Myth of Russia in French Culture

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The book of Astolphe de Custine did not become a mere fact in cultural history: it gave life to the modern French myth which is, however, is more neutral today. A mid-19th century reader may consider this text a “landmark”. This thought, albeit a rather controversial one, was expressed by S. Hessen and A. Predtechenski: “While for Russian readers Custine’s book transpired to be a mirror of sorts in which they, conflicted, recognised themselves, Europeans saw it as a key to breaking the mysterious cipher, a key to understanding of many aspects and phenomena of the puzzling country that stubbornly makes its way to get a leading role in the European play”.[1]

Negative notions that form Custine’s myth about Russia were quickly adopted in the Western Europe since the public opinion had already been adapted for it by Georg von Helbig, a Saxon aristocrat and diplomat, who accompanied Catherine the Great in her journey to Crimea. The Russia “of façades” of the French traveller is derived from the myth about a country of “Potemkin villages” that became known in the West due to Helbig’s publications and his lampoon about prince Potemkin-Tavricheski titled Panslavin – Prince of Darkness. It is known that G. Helbig, like Custine after him, disliked Russia and suffered from lack of comfort there. But he was particularly annoyed at Russia’s rapprochement with Europe after its neighbour in the East won the war with Turkey. He was confident that Russia should not rule the world as an equal to Europe, while the facts proved the contrary: by the middle of the 19th century Russia conquered vast territories in the south, gained access to the sea and built a powerful fleet. Helbig, however, played the corruption card that is so often used today in business and politics.

In his lampoon Catherine’s favourite is depicted as an adventurer and a scoundrel, a liar, an embezzler and a briber. Heblig created a myth about “Potemkin villages” which allegedly appeared in great abundance along Catherine’s route to Crimea in 1878. But the historical truth is different. Everyone was astonished by the scale of construction works launched by prince Potemkin for the sake of Catherine’s glory; the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol became the apex of his constructive work. The real villages, built by Potemkin with fine taste, on a grand scale and with care of the population, greatly impressed the Empress’ entourage that counted many foreigners (Joseph II of Austria travelled incognito with Catherine II).

[1] Hessen S., Predtechenski A. Marquis de Custine and His Memoirs // Custine A. de. Russia of Nicholas I. M.: Izdatelstvo Politkatorzhan, 1930 P. 13.

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