Myth of Russia in French Culture

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Russia was still depicted as an exotic country where one may come across “Potemkin villages” and embezzlers, but the general mood of his works is rather positive. The author never doubts that Russia is a great country where a romanticist easily finds a “beating heart” and a “deep soul”. In a way Russia is presented as an embodiment of the Romanticist expanse, an antipode to the materialistic West. Certainly, Dumas’ books are not travel notes of a scientist, but novelised chronicles where fiction is more important than the historical truth. At the same time, they have many colourful sketches of the Russian national character, autocracy and everyday life. It will suffice to mention his snide remark that advisers – state, privy or court councilors – are the most numerous in Russia, but no one asks for their advice there. His thoughts on fellow writers like A. Pushkin and M. Lermontov are also of interest, although Dumas denied the depth and stylistic variety of the Russian language.

An encounter with his works on “Russian” themes may create an illusion, shared, probably, by Dumas himself, that the author is a great connoisseur of the life in Russia. However, his accounts of the travels across Russia have some quite ridiculous elements. Reading books by the author of Queen Margot, or Marguerite de Valois the audience not only became interested in Russia, but they also acquired many false ideas about the Russian reality and Russian character. For example, it was Dumas who told the French that Russian aristocracy had a craving for black caviar and fancied gypsies. He did not forget to mention bears either. According to Dumas, a slightly drunk man’s favourite entertainment was to try putting his head in the bear’s mouth, to wrestle with the animal and to go with it for a walk in the city.

It was Dumas who wrote about “broad spreading cranberry trees” – trees that offered perfect shade for some rest and that he found everywhere during his stay in Russia. Dumas scared his French readers with tales about man-eating catfish in the Volga river and the absence of good cooks; he introduced “Mashkas” – “girls of lower social responsibility”, as it was deftly paraphrased by a modern politician.

One way or another, it was Dumas-père who rekindled his compatriots’ interest in Russia that was undermined by Custine. Russia in his perception was a unique country with an enormous potential which was not the case for France. He tried to repair the time that is out of joint by looking into the epoch of Catherine the Great when France-Russia relations were mutually productive.

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