Pour yourself a sip or two of your best unfiltered vodka and gather close. We’ve got a tale to tell of a Russian-doll-turned-Parisian-salonnière known for her religious conviction, her way with the plume, and her intellectual salon.
We’re speaking of Anne Sophie Swetchine, born Sofia Petrovna Soymanova in Moscow in November 1782. Our gal came from a good family, was well-educated, and spoke several European languages. No ruble was spared when it came to the smart and precocious Sofia. You see, her father was Secretary of State Peter Alexandrovich Soimonov, and she spent her early years in the court of Empress Catherine the Great. Talk about a fabulous role model. Scandalous as she was, Catherine is known as one of the most astute rulers in Russian history.
Catherine the Great
But back to Sofia. At the age of 17, our gal was married to General Nicholas Sergeyevich Swetchine, a rather quiet man who was 25 years her senior and had been governor of St. Petersburg. I know what you’re thinking, but the two actually had a good marriage, although they were not able to have children, to our gal’s great despair.
Some believe this was why, at age 33, Sofia converted to Catholicism. She had long been influenced by the writings of Joseph de Maistre, the French philosopher and ambassador to Russia who wrote often on the subject of the Pope and Christianity. Russian law did not permit members of the Russian nobility who left the Russian Orthodox Church to continue living in Russia, so poor Sofia and her husband were forced to live in exile, choosing Paris, bien sûr, as their new home.
Joseph de Maistre
Once in Paris, and after adopting the French spelling of her name, Sophie put her excellent education, language skills, and years at court to good use, setting up a salon that soon became the talk of the town. Some of the most distinguished thinkers in literature, politics, and ecclesiastical high society, including the Archbishop of Paris, came through her doors, as did a number of other Russian exiles.
In 1857, this grande dame of Paris salon life—and one of Paris society’s authorities on Catholic theology—died at the age of 75. A wonderful writer, Madame Swetchine left behind a collection of manuscripts and letters, including many correspondences with Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, and numerous expressions that continue to reflect her wisdom. Here are our favorites:
The ideal friendship is to feel as one while remaining two.
There are two ways of attaining an important end, force and perseverance; the silent power of the latter grows irresistible with time.
Our vanity is the constant enemy of our dignity.
One must be a somebody before they can have an enemy. One must be a force before he can be resisted by another force.
In this world of change, nothing which comes stays, and nothing which goes is lost.
To read more about the great salonnières in history, click here. For a list of America’s 100 best modern-day salonnières click here, and for tips and ideas from today’s most skilled party hosts, click here.