Myth of Russia in French Culture

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The Core of the French myth about Russia

The France-Russia relations started in the 11th century when the king of the Capetian dynasty married Anne, the daughter of Yaroslav the Wise. She did her utmost to bring together two opposite worlds which by that time had already chosen their main path of development. While Russia had turned its attention on the Byzantine Empire, the French culture was heavily influenced by Rome that called for the Crusades into Palestine in 1095 – 1096. G. Lozinski analysed the perception of Russia in French medieval literary sources. The researcher came to the conclusion that Russia was not a “terra incognita” for the French writers of the Middle Ages, although their ideas were limited to such notions as “a vast territory in a particular part of Europe”.[1]

However, it is usually considered that the Russian theme is introduced in French literature and in the culture during the Renaissance period, more specifically, by the 16th century. Muscovy is depicted in the novel of François Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel as a world’s end. Rabelais writes about the plans of the treacherous Picrochol who dreams of world domination and for whom Russia becomes a country promising not only the domination over the world, but also untold riches. The notions of the “world’s end”, the wealth, a possibility of conquest, are closely connected with the ideology and the context of the Crusades and other similar expeditions of chivalric orders which also targeted Rus’ in the 13th – 15th centuries.

A clear illustration to that is found in the notes of one of the first French travellers who visited Rus’, Guillebert de Lannoy (1386 – 1462). He was a wandering knight who sought adventure and war, ready to carry the light of Christ with his sword. De Lannoy was to Russia twice: he came for the first time in the winter of 1413, when the military expedition of the Livonian Order against the Lithuanians was cancelled and de Lannoy decided to use the time to travel to the Novgorod Republic and to the Pskov Republic. The second visit was in 1421 when, as an ambassador, he crossed Galicia and Podolia. His book Travels and Embassies was published after its author’s death. The impact of the text on the French culture is insignificant, but it can be of interest as it shows the main trend in the early perception of Russia in France.

De Lannoy emphasises in his notes the grandeur of the Russian land (of the part which he saw) – he calls it “la grant Russie”, notes the numerous troops and the strength of city walls. Socially and politically, he is curious about the power the boyars have and the political role the bishops play, whether the citizens may participate in the political life of their city. He also describes trade in frozen foods (fish, meat, poultry) and provides some “exotic” details, such as kokoshniks (“a crown behind the head”) worn by women, hares changing the colour of fur and “the great snow and cold”. Notes of de Lannoy are the first notes about Rus’ written by a West European.[2]

[1] Lozinski G. Russia in French Literature of the Middle Ages // Slavic Studies Journal. 1929. Vol. IX. № 1–2. P. 71–88. P. 71.

[2] The Great Rus’ of the Knight de Lannoy // Motherland, № 12. 2003. Electronic source [Russian]: URL: http://www.vostlit.info/Texts/rus13/Lannoa/text.phtml?id=778.

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