Myth of Russia in French Culture

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A prince met by Custine during his journey across Russia seems to have given him the clue to the puzzle – in the text it takes form of the following stunning argument: “Russia fell behind the West in every respect for four centuries”.[1] As a successor of the Enlightenment philosophers, he is constantly classifying and cataloguing: there are two types of people in Russia. Ones, out of trivial vanity, praise their homeland. The others, on the contrary, out of desire to appear cultivated and civilised, express, if it is of no danger to them, deep contempt and complete indifference towards it. The author puts the goal for his journey across Russia as follows: one should find the third type which corresponds with the French national code – a sincere person. However, as Custine remarks, there are no such people in Russia. He believes that French have nothing to learn from the Russians, since in this faraway northern country lives “an unnatural man who has been turned into a soulless machine”.[2] A country of barracks, torture chambers where the population consisting of automatons resembles chess pieces moved by a single person who sees the whole humanity as his invisible adversary.[3] In the end, the biggest dream of the traveller is to escape from “the country of façades and names”: “They have everything in name – they have civilisation, society, literature, the drama, the arts and sciences, but in reality they do not even have physicians”.[4] As a doctor, he eventually makes his own diagnosis: “Europe and Asia are closely entwined with each other here” and therefore Russia has no prospects for a civilised future.

A supporter of absolutism found no political or ideological asylum in Russia, after all. In the Russia of Nicholas I he was unpleasantly surprised by absolutely everything: not only by the “wild” people and cruel overlords, but also bed-bugs and roads, inns and tsar’s mansions. Being “inclined to live a comfortable life”, “elegant” and “freedom-loving”, Custine warns Europeans who sympathise with Russia. The country of slaves and hypocrites naïvely tries to imitate a true European culture and one must not believe in the sincerity of such attempts. On the way to Nizhny Novgorod A. de Custine makes the following notes: “I repeat: in this patriarchal country it is civilization that spoils man. By nature, a Slav is sharp, musical, almost compassionate, while a drilled subject of Nicholas is false, vain, despotic and imitative like a monkey. It will take a century and a half to reconcile their ways with European ideas…”.[5] At the same time, it should be acknowledged that in Custine’s text there is no fear of Russia the conqueror, of a Goliath in the north which is characteristic of the French perception after the defeat of Napoleon: in his work the Russian Empire is depicted as a colossus with feet of clay.

[1] Ibid. P. 37.

[2] Ibid. P. 41.

[3] Custine A. de. P. 41.

[4] Ibid. P. 51.

[5] Ibid. P. 219.

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