The Czar of the French

MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin has finally done it. Russia has been vying for the West’s esteem for centuries, with approval by the French – a sought-after prize since the time of Peter the Great – coveted the most. But, despite the defeat of Napoleon and the World War I alliance, Russia could never get any respect from France. Indeed, the Marquis de Custine’s Letters from Russia suggested that Russian civilization amounted to little more than the mimicry of monkeys.

But now the French seal of approval seemingly has been bestowed. And what a gargantuan seal it is, coming in the corpulent form of the actor Gérard Depardieu, who sought – and has now received – Russian citizenship. Along with a passport comes an offer of a free apartment in the Mordovia region (still a Gulag site) and even a job as the local culture minister. Two centuries after French troops were run out of Moscow in 1812, Putin has succeeded in making a French popular idol want to be Russian.

In Russia and elsewhere, the French are often perceived to feel and act superior. And who could blame them? French artistic beauty is second to none. The French are the arbiters of European culture, and have long been among the shrewdest observers of other countries’ manners and mores. Indeed, in the 1830’s, two Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Custine, went to the outskirts of civilization to describe the future superpower rivals, America and Russia.

Until 1861, Russia was a backward country in which serfdom reigned and royals and aristocrats envied the latest French fashions. From Alexander Pushkin’s poems to Leo Tolstoy’s novels, French influence pervades the commanding heights of Russian culture. Russia’s most famous museum, the Hermitage, is second only to the Louvre in its collection of French art. Peter the Great, in his eighteenth-century effort to Westernize Russia, invited Jean-Baptiste Le Blond to become the chief architect of his new capital, St. Petersburg.

But forget Peter the Great: Now “Vova the Little” – or Lilli-Putin, as Georgia’s sharp-tongued president, Mikheil Saakashvili, once dubbed Russia’s president – may have pulled off an even greater coup. When Depardieu was planning to cross the border into dull little Belgium to avoid French taxes, the Russians made him an offer that he could not refuse: not just a flat 13% income-tax rate, but a chance to poke French President François Hollande in the eye.

The ever-vain Depardieu (and what actor isn’t vain?) will be a god in Russia. We love the French in general, but we adore him in particular. After all, he starred in the 2011 film about the life of the mad monk Grigory Rasputin. He was portly Porthos in Alexander Dumas’s classic The Three Musketeers (in 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask), and played the lead in the film version of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), which is almost as popular with Russians as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Like all Russian leaders, Putin affects a deep love of culture. In the absence of fair elections, Kremlin occupants traditionally seek legitimacy by attracting artists to their side: if a beloved actor, writer, sculptor, or musician loves Putin, how could anyone feel otherwise?

I myself once witnessed Putin courting culture. It was New Year’s Eve 2003, during a concert at the newly opened House of Music in Moscow. Directly across the aisle from me, there was Putin, sitting between the one-time dissident cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his equally famous wife, opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya. Russia’s leader was like a kid in a candy store – thrilled to be surrounded by these cultural icons, former exiles no less. And the icons were obviously flattered by Putin’s adoration (and by their proximity to power).

Putin has finally proved that he is capable of exploits that no czar could accomplish. All that tough anti-Western rhetoric on behalf of the nation – the bare-chested horsemanship, the kissing of tigers, and the flying with cranes – has paid off: the aloof French have at long last recognized Russian superiority and are sending one of their greatest representatives to partake of it.

Indeed, not long after Depardieu’s change of allegiance, a French icon of an even older vintage, Brigitte Bardot, suggested that she, too, might embrace Russia. In her own words, she “decided to seek Russian nationality in order to flee this country, which is nothing but an animal cemetery,” because it has “the cowardice and impudence” to consider euthanizing two elephants in the Lyon zoo.

Putin does share Bardot’s love of animals – not only his pets (especially his dog Koni, whose consolation he allegedly seeks when grieving), but also the co-stars of his mostly animal-centered publicity stunts. It is with less obedient people that he has problems – say, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, imprisoned for more than ten years after backing Putin’s political opponents; Anna Politkovskaya, brutally murdered in 2006 for her investigative reporting on his regime’s misdeeds in Chechnya; and Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblowing lawyer who died in prison in 2009 after being refused medical treatment. Putin’s most vocal current foe, the lawyer Alexei Navalny, has been investigated three times for supposedly stealing millions of dollars.

But one has to appreciate the historical absurdity. Putin, after more than a decade in power, has lost the support of his own, usually quiescent citizens, who have had rather limited experience with democracy. And it is the French, the avatars of Enlightenment and the Rights of Man, who have stepped in to provide a patina of legitimacy to his political twilight.