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Famous, beautiful and successful: Marfa Matveeva as the first ambassadress of Petrine Russia
‘D’un excellent époux rejoignant la carriere, votre gloire, Madame, egalé son renom,’ so Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz praised Marfa Feodorovna Matveeva (1686?–1720) (neé Princess Baryatinskaya) alongside her husband Andrei Artamonovich Matveev (1666–1728), the ambassador of Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) to the Austrian emperor Charles VI (r.1685–1740). The poem is dated 6 June 1714, when Leibniz was residing in Vienna, witnessing the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). While Leibniz devoted his time primarily, but not only, to his research activities, Matveev tirelessly worked to secure Austria’s support for Russia against Sweden and the Ottoman empire in the Great Northern War (1700–1721).
At that time Matveev was already a well-established diplomat with more than a decade of diplomatic experience under his belt. Before coming to Vienna, he and his wife Marfa resided in The Hague (1700–1712) with missions to Paris (1705–1706) and London (1707–1708). In 1710–1711 Marfa helped to arrange a dynastic marriage between Tsarevich Alexei Petrovitch (1690–1718) and Princess Charlotte Christine Sophie von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1694–1715). This dynastic union initiated a long-lasting tradition, when all heirs to the throne from the Romanov family chose foreign, primarily German princesses as their wives. It also aimed to promote Russian interests in the West, since the Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel family had close ties of kinship all over German lands, including the Austrian emperor Charles VI, whose wife, Elisabeth Christine was Charlotte Christine Sophie’s sister.
Since Leibniz himself participated in negotiations for this dynastic union and enjoyed not only the patronage of the Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel family, but also of Tsar Peter, he was well aware of Marfa Matveeva’s role in it. Even more striking to him was probably the fact that she was the first Russian ambassadress, i.e., the wife of a Russian ambassador, who went with him on a diplomatic mission abroad and assisted him both socially and politically.
Similarly, Marfa made a great impression on her foreign contemporaries because she and her husband broke up with an old-Russian tradition, when noble married women spent most of their lives at home, away from the public eye. This accorded well with Tsar Peter’s reforms of Russian social customs, such as the introduction of assemblies (assamblei) in 1718. Guests invited to these balls were ordered to come together with their wives to dance and dine publicly.
Andrei and Marfa Matveev’s work as Russian diplomats to promote the interests of new Petrine Russia abroad is commemorated not only in the overall success of their missions, but also in their portraits. This diplomatic couple was depicted several times, both in old-Russian and European costumes. This was again a new practice for the Russian nobles and civil servants of the late seventeenth and early eighteen centuries. It marked the growth of their personal self-esteem and further secularization of Russian people’s world outlook.
Curiously enough, the earliest known portrait of Marfa’s shows her in an old-Russian wedding attire, although the circumstances under which she was painted in such a manner are unclear. This picture seemed to have been ordered to commemorate her as an exotic beauty to please the eyes of her high-ranking Western acquaintances. Among them were Frederick I of Prussia (r.1701–1713) and his wife Sophia Charlotte of Hannover (1668–1705). Her own copy of Marfa’s picture is still kept in the Charlottenburg palace in Berlin. The other copy of this portrait is in the Versailles picture gallery, but up to date it’s not quite clear how it made its way there.
Nevertheless, Marfa Matveeva’s portraits serve as crucial evidence to underline her role as Andrei Matveev’s life and work partner, especially because almost all of her own letters and papers did not survive to the present day. This resulted in Marfa Matveeva being long forgotten, but now she is back into the spotlight, as she was during her lifetime.
Ekaterina Domnina (PhD)
Moscow State Lomonosov University
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