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Madame de Swetchine
« You, Madame, are one of those rare individuals who inspire both respect and confidence, two sentiments that don't always go together. I felt them at once in your presence, and after spending just a few moments with you I was prepared to open my heart in a way that usually must await a longer acquaintance. »
(Letter to Mme Swetchine,
July 20, 1855)

Madame de Swetchine was born Sophia Petrovna Soïmonov in Moscow on November 22, 1782. She spent her childhood amidst the splendor of the court of Catherine IICatherine II de Russie (1729 - 1796)
Sophie d'Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess converted to the Orthodox faith, married Peter III, whom she detested and dethroned. She reigned alone, and illegally, under the name Catherine II, from 1762 until her death.
, as her father was one of the empress's closest advisors. Born into a family of scholars and historians, she received an encyclopedic education that whetted her curiosity and obliged her to learn, in addition to Russian and French, most of the other European languages. Her marriage to General Nicolas Sergeivitch Swetchine - a descendant of ancient Russian nobility - was arranged by her father in 1799, when she was only seventeen and her husband was twenty-three years older her senior. Nevertheless, this significant age difference never affected either their relationship or their complicity, until his death in 1851.
Two other events completely changed her life, however. The first was her decision to openly convert to Catholicism, after experiencing, along with the rest of the court at Saint Petersburg, the influence of the Jesuits. The second was her decision to move to Paris in 1816 with her husband.
She moved quicly into Parisian intellectual circles, and particularly at first the traditionalist movement led by Joseph de MaistreJoseph de Maistre (1753-1821)
A Savoyard writer and philosopher. The most important counterrevolutionary theorist. He condemned the French people for what it had done to its sovereign and to religion. God was punishing France, which served as a model of irreligion and impiety for Europe.
and Louis de BonaldLouis de Bonald (1754-1840)
A French philosopher and writer, the Viscount Louis de Bonald was, along with Joseph de Maistre, one of the leading counterrevolutionary intellectuals. A fervent monarchist and Catholic, he was a vehement critic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
. She progressively opened her salon to every French Catholic tendency. In 1826, she moved to 71 rue Saint-Dominique, and it was at this address, for nearly forty years, that she hosted a salon that brought together eminent members of France's literary, political and ecclesiastical communities. Thanks to this, and the many charitable projects that she undertook, her fervent and enlightened Catholicism, which took the form of a rational and intellectualized faith, had a profound effect on the French Catholic community until her death in 1856.
Although it appears that she met Alexis de Tocqueville sometime in the 1840s, it was not until 1855 that she really penetrated the circle of his friends, and carried on a close correspondence with him, which testifies to the very special relationship between these two people. In fact, thanks to her humane and religious intelligence, and to her great lucidity and sincere kindness, Madame de Swetchine became, in the space of a few exchanged letters, one of Tocqueville's favorite correspondents, and even more, his confidant.

Portrait of the Countess de Swetchine

Portrait of the Countess de Swetchine, anonymous; Département des Estampes
© BNF

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