Myth of Russia in French Culture

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The “Soviet” layer of the myth about Russia

The first one to doubt that the Soviet Union could be the prototype of a perfect state was A. Gide himself. He set off to the USSR hopeful to see a just society being formed. As a result, instead of an ode to honour the first ever state of workers and peasants the pamphlet Return from the USSR (1936) emerged, which in many ways destroyed the myth about “heaven on earth”. However, A. Gide was not disappointed with the Russian national character and insisted that the Russians were kind and talented people. But A. Gide could not come to terms with the political system built in the Soviet Union and his book really had the French worried. These freedom-loving people with a strong sense of individualism could never welcome the “depersonalization” of the country and the “loss of identity”.

Interestingly, another famous European writer Lion Feuchtwanger in his book Moscow 1937 portrayed Soviet Russia from a totally different angle; his account of his visit to Russia became a handbook for the majority of European
(including French) pro-socialist intellectuals. L. Feuchtwanger was respected by many and was mentioned in the same breath as B. Brecht, T. Mann, and I. Becher, and his notes about the USSR were crucial not only for Stalin but also for European democratic forces, which stood together against fascism that was gaining momentum. Later Feuchtwanger was not just reproached but stigmatized as “Stalin’s hireling”. He finishes his book by a line which was frequently cited in the Soviet periodicals: “When from this oppressive atmosphere of lying democracy and hypocritical humanity you get into the fresh air of the Soviet Union it’s easy to breathe <…> reasonable ethic prevails here <…>».[1]

If we compare Custine’s anti-Russian pamphlet and A. Gide’s travel reports, we will see that they are very similar ideologically. Despite the large time distance between the two both are the stories about a country that is moving in the opposite direction from the western civilization and its values: “the country of slaves and the country of masters”, which lives with its head down and characterized by its conformism and all-acceptance: “And I doubt whether in any other country in the world, even Hitler’s Germany, thought be less free, more bowed down, more fearful (terrorized), more vassalized».[2]

[1] Ibid. P. 258 – 259.

[2] Ibid. P. 24

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