Myth of Russia in French Culture

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Russia is mentioned many times in Las Cases’ work. He starts with the Congress of Vienna. It was an epoch when “the map of Europe was redrawn and the territories of its nations were redistributed”.[1] Napoleon remembered how the attitude of the parties to the Congress, that of Alexander I in particular, changed after the Hundred Days, nicknamed his second “coming”. He could not make no mention of the Russian Campaign which he viewed as an unfortunate turn of events rather than a defeat: “Ask Alexander himself and let him recollect the opinions he entertained at the time! Was I defeated by the efforts of the Russians? No! My failure must be attributed to pure accident, to absolute fatality. First a capital was burnt to the ground, in defiance of its inhabitants; then winter set in with such unusual suddenness and severity that it was regarded as a kind of phenomenon. To these disasters must be added a mass of false reports, silly intrigues, treachery, stupidity. But to come to a conclusion, and to annul with a word every charge that can be brought against me, I may say that this bold enterprise, this famous war, was perfectly involuntary on my part. I did not wish to fight; neither did Alexander – but being once in presence, circumstances urged us on, and fate accomplished the rest”.[2]

The key chapter about Russia is, in fact, the final part of Las Cases’ book, thus concluding his multipage work. In the conversation dated 6th November, 1816 on the “advantages of Russia and her political power”, written down shortly before Las Cases’ departure from St. Helena, Napoleon dwelled on the future of Russia that might become the political centre of Europe, uniting countries and continents. However, the English, in his opinion, would actively hinder her connections in Asia (in India and China) and weaken her influence on the Eastern Europe. It is by the “fortunate” situation of Russia that he explains his own failures and the prospects of how the state may develop: “He adverted to the immense number of troops Russia might call up for the invasion of Europe. This country is situated under the pole and is backed by the eternal bulwarks of ice, which, in case of need, would render her inaccessible. Russia could only be attacked during one third or fourth of the year; while, on the contrary, she might throughout the whole twelve months maintain attacks upon us”.[3]

We may have done without this long quotation, but its meaning is very important: it provides a key to understanding the nature of phobias about Russia that the French have; even today they are ready to stand by every of these words uttered by Napoleon two centuries ago.

Meanwhile, among other peculiarities of the Russian world Napoleon mentions, along with the frigid climate and a barren soil, the traits of the Russian national character: “…may be added the advantage of an immense population, brave, hardy, devoted to their sovereign and passive…the fate of that portion of the world depended entirely on the capacity and disposition of a single man”.[4] If Las Cases’ notes are anything to go by, Napoleon is not only a phenomenal commander and politician, but also a prophet capable of foretelling the future, which, certainly, emphasises his sanctity in the eyes of the author and his French admirers.

[1] Ibid. Vol.1. P. 227.

[2] Ibid. Vol. 2. P. 692.

[3] Ibid. Vol. 2. P. 657.

[4] Ibid. Vol. 2. P. 657.

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