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  • The French Language in Russia: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Literary History by Derek Offord, Vladislav Rjéoutski, and Gesine Argent
  • Helena Duffy
The French Language in Russia: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Literary History. By Derek Offord, Vladislav Rjéoutski, and Gesine Argent. (Languages and Culture in History, 8.) Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. 702 pp.

When fighting against Napoleon, the future Decembrist Nikita Muravyov was captured by Russian peasants who, judging him by the poor quality of his Russian, mistook him for a French soldier. If this anecdote illustrates the detrimental effect of the widespread use of French by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian nobility on their command of the vernacular, it does not support the correlated idée reçue that Russian aristocracy lacked allegiance to their homeland. Focusing on the period 1700–1881, this book challenges these and other commonplaces surrounding bilingualism in tsarist Russia, such as the notion that Russian culture is unique or exceptional, or that it has been predicated on a dualism, be it external (Russia vs ‘the West’) or internal (French-speaking nobility vs Russian-speaking peasantry). More broadly, this study, which results from an AHRC-funded international collaboration based at the University of Bristol (2011–2015) and which, while being strongly interdisciplinary, situates itself within the relatively new field of historical sociolinguistics, approaches its subject from two different angles: language practice and language attitudes. Chapters 3–7 address the use of French at the Russian court, in high society, in diplomacy, and in literature, as well as its contribution to Russia’s image in ‘the West’. In Chapters 8 and 9, attention shifts to the link between language and identity, revisiting Russian Gallophobia and, more generally, the opposition between Westernizers, who believed that Russia should overcome its backwardness by adopting Western ways, and Slavophiles, who advocated progress through adherence to native traditions and values. The book’s final chapter looks at literary representations of Russian francophonie in the work of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. Undoubtedly long awaited by scholars working within both French and Russian studies, this monograph thus offers a multifaceted and well-contextualized examination of an important and unparalleled yet, as the authors argue, often misconstrued phenomenon. More specifically, this meticulously researched and clearly presented study contributes to the knowledge of the social, political, and cultural implications of bilingualism, and of some grand narratives of Russian thought, such as Russia’s ambivalence towards ‘the West’. Finally, the book adds to our understanding of the pan-European phenomenon of francophonie, not to mention its great significance in our age of global connectivity. Intellectually rigorous, and based on an impressive wealth of multilingual published sources as well as unpublished or not readily available material, this book offers a new and refreshingly positive take on a subject that has traditionally been viewed negatively or at least through the prism of politically inflected stereotypes. Rather than as an obstacle to the nation-building process or as evidence of Russian culture’s backward and derivative nature, this book construes Russian francophonie as a means of fruitful cultural exchanges between Russia and the West; a source of inspiration and enrichment for Russian politics, thought, and literature; and, consequently, an invaluable factor in the creation of Russian national identity and of Russia’s position on the world’s political and cultural scene.

Helena Duffy
Royal Holloway, University of London


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