Myth of Russia in French Culture

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Most thoroughly the theoretical aspect of this question is covered in a doctoral thesis of S.B. Koroleva, who studies the phenomenon of myth and its stages of formation in detail. She also examines how images of other cultures form and function in the texts of a national culture. At the same time, “the image of another culture in literature is viewed in the modern imagological research as a variety of the collective mental structure that emerges in the collision with another national world and has specific non-historical memory, i.d. an imagological myth, rather than a special aesthetic formation”.[1] Although S.B. Koroleva analyses myths about Russia in British literature from 1790s to 1920s, in her thesis and her monograph she comes to an important theoretical conclusion that a persistent stereotype about Russia as an “anti-world” has already formed in the Western Europe. This designation is confirmed in French culture as well. The basis for the similarity in perception lies in the fundamental differences between two cultures, already described by Marina Tsvetaeva. So, what are those differences?

Recently, many attempts have been made at defining the main differences between the Russian and French cultures. Numerous attempts at drawing comparisons between the cultural outlooks in Russia and in France are represented by dozens of articles, monographs and thesis research. The most interesting and thorough results seem to be those presented by Irène Sokologorski, a renowned French philologist, who conducted a survey among the students at the University of Paris 8. She identified ten key concepts that reflect the difference between the cultural outlooks of the Russians and the French:

  1. Individualisme (Individualism)
  2. Liberté (Liberty)
  3. Valeurs républicaines (Republican values)
  4. Amour/admiration (Love/admiration)
  5. Méritocratie (Self-esteem)
  6. Esprit chevaleresque (Chivalrous spirit)
  7. Esprit critique (Critical spirit)
  8. Elégance (Elegance)
  9. Esprit d’épargne (Thrift)
  10. Confort (Comfort)

The scientist is right to point out that “the set of concepts is viewed differently on the inside and on the outside”[2]. The very fact that the concept of “individualism” is at the top determines the wariness of the French towards any “foreign” worlds, e.g. the neighbouring Germany, with whom France has to be on friendly terms for its own well-being: “The French are confident that the Germans have a much lower level of culture. They also clearly feel their superiority to the Germans in political sphere.”[3] The French look down on America considering it a world without roots and traditions. Russia with its essential value – sobornost[4] (communal solidarity) – and, at the same time, its orientation on the individual and artistic freedom is somewhere in between. The French have mixed feelings of love and have towards the country.

Russia has always been interesting to a French everyman who, however, always thought it potentially dangerous. In the context of such French values as critical spirit, elegance, thrift and comfort, the sentiment is quite understandable: there is nothing more different from the cultural outlook of the French that is well-structured and logically precise in every detail than the worldview of the Russian soul and its aspiration for an unlimited freedom.

[1] Koroleva S.B. Myth about Russia in British literature (1790s – 1920s). Author’s abstract of Doctoral Thesis. … Nizhny Novgorod, LUNN, 2014. P. 3 – 4.

[2] Sokologorski I. The French // Problems of Inter-cultural Communication. A Training Manual. Part 1. N. Novgorod: LUNN, 2000. P. 40.

[3] Yapp N., Syrette M. The Xenophobe’s Guide to the French. M.: Egmont, 1999. P. 6.

[4] Makshantseva N.V. The Russian: Sobornost; Will; Daring; Boundlessness; Yearning; Faith // Inter-cultural Communication. A training manual. N. Novgorod: LUNN, 2000. P. 112.

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