Myth of Russia in French Culture

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The dissolution of the USSR: new likings, old phobias

The situation started to change drastically after the dissolution of the USSR which opened up the borders and facilitated international contacts. The 1990s were characterized by the French’s interest to new Russia which seemed to be obediently following in French mentor’s footsteps. The personality of Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the collapsing state, was itself the object of interest which was artificially fostered by his rivalry with Boris Yeltsin. The French had no liking for the latter. The brevity of so-called “democratic” stage of development of new Russia didn’t result in any literary works touched by a liking for Russia. After the dissolution of the USSR and Yeltsin’s assumption of power the old phobias quickly came back and both journalism and fiction restarted producing negative images of Russia.

Today new colours and tinges are being added to the French myth about, but beneath them are the same old layers: Russia is perceived as rather an aggressive opponent, as a country neglecting western democratic values. A fundamental role in creating a negative image of new Russia is played by the state-run media which reflects the EU opinion.

Step by step, two opposite points of view were distinguished within the Russian theme in literature which, however, were united by the obvious interest in the Russian world (after Yeltsin).

The experience of negative perception of Russia by modern French people was fully realized in the novel Au secours pardon (2007) by infamous author Frédéric Beigbeder. The novel has an evident allusion to the French company L’Oréal for the sake of which Octave Parango, worldwide famous character of F. Beigbeder’s novel £9.99 (99 Francs), arrives in Russia. His task is to find a new female face for cosmetics advertisement. This is of course a pretext to present to French audience, under the guise of the “high road novel”, the faraway Russia where, according to his compatriots, “interesting mutations” (author’s term) happen. The text is undoubtedly aimed at destroying one and only positive image of Russia in the minds of modern French people – the image of a Russian girl/woman. In the novel a beautiful stranger turns into a young she-wolf who dreams of a rich man who would fall in love with her or at least of a foreigner who would take her on a romantic trip. In Beigbeder’s novel Russia with its French clichés of previous years about oligarchs, chekists, and thugs becomes the “Country of misplaced hopes” inhabited by the people who “are forced to correspond to the vastness of Central Asian steppes and Siberian tundra: they are silent but lyrical, they are picked clean but arrogant”.[1]

[1] Beigbeder F. Au secours pardon. Paris, Grasset & Fasquelle, 2007. 318 p. See: [Russian edition: Begbeder F. Ideal’. Moscow, Inostranka, 2011.  P. 60].

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