French Influence in Russia

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The first real manifestations of the influence of France in Russia date from Russia's first political opening toward Europe, undertaken by Peter the Great (r. 16821725) and further advanced by Catherine II (r. 17621796). In the first instance, this influence was cultural. The adoption of the French language as the language of conversation and correspondence by the nobility encouraged access to French literature. The nobility's preference for French governesses and tutors contributed to the spread of French culture and educational methods among the aristocracy. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Russian nobility still preferred French to Russian for everyday use, and were familiar with French authors such as Jean de la Fontaine, George Sand, Eugene Sue, Victor Hugo, and Honoré de Balzac.

The influence of France was equally strong in the area of social and political ideas. Catherine II's interest in the writings of the philosophers of the EnlightenmentBaron Montesquieu, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Voltaire, and Denis Diderotcontributed to the spread of their ideas in Russia during the eighteenth century. The empress conducted regular correspondence with Voltaire, and received Diderot at her court. Convinced that it was her duty to civilize Russia, she encouraged the growth of a critical outlook and, as an extension of this, of thought regarding Russian society and a repudiation of serfdom, which had consequences following her own reign.

The support of Catherine II for the spirit of the Enlightenment was nonetheless shaken by the French Revolution of 1789. It ceased entirely with the execution of King Louis XVI (January 1793). The empress was unable to accept such a radical challenge to the very foundations of autocratic rule. From the close of her reign onward, restrictions on foreign travel increased, and contacts were severely curtailed. Despite this change, however, liberal ideas that had spread during the eighteenth century continued to circulate throughout Russia during the nineteenth, and the French Revolution continued to have a persistent influence on the political ideas of Russians. When travel resumed under Alexander I (ruled 18011825), Russians once again began to travel abroad for pleasure or study. This stimulated liberal ideas that pervaded progressive and radical political thought in Russia during the nineteenth century. The welcome that France extended to political exiles strengthened its image as a land of liberty and of revolution.

During the nineteenth century, travel in France was considered a form of cultural and intellectual apprenticeship. Study travel abroad by Russians, as well as trips to Russia by the French, shared a common cultural space, encouraging exchanges most notably in the areas of fine arts, sciences, and teaching. Because they shared geopolitical interests vis à vis Germany and Austria-Hungary, France and Russia were drawn together diplomatically and economically after 1887. This resulted, in December 1893, in the ratification of a defensive alliance, the French-Russian military pact. At the same time, French investment capital helped finance the modernization of the Russian economy. Between 1890 and 1914, numerous French industrial and banking houses established themselves in Russia. French and Belgian capital supplied the larger part of the flow of investment funds, the largest share of which went into mining, metallurgy, chemicals, and especially railroads. The largest French banks, notably the Crédit Lyonnais, made loans to or invested in Russian companies. Public borrowing by the Russian state, totaling between eleven and twelve billion gold francs, was six times greater than direct investment on the part of the French.

On the eve of 1914, there were twelve thousand French nationals in Russia. Forty consuls were in the country looking out for French interests. French newspapers had permanent correspondents in St. Petersburg. In 1911, l'Institut Français (a French institute) was created there to help spread French culture in Russia. In fact, from the 1890s onward, France's cultural presence in Russia was consistently viewed as an adjunct to its policy of industrial and commercial implantation.

Following the close of the nineteenth century, the role of France as a land that welcomed political exiles and refugees had a reciprocal influence on the countries from which they came. When they returned to Russia, some of these individuals brought back ideas as well as social, pedagogical, and political experiences. For example, the experience acquired by Maxim Kovalevsky (18511916), professor of law and sociology, as the head of the Ecole supérieure russe des sciences sociales de Paris (the Russian Advanced School for Social Sciences in Paris), founded in 1901, served to organize the Université populaire Shanyavsky in Moscow (the Shanyavsky People's University), founded in 1908.

After the October Revolution of 1917, Paris, along with Berlin and Prague, was one of the three principal cities of Russian emigration in Europe. A hub of intellectual activity from the 1920s onward, the French capital was among the leading centers abroad for publishing Russian newspapers and books, of which a portion subsequently made its way into Russia, thereby helping to bind the emigrant population with Soviet Russians back home. The suspension of scientific and cultural relations between the USSR and the rest of the world, starting in the mid-1930s, put an end to this exchange.

The cultural influence of France did not disappear, however. Beginning in 1954, new attempts were made to bring France and the USSR closer together, beginning with cultural exchanges. During that year the Comédie française made a triumphant tour of the Soviet Union. Later, the trip by General Charles de Gaulle, in June of 1966, marked the beginning of a time of privileged relations between the two countries. A joint commission was created to foster exchange, and numerous cultural agreements were signed, some of which remained in effect during the early twenty-first century. French teaching assistants were appointed in Soviet universities, the teaching of French was expanded at the secondary school level, and agreements were signed for the distribution of French films in the USSR.

In the end, in the perception of the Russian people, France has remained the country of the Revolution of 1789 and the homeland of the Rights of Man. From the 1960s onward, French intellectuals outside of Russia strengthened this image by supporting the cause of Soviet dissidents. It is again in the name of human rights that France has attempted, since 1994, to soften the position of the Russian government with regard to Chechnya.

See also: catherine ii; enlightenment, impact of; france, relations with


De Madariaga, Isabel. (1998). Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia. London: Longman.

Kaufman, Peter H. (1994). The Solidarity of a Philosophe: Diderot, Russia, and the Soviet Union. New York: P. Lang.

Raeff, Marc. (1994). Political Ideas and Institutions in Imperial Russia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas. (1999). A History of Russia, 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shlapentokh, Dmitry. (1996). The French Revolution in Russian Intellectual Life, 18651905. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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Wesling, Molly W. (2001). Napoleon in Russian Cultural Mythology. New York: P. Lang.

Martine Mespoulet

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French Influence in Russia

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