Myth of Russia in French Culture

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The Memorial appeared in the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1814 – 1815, held to finally record the fall of Napoleon, who had been proclaimed the embodiment of absolute Evil. Alexander I, supported by the old and new monarchies of the Western Europe, was supposed to become the beacon of Good. Certainly, it was difficult for Napoleon’s opponents to come to one decision, as victorious powers pursued their own interests. However, hatred for the “fallen” one managed to unite quite different political forces. The “dancing” Congress resulted in a system of general agreements in Europe, which lasted till the middle of the 19th century. Even though the foundations for the modern Europe were laid back then, truth be told, a new social and political paradigm did not happen.

The hatred for Napoleon was also endorsed within France, both by the aristocratic elite who had been stripped of their privileges and by the common people who had grown accustomed to the victories and prosperity of their compatriot’s glorious period of reign. As Alfred de Musset wrote, an “ardent, nervous generation” was brought forth, the representatives of which would be later known as the romanticists.[1]

The reputation of Napoleon improved after his death, when count Las Cases’ The Memorial of Saint Helena was published in 1823 and, according to H. Heine, it became one of the “Gospels” for a whole generation – the memoirs compiled by his doctors and companions in his exile on the deserted island. As A. Maurois rightly put it, “a lonely death in a suffocating atmosphere of the rocky island in the Atlantic struck the society. It woke memories of the former victories, glory and the greatness of the First Empire”.[2] Las Cases’ book only reinforced this sympathy and nostalgia, truly becoming a “gospel” for the young generation that was referred to as “the Post-Romantics” in Europe and as a “lost” generation in Russia.

The tragedy of the events surrounding Napoleon’s confinements is central to the work of Las Cases. Emperors of antiquity and the Christian geniuses of the Middle Ages become Napoleon’s equals in the text: Clovis I, the first of the Merovingians, Charlemagne, Saint Louis IX.

The main elements of the poetic style in a hagiographic text – tragedy and the motive of agonising death for the idea – are apparent in The Memorial. Napoleon is betrayed and destroyed by those whom we believed to be his kindred spirits and companions, his equals by blood and status. Napoleon is not only a smart politician and strategist, but he is also well versed in many spheres and discusses the arts, sciences and philosophy with his entourage.

Russia is a particular theme in the musings of Las Cases. It is noteworthy that Russia was one of the first in Europe to embrace the myth about the martyr emperor, letting go of the past grudges.

As it is known, the Russian Campaign of 1812 proved to be Napoleon’s doom. However, in his descendants’ eyes, it was also his justification. Before this campaign the great Frenchman had managed to create, in Las Cases’ opinion, a perfect state, a kind of Paradise which would have become a model for the rest of the world: “The glory of our country was raised to a pitch unknown in the history of any other people; the administration of affairs was unexampled, not less by its energy than the consequences it produced <…>  It was a signal honour to be a Frenchman; and yet all these exploits, labours, and prodigies, were the work of one man”.[3]

[1] Musset A. de. The Confession of a Child of the Century. M.: Eksmo-Press, 2000. P. 4.

[2] Maurois A. Sixty Years of My Literary Life. M.: Progress, 1977. P. 140.

[3] Las Cases count. The Memorial of Saint Helena, or The Memories of Emperor Napoleon in 2 Books. M.: Zakharov, 2014. Vol. 1. P. 9.

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