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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.