Myth of Russia in French Culture

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This trend is continued by J. Verne in the novel Michael Strogoff (published in 1875). It had such a strong influence that no later negative image of Russia could undermine the sympathies of an average French (up to the present). Paradoxically, everyone among the French youth has read this novel, while it is barely known in Russia. “The Russian myth” created by J. Verne later added to its structure such positive concepts as a “Russian beauty”, an exceptional ear for music, and a feeling for their native language. J. Verne’s novel has no historical prototypes. The Romanticist author created strong-willed characters that met in exotic faraway countries, which was exactly how he viewed the distant Russia. Surprisingly, this Romantic novel appeared in 1870s when the literature of Romanticism had already lost in popularity.

The plot of the book is not very complicated. Michael Strogoff, a courier of the Tsar, goes to Irkutsk in order to warn the Tsar’s brother, who is also the governor of Irkutsk, of treason on behalf of Ivan Ogareff who joined Feofar Khan’s rebellion. Michael faces adventures and endures horrendous suffering. He is betrayed and blinded, but, as such stories go, he is saved by the love for a girl named Nadia Fedor. At the end of the story the villain is punished, the hero regains the eyesight and the main characters are happily married as the curtain falls. But for readers the Romantic background of the J. Verne’s novel is more important than the actual plot. The French quickly recognised the already formed image of Russia that had a particular appeal with the young readers: the gypsies, bears, concubines of the Khan. At the same time, J. Verne’s book is an apologia for the Russian character, his affection for it is explicit and can hardly be exaggerated.

The positive notions of the image created by Jules Verne were integrated into the French fiction and political journalism at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, both under the influence of great Russian novelists (Leo Tolstoy and F. Dostoevsky), the works of A. Chekhov and due to the alliance during the World War I. A keen response to the works of Russian writers came from Prosper Mérimée. An admirer of A. Pushkin, N. Gogol, I. Turgenev, he learned Russian and translated some of their works into French, he dedicated to them a number of articles and wrote a foreword for some collections of their works published in France. It is known that Mérimée studied Russian for a long period of time and his translation of Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades was published in 1849.

The book of E.-M. de Vogüé, The Russian Novel (1886) proved to be of great influence as a new perception of everything Russian was formed at the end of the 19th century, and not only in France, but in the whole Europe. Studying the works of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, de Vogüé is more focused on finding the key to understanding the Russian soul rather than identifying the peculiarities of their aesthetic. “The dominant feature of the ‘Russianness’ by Vogüé is mysticism – a special state of spirit when the sentiment, intuition, imagination and faith take precedence over reason”.[1]

[1] Trykov V.P. Constants of “Russianness” and evolution of the Russian cultural consciousness in Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé’s The Russian Novel // Rhema. 2017. № 3. P. 21 – 39. P. 24, 26.

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