Ashil Murat, finally returned to Georgia.
As for the other Dadiani children, Niko married the daughter of Count Adelberg, the State Minister of Russia and a childhood friend of the Tsar, in 1874. Andria Dadiani, Ekaterine’s second son, graduated from the juridical faculty of Heidelberg University and became a well-known chess player. In 1897, an article published in British Chess Magazine enthused, "The games of chess of the Megrelian noble Dadiani are magnificent; they will always remain as masterpieces in the literature about chess." And in 1900, Andria became the President of the Monte Carlo international chess tournament.
After her return to Georgia, Ekaterine took particular care of the family’s ancestral library and manuscripts. She also contributed to the translation of Shota Rustaveli’s Classic epic poem, A Knight in Tiger's Skin, into French. But despite her many interests, Ekaterine missed the status she enjoyed as Princess of Samegrelo, and as she grew older she began to have health problems. Her letters in these later years contain many poignant reflections on herself, her hopes and the passing of time. For example, she noted, "Happiness never lasts for a long time. A human is a sliver of wood from the tree called the tree of life." She also wrote, "It is true that I have always been strange. [But] my oddity included purity, sincerity, and honesty. If there is no sincerity and directness, one can never claim unselfish service to our country. Selfishness was always unacceptable for me."
Summing up her life’s experiences in words that may seem surprising coming from a woman of such steely strength, she observed: "Life is worth living because love exists. Life and the love, these two forces, govern the world. These forces write the history of society; these two factors fight against death and hatred. Love is the movement of kindness and hatred is the movement of evil. Life is beautiful because kindness defeats evil. The talent for love is the greatest talent that the Lord has bestowed."
Ekaterine Chavchavadze died on August 13, 1882. She was buried in Martvili convent, Samegrelo, next to her husband, and is remembered both as a heroic patriot and as a personality in which beauty, intelligence, and powerful will achieved a unique balance.
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- Dumin, Stanislav, V, and Chikovani Iuri, V, ed. Dvorianskie Rodi Rossiiskoi Imperii [Ancestral Princedoms of the Russian Empire], vol.VI, Moscow: Licominvest, 1998
- Meunargia, Iona. Debi Chavchavadzeebi [Sisters Chavchavadzes]. Journal: Amarta No: 7. Tbilisi: 2002.
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