Monday, November 16, 2009

When Russia Spoke French

This interesting article tells us that in the early 1800s
France, its fashions, its art, and its language carried away the hearts in the Russian capital.
The aristocracy ate, drank, dressed, flirted, and cultivated themselves in French, while the Russian language was reserved for ordinary people and personal matters. Though official correspondence and social conversations were carried out in the language of Voltaire and Diderot, so close to the heart of
Catherine II, a fervent believer in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, billets-doux and family letters
were written in Russian. This complicated duality was mocked irreverently by Astolphe de Custine in his
travel-journal cum scathing attack on Russia. Without any regard for Czar Nicholas I whose hospitality
he had enjoyed from May to September 1839, and egged on by Balzac and the perfidious Talleyrand, the
eccentric marquis penned “Russia in 1839.” The book mocked the “Tatars” who used two languages, but
neither of them perfectly: one for social relations, the other for informal situations. Ironically, the first edition
in 1843 was an immediate success in Russia as well as in France. In fact, this linguistic duality was used as a façade that enabled the nobility to mask their true feelings, which suited the Russian mentality perfectly.

However, unaware of the future criticisms of the caustic Custine, Pushkin and his friends indulged themselves with Bordeaux wines and Veuve Clicquot champagne when they dined “chez Dumé,” a famous restaurant that had succeeded in subtly marrying Russian and French dishes. In fact, though the nobility swore only by Paris, it was also in order to adapt the style to the Russian way of life. They copied and borrowed while at the same time insisting on the specificity of their own language. Indeed,there was no question of slavishly copying French fashions. On the contrary. Those who did not know how to strike the happy medium were mercilessly mocked and dubbed copycats.

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