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France & Russia - A Unique Relationship

France & Russia - A Unique Relationship Shapero Rare Books
When the new capital city of St Petersburg was founded in 1703, on the boggy delta of the river Neva, it created a door to Western Europe. Along with the beautiful palaces and landscaped gardens, salon culture and the French language arrived, embedding a Parisian ambition amongst the aristocracy.
France & Russia - A Unique Relationship Shapero Rare Books

As readers of War and Peace will know, speaking French in elite circles was simply ‘comme il faut’ and even Pushkin, the father of Russian literature, wrote his first verse in French. Idealising a French model effectively suppressed every aspect of traditional folk culture; ballet was introduced and plays, operas and novels were almost exclusively French. Yet the upper classes experienced a certain loss in national pride, and Fonvizin’s Ivan in The Brigadier (1769) even proclaimed ‘anyone who has been to Paris has the right not to count himself Russian anymore’.

Educated in European style lycées and gymnasiums the aristocracy still felt somewhat inferior with their Gallic imitations. As Dostoevsky wrote in Writer’s Diary, the Russians would always be nothing more than ‘hangers-on’ in Europe. Their rootless identity was further wounded by the utter humiliation of Napoleon’s entry into Moscow following the Battle of Borodino. It seemed as though despite the Russian Empire’s best attempts they would never be on par with the nation they tried so hard to emulate. All was not lost however, and two years later Tsar Alexander I was handed the key to the city of Paris after successfully forcing Napoleon to capitulate. According to etymological legend Russian officers even left the city a permanent gift from their brief sojourn. Demanding that their food be served quickly as possible they shouted ‘bystro!’ to the waiters, thus coining the term bistro.

Relations warmed up in the latter stages of the nineteenth century with increasing economic cooperation, culminating in the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894. Presidents Felix Faure and Émile Loubet both visited St Petersburg and were toasted as warm friends and allies by Nicholas II (in French of course). The Tsar laid the foundation stone for the Parisian bridge named after his father, Alexander III in 1896 and Félix Faure reciprocated the sentiment for the Trinity Bridge in Petersburg a year later, cementing the quite literal bridge-building between the two countries. However, the Revolution of 1917 changed the trajectory of the two nations’ fates once again and a mistrust drove a wedge between them.

In the midst of a diplomatic frost, France became a haven for the Empire’s talent. Russian émigrés fled their homeland, making perilous journeys across Europe, most losing their vast fortunes along the way. French culture and styles had been exported to Russia for centuries but émigré artists were now flourishing in their adoptive home and became leaders of artistic movements. Nijinsky, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes revolutionised dance whilst Kandinsky, Goncharova and Chagall did the same for art. As Chagall once said of France ‘there, in the south, for the first time in my life, I saw that rich greenness – the like of which I had never seen in my own country’. A burgeoning symbiosis of French and Russian art was born and one for which we are all truly grateful.

Discover more: Russian Art, Russian Theatre and Ballet, Ballets Russes

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Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

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