Myth of Russia in French Culture

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It should be acknowledged that the apologetical work of count Las Cases managed to destroy the persistent myth about the demonic nature of Napoleon Bonaparte backed by the debates and the records of the Congress of Vienna. Nobody doubted that Napoleon’s failure was brought by the nature of his character. Cruelty, injustice, jealousy and greed became the main themes of numerous lampoons written during the emperor’s fall and exile from Europe. Las Cases acts according to the laws of the genre and does his utmost to expose jealous opponents of the man whose actions had no reasons of greed. Napoleon is alleged to dream of universal equality, the rule of the letter and spirit of the law, the greatness of France that is to suggest a new, just type of world order. Napoleon views Russia rather as an equal opponent which is worthy of respect, despite being very different from its French vis-à-vis.

19th century: the complicating semantic structure of the myth

The situation changed radically at the end of 1830s. A negative attitude towards Russia was formed by the book of Astolphe de Custine Russia in 1839. It is worth talking about more specifically, although it is apparent that the book does not have any outstanding literary features. A. de Custine is a key figure in how the French myth about Russia formed. Many of its typical ideas and images are vividly materialized in this very book; even today they have an impact on how Russia is viewed, not only in France, but in Europe in general.

Central notions of the myth fit into the following scheme: Russia is a “country of façades”, where cruelty and wild ways are skilfully concealed behind the exterior of geniality and good-heartedness. Russia reminds de Custine of a farce – “a great theatrical hall where one can see from all boxes what takes place behind the scenes”.[1] The background for these social and philosophical conclusions is represented by numerous depressing Russian landscapes which Custine, nevertheless, finds to be poetic in a way.

His contemporaries were quick to criticise Custine for not wanting to see anything behind the façades. He truly seems to have tried to find positive things in the overall image of Russia. The attempt appears to have failed. Custine explains the evident success of the country that aspires to be closer to Europe by the negative traits of the Russian national character: “Russia is by no means politically weak, but it is due to the instinctive, habitual, almost superstitious love its people have for the government which substitutes legal awareness. Love of the educated people, on the other hand, is quite conscious and is based on logic”.[2]

The author starts the book as if he launches an assault, methodically identifying in the first chapter the qualities of the Russian national character; all of them are negative: “servility” and “passivity”, “slaves”, “spirit of servitude”, “slave mentality”, “arrogance of aristocrats”, “a combination of self-deprecation and arrogance”; he reaches a deadly general conclusion: “The government in Russia lives by the lie, for the truth frightens the tyrant no less than the slave”.[3]

[1] Custine A. de. Russia under Nicholas I. M.: “Terra”, 1990. P. 64. Further footnotes will contain the name of the author and the page number.

[2] Ibid. P. 25.

[3] Ibid. P. 34.

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