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Derek Offord, Lara Ryazanova‑Clarke, Vladislav Rjeoutski, Gesine Argent, eds., French and Russian in Imperial Russia, Vol. 1 : “Language Use among the Russian Elite”, vol. 2 : “Language Attitudes and Identity”

Gary Marker
p. 911-914
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Derek Offord, Lara Ryazanova‑Clarke, Vladislav Rjeoutski, Gesine Argent, eds., French and Russian in Imperial Russia, Vol. 1 : “Language Use among the Russian Elite,” 288 p., vol. 2 : “Language Attitudes and Identity,” 288 p., Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2015, 2 vol.

Texte intégral

1This two‑volume collection derives from a symposium held at the Princess Dashkova Russian Center of the University of Edinburgh during the summer of 2012. It includes twenty‑four articles of original research by scholars from several countries, as well as introductory and concluding essays by the editors, one of each per volume. The overarching focus is the place of French in the culture, speech, writing, and thinking among the educated Russian elites during approximately the first century and a half of the Empire.

2Assessing collective‑authored books invariably poses a challenge to the reviewer. Having conducted the obligatory and essential review of the separate contributions, one is obliged to inquire whether the volume constitutes something larger or more synthetic than the sum of its parts. Do the papers converge or collectively linger in our minds? Do they force us to think afresh about old questions, or to reflect upon entirely new approaches? By this calculus such volumes typically fall into one of three broad categories. The first and least successful variant might be scientifically termed polnaia kasha, in which the articles, good or bad, have little in common with one another and fail to inspire a coherent broader discussion. Typically reviewers treat these by praising the authors and chastising the editors. The second category, which we shall call kholodets, does better. The component elements, pleasing in themselves, congeal into in a common narrative whole, a unity discernible to the epicurean reviewer. But the end product nevertheless falls somewhat short of constituting a fully integrated chef d’œuvre (or perhaps shedevr). Reviewers come away from these with a sense of pleasure from the textual prandials, but wanting still more. The final category, however, the book reviewer’s ideal, is a piquant and savory pirog, elegantly crafted by editorial gourmands whose master work remains in one’s memory long after it has been consumed. So, where does this collection fall according to this unassailable metric? As we shall see, it ranks rather high.

3The first volume, “Language Use Among the Russian Elite,” begins with an introduction that lays out the themes to be explored, followed by a searching discussion of “French and Russian in Catherine’s Russia” by three of the editors (Offord, Argent, and Rjéoutski). Most of the other contributions present microstudies that concentrate on individuals, specific incidents, or particular media (the Francophone press: Rjéoutski and Natalia Speranskaia) and genres in which written and spoken French co‑existed or competed with Russian Topics include Catherine’s Letters to Melchior Grimm (Georges Dulac); language use by Radishchev (Rodolphe Baudin) the Stroganovs (Rjéoutski and Vladimir Somov); Karamzin (Liubov Sapchenko); and the Vorontsov family (Jessica Tipton). This volume also includes a cluster of papers that combine monographic approaches with somewhat broader inquiries about language and culture. Hence, Nina Dmitrieva and Gesine Argent inquire into the coexistence of French and Russian in the early nineteenth century around the complicated question of bilingualism vs. diglossia. Similarly, Xenia Borderioux analyzes the penetration of French terminology into the emerging discourse of fashion, while Sergei Klimenko and Iuliia Klimenko pose similar questions about technical architectural terminology.

4The second volume, subtitled “Language Politics and Identity,” continues the mode of close studies on specific themes, debates and individuals, while exploring some of the abiding questions of national identity and nationalism that come to the surface from the middle of Catherine’s reign forward. Some of the papers continue the focus on specific individuals and media. These include Michelle Marrese’s article on Ekaterina Dashkova; Svetlana Skmorokhova on Sumarokov; Argent’s piece on the language debate between Karamzin and Shishkov; D. Brian Kim on Krylov; Derek Offord’s discussion of Pushkin; and Gary Hamburg’s probing analysis of conservative writers during the reign of Alexander I. Other themes include Stephen Bruce’s discussion of Catherine II’s correspondence with European thinkers as a site of justification for a an educated Russian multilingualism (including languages other than French); Carole Chapin’s analysis of the image of Francophone culture through the lens of the periodical press; Olga Vassilieva‑Codognet’s extension of the exploration of the French language of fashion into the nineteenth century; and two searching articles on the meaning of keywords: the Russian renderings of Patrie during the Napoleonic era (Sara Dickinson) and the late Viktor Zhivov’s delightful discussion of languages of love (French and Russian) in eighteenth‑century Russian letters, beginning, as one would expect, with Vasilii Trediakovskii.

5Almost all of these objects of investigation are well‑known, and their individual musings about French and Russian reasonably familiar to specialists. The authors of these papers offer no bomb‑shells or daring rereadings of the texts. At the end of the day Shishkov is still a linguistic nationalist and Dashkova still loves French. Still, they offer quite a bit of food for thought and some plausible revisionism along the way. They approach their topics in varying ways, offer varying readings, and, if I am understanding them correctly, they disagree here and there in their conclusions. Some apply specific models to their subjects (e.g., Skomorokhova’s adoption of Itamar Even‑Zohar’s “polysystem theory” and the editors’ deployment of Harold Schiffman’s concept of “linguistic culture”). Others dwell instead at debates within the literature. What they share is an admirable insistence on, first, looking carefully at the actual texts, language(s) and arguments; secondly, taking the existing scholarship—both past and present—very seriously; and, third, complicating the standard narratives on French vs. Russian in the debates over national identity. In fact, I would suggest that this insistence on complicating our own narratives at both the biographical and discursive level constitutes the overarching contribution of these volumes taken as a whole.

6None of the writers discussed emerges as a simple nationalist or died‑in‑the‑wool cosmopolitan. All of them, even the most conservative defenders of an imaginary linguistic purity (e.g., Shishkov and some of the Slavophiles), see a place for both languages in Russian culture. Conversely, even the vaunted Francophiles express some anxieties about the native tongue, and they insist on its continued usage. As we see in the articles by Bruce and Marrese, both of the Enlightenment’s Catherines articulated instrumental ideologies toward the choice of language, whether written or spoken. Taken as a whole, these contributions imply that the ideological divides in Russian letters were on one hand longer lived, and on the other hand narrower and more contingent than we might have thought.

7Several of the papers convincingly identify the Napoleonic era as a liminal or transitional moment in this regard. France, now the enemy and invader, was the object of almost unrestrained vilification. In itself this volte face is hardly surprising. Enemies on the battle field, be they Tatars, Ottomans, Swedes, Poles, or Germans, nearly always become reimagined as the apotheosis of evil: barbarians, infidels, monsters. But this iteration seemingly cut deeper and felt more like a betrayal. Stephen Norris’ book, A War of Images, drew much the same conclusion about the Napoleonic era’s effect on popular patriotism. For some of the writers discussed here the now demonized enemy drove them to becoming out‑and‑out Gallophobes (see Offord’s essay on anti‑French elements in Russian comedies) and rejection of most things French, language included. But even then rejections were partial and contingent. Several writers articulated a distinction between the written word (still worthy of respect) and the political nation (demonic and deserving of condemnation stretching back in time). Even Admiral Shishkov, the ceaseless creator of `pure’ slavicisms and scourge of all linguistic imports, comes across in two lively essays, by Argent and Gary Hamburg respectively, as a somewhat more complex thinker than he is typically depicted.

8The authors in Volume 2 seem to be in agreement that most of the Russian elite spoke French well by the early nineteenth century, and that some a‑la‑Lotman were indeed more comfortable in French than in Russian. Few of the contributions engage Lotman or Moscow/Tartu semiotics directly, but they implicitly part company with his argument that they had become virtual foreigners to their own land and tongue. Here one sees the influence of Marrese’s important essay, “The Poetics of Everyday Behavior,” published in Kritika some years ago, in which Marrese points out the frequency with which these “Europeans” continued to employ Russian as their lingua franca. Her contribution to this collection revisits some of these same issues by looking at Princess Dashkova, a completely bilingual and possibly polylingual figure, who, as Marrese shows, took a highly instrumental, even scholarly approach to languages. She explicates what she describes as the tension between Dashkova’s cosmopolitanism and her commitment to sustaining and enriching Russian culture.

9To return to our holistic metric: Do the pieces relate to clearly articulated common themes? (yes); do they relate to one another and even make cross references from one article to the next? (yes); do the editors include their own narrative guides or signposts to the reader that introduce and summarize the body of work? (yes). The points of intersection are multiple and visible.

10Clearly, then, well above the kasha register, and at the very least firmly achieving kholodets status and climbing confidently toward the ethereal pirog. The editors provide very helpful commentaries for each volume, and I think every reader will appreciate them. They largely address the papers ad seriatim, and shy away from typologies or theoretical reflections. I appreciate and fully endorse their desire to break down received categories and substitute for them closer and more nuanced readings. In this the collection is fully successful. Even the studies of language and its usage on a broad stage, such as those by Dickinson and Zhivov, stay very close to their sources, and insist on citing chapter and verse and remain deliberate in drawing wider conclusions. Nevertheless, I would suggest that there are revisionary interpretive and even paradigmatic implications in this body of work about the ever elusive heurism, “Russian culture.” Given how much thought the authors and editors put into these pieces, I for one would have appreciated some additional suggestions on what they say about the state of the literature; which of our many enduring models need revisiting; and what the future lines of argumentation may be.

11In the space remaining, let me briefly lay out a couple of areas where I see these lines of research leading. First, in the realm of interpretation, I wonder whether the more nuanced picture that emerges of the elite’s Russian‑French pasdedeux inclines us toward a more fully revisionary understanding of the Russia‑and‑Europe binarisms, or does it merely refine or adjust current understandings. More broadly, in this post‑Lotman era, do the essays move us away from ‘dual models’ altogether, or perhaps to a lowering of them from the heuristic heights that they have occupied for so long? Looking at these essays against the backdrop of Zhivov’s seminal book, Iazyk i kul´tura v Rossii XVIII v. [Language and culture in eighteenth‑century Russia], raises for me the entire question of our and their understanding of literary language, Russian or French in particular as it relates to the contestations over national identity and consciousness. A number of the essays show that their subjects insisted upon a separation between language and nation, while others insisted on their indivisibility. Where does that particularism leave us? Regarding professional (fashion, architecture, economics) or particular (love) gallicization, can we draw out deeper implications about the development of specialized or professional language in general, or what it might imply about obshchestvo [society], professions, or—dare I say it—public space? Finally, on the matter of periodization, a number of the papers seem to call into question the old idea that the Chaadaev‑to‑Slavophilism years constituted an epistemic shift in Russian thought. They lean instead toward a more nuanced and elongated transition, lasting many years and marked by several disruptive moments, but with no single rupture. Do we want to engage this idea further?

12One does not pose such questions unless one is stimulated to think about the broader meanings of the individual contributions. That fact alone marks the volumes as a major success. I applaud the editors, and the conference that preceded the books, and I can only hope that the contributors are inspired to reconvene and take the discussion(s) to the next phase. Let there be Volume 3!

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Gary Marker, « Derek Offord, Lara Ryazanova‑Clarke, Vladislav Rjeoutski, Gesine Argent, eds., French and Russian in Imperial Russia, Vol. 1 : “Language Use among the Russian Elite”, vol. 2 : “Language Attitudes and Identity” », Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 57/4 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2016, Consulté le 19 août 2017. URL :

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Gary Marker

Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY

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© École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris.

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