Myth of Russia in French Culture

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The Russian revolution of 1917 and the pro-Russian paradigm shattering

The pro-Russian paradigm was shattered in the 1920s, when Russia withdrew from the war and when France was flooded by Russian immigrants. The French really felt for the exiles, the majority of whom were the Russian elite. As N. Berberova wrote, they set off to Europe not as “exiles” but as “messengers”, and as any message, this one entailed an ideological battle “not with the sword, but with words”. The powerful, as history has shown, literature of the first wave of emigration emerges, which also adds to the Russian myth. Thus, all those who did not flee the country were denied their right to be a part of “the clergy” and “the Russian intellectuals”, and the whole nation was on its way to barbarism and savagery. Such perception of the Soviet state found fertile ground in France, especially after Custine’s works had seen the light. The exile literature gave Russia its first Nobel Laureate Ivan Bunin. Since little of the extensive Russian exile literature was translated, the French did not read much of it, but the names of Russian artists were well known. It would suffice to mention G. Adamovich, V. Khodasevich, M. Aldanov, G. Ivanov, I. Odoyevtseva, and M. Tsvetaeva.

The country that exiled its own national elite could never earn respect of France – the keeper of democratic values. Not to mention the Iron Curtain that was being persistently built up over those years between Europe and Soviet Russia and strained their mutual understanding.

In the middle of the 1930s Custine’s myth was fully revived. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 many French sincerely believed that a new state was emerging in the USSR, which was based on the idea of a welfare state and which could be fully in line with the national motto of France: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Their hopes were expressed by André Gide, a popular writer and public figure at the time, the author of the famous novel The Counterfeiters, which was perceived as the sentence on Western civilization. A. Gide and his colleagues’ admiration for the Soviet Union knew no limits since that was the country where (as they believed) an unprecedented experiment of freeing the man from bourgeois chains was being conducted. They linked the future of civilization and culture to the USSR: “It was certainly worth-while to witness this rebirth and to give one’s whole life to further it”.[1] The Western world was split into two factions in its attitude towards the Soviet Union, which would be later led by two French Nobel Prize winners: Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

[1]  Gide А. Return from the USSR // Collected works in 7 Books. M.: “Terra”, 2002. P. 62 – 63.

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