Myth of Russia in French Culture

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Since Troyat specifically targets French audience, he adds exotic details and even stereotypes that always attracted foreign readers. For instance, “the Russian flavour” is felt when he depicts a family fleeing Russia after the Revolutionary events. The images of a cart, boxcar, vodka and boiling water, inevitable in this kind of literary works, are replaced by those of a compassionate peasant woman, who could cure all the illnesses, of snow, snowstorms and blizzards. The Russian national cuisine and landscapes were not left out either. An important part in Such a Long Way is given to a story about how H. Troyat managed to both preserve the Russian roots and the French spirit at the same time.

Similar trends in depicting Russia can be found in the works of another writer of the 20th century, known as Romain Gary and Émile Ajar. It is the same author, who got bored with his “ante-mortem” glory and decided to mystify the satiated French public. He was the first man ever to win the Prix Goncourt (the Goncourt Prize) twice, although according to the statute the award may only be given to an author once. The interest in Gary/Ajar among the French was due to his biography, partly made up by him and based on the perception of the Russians by the French as talented people, prone to go to extremes and capable of extraordinary acts of heroism. The author of Gary’s monography documented that he came from a poor Jewish family, while the writer himself insisted on a myth about his father as a Russian silent film actor, the celebrated star Ivan Mosjoukine. His mother was an actress in a Russian Jewish theatre named Nina Borisovskaya and although the contemporaries did not think much of her acting skills, her son created a totally different image of a genius actress and a great mother. In 1927 the dream of her life came true – from Lithuania, to where the family ran from Revolutionary Russia, they moved to Nice, France, where the eccentric mother prepared “an ideal son” program for her child – the successor of two great cultures. First, she dreamt of him becoming a great musician, but he fell short of her expectations. Then she wanted him to be an officer or an envoy, but these positions were forbidden for immigrants. The only alternative that remained was writing, and Nina Borisovskaya pushed him by all possible means. He managed to meet her expectations and published his first short story when he was only a teenager. But Europe was on the threshold of a worldwide massacre, and Gary set off to a flight school to “protect and celebrate” the French civilization.

Gary/Ajar’s heroic biography once again changed Custine’s and his followers’ cruel assessments of Russia which they so much enjoyed traducing. French leader Charles de Gaulle also played his part in changing the myth about Russia in the post-war years when he had to make a hard choice between the USA and the USSR in favor of the latter. He wrote a lot about the Russians and their country in his memoirs, where Russia was depicted as a country that could change the-post-Hitler-world for the better. Among the traits of the Russian national character that appealed to the author are generosity and pursuit of justice, heroism and a big heart. It was Charles de Gaulle who talked about Europe’s unity, about the impossibility of its effective existence in harmony without its Eastern neighbour. The idea of “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals” was supported by the general public in France as well as by de Gaulle, who contributed to expanding the Russian-French economic and cultural ties. The general visited the USSR where he was met by the country’s leadership as a friend and a partner.

The “pro-Russian political climate” in France in the post-war period sparked interest in the Russian language. It was studied in many middle and high schools. An institute of the Russian language assistants and leсturers emerges and proves to operate smoothly. Such a change of heart on the French’s part may seem paradoxical since in the USA and in most European countries Stalin’s and post-Stalin’s Russia was treated with caution, to put it mildly, and in the 1940s the USSR was declared the “evil empire” and later completely shut down from the rest of the world by the Iron curtain.

After de Gaulle left the political arena in 1969 the attitude to Russia was changing once again. The old phobias were back, and relationships with Russia were frozen in all areas. The number of opportunities for the Russian-French ties plummeted and an ideological clash of the titans began. The West only talked about Russia when they got some evidence of their superiority. For one, the “exodus” of the Jews to the USA, Europe and Israel. Or opera and ballet stars, great artists and writers fleeing the country; the phenomenon of dissidence.

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