Myth of Russia in French Culture

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Catherine II who, according to her own words, was “created by Voltaire” promoted the impression of Russia’s distinctiveness among the French. The Memoirs of Catherine II were heavily influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. The work naturally combines the real biography of the author with the conceptual philosophical ideas of Voltaire and Diderot, it belongs rather to the French tradition despite being written in Saint-Petersburg. The Memoirs of Catherine made some corrections to the forming myth about Russia and gained the favourable attitude of the French towards “the enlightened sovereign”, the one which they could only dream of. By virtue of the French philosophers Russia was counted among potential allies. Voltaire, whose life and literary works are very representative of the Enlightenment culture in the Western Europe, was, as it is known, a close confidant of the Empress. He was genuinely interested in Russia, as historian and a writer. While Margeret used the Russian theme as a background to emphasize the grandeur of France, Voltaire sets the Russian state as an example for France to aspire to become. He sympathises with Peter who seems to him more interesting and more impressive than the French monarchs, even than Louis XIV, and more so than the contemporary sovereigns of Europe. Russia appears several times in his Candide as a country with a difficult history but with the people who are capable of deep feelings and heroic deeds.

The interest towards Russia increased during the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon’s exile to the island of Saint Helena. The Memorial of Saint Helena which describes the final point in the glorious career of the great commander and emperor is particularly important for understanding the genesis of the French myth about Russia. It was not written by Napoleon himself, although in the public opinion the most part of the Memorial is a record of an authentic text belonging to Napoleon, written down by his confidant, count Las Cases, who by a twist of fate happened to be in the emperor’s train. And while for the contemporaries and the next generations of the 19th century the Memorial was a handbook of a careerist, now it is hardly popular, which is not entirely fair.

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