Myth of Russia in French Culture

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Although Georg Heblig did not leave other remarkable works, the myth about “Russian villages” – a symbol of hypocrisy, whitewashing and showing off – is still very functional. Despite Heblig’s invective being unfounded, the myth transpired to be so productive that even A. de Saint-Exupéry, a famous French writer and aviator, took it for granted. It is known that the author of The Little Prince was very interested in the Soviet Union and harboured the warmest sentiments for the country; however, the myth about Russia – the country of “façades, names and Potemkin villages” – became a part of his cultural code: “We were like that queen who determined to move among her subjects so that she might learn for herself whether or not they rejoiced in her reign. Her cunning courtiers took advantage of her innocence to garland the road she travelled and set dancers in her path. Led forward on their halter, she saw nothing of her kingdom and could not know that over the countryside the famished were cursing her”.[1]

The interpretation of the Russian myth by A. de Custine and G. Heblig was corrected in 1850–70s when France became acquainted with the books of Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne. And while Dumas used notes on travelling across Russia, Jules Verne never came to the country. However, up until today no French person doubts that J. Verne was a connoisseur of the Russian history, culture and the contemporary situation.

Back in 1840s A. Dumas published his “Russian novel”, The Fencing Master that was based on the love story of Decembrist Annenkov and Pauline Gueble (after the exile they settled down in Nizhny Novgorod). The author is said to have been very eager to reach the city on the bank of Volga where he, upon his arrival, headed to the Bugrovskoye cemetery in order to meet his characters. After the publication Dumas was banned from visiting Russia for some time since Nicholas I considered the novel about the Decembrists rebellious and Dumas was declared persona non grata. Nevertheless, in the late 1850s the whole country was eagerly anticipating the author of The Three Musketeers. It was an eventful journey: in nine months Dumas visited both capitals, the Caucasus and went to Kalmykia, travelled to all cities on the Volga river. As a result, four volumes of Travel Impressions were written as well as two other works – Adventures in Czarist Russia, or From Paris to Astrakhan and Voyage to the Caucasus – that were published in newspapers and journals. The success of Dumas’ books was apparent and they were translated into many languages.

[1] Saint-Exupéry A. de. Selected Works. М.: Moscow Worker, 1981. P. 168.

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