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When Russia Spoke French: Paris - St. Petersburg 1800-1830

The exhibition When Russia Spoke French: Paris - St. Petersburg 1800 - 1830, which opened in Paris in May 2003 to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg, became one of the key international events dedicated to the celebration. Inspired and funded by Mr. Vladimir Potanin and Interros company, this was the first project of such a scale supported by an individual and not by the state. During the opening remarks Mikhail Shwydkoi, Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, commented on a personal involvement of Mr. Potanin: business circles actively promote the development of deep cultural ties. The exhibition itself he characterized as a “history lesson where uniforms and arsenal of the two… armies… were brought together”.

The exposition’s conception to show the similarities in cultural heritage of both nations through the similarities of fates and the venue at Les Invalides which belongs to the Ministry of Defense of French Republic were also truly unique.

Bernard Devaux, General Director of the Army Museum in 1998-2003, spoke of the exhibition: “this event… allows to highlight mutual relations and mutual influence of the two nations in cultural, artistic and value-based dimensions. This remarkable event calls for bringing back the initial role of, as Pushkin named it, ‘a window to Europe’ to the city founded by Peter the Great and turn it into the window for Paris for a while”.

And thought the history of cultural and political relations between Russia and France were never easy, the War of 1812 didn’t ruin the mutual internal sympathy of the peoples to each other, and French society made a major impact on lives of the Tsarist Russia cultural elite. The definition given to the exhibition by Mikhail Piotrovsky, The State Hermitage Director, can be the keynote of the event: ‘Russia and France were connected by one destiny which defined many things not only in everyday life. The two empires went side-by-side, yet so different. Historians tell very long stories. Art shows it all without any single word. Cultural similarity, the basis for which was laid by the century of Enlightenment, was much stronger than political conflicts’.

About two thirds out of 300 exhibit items (organizers had claimed that it was totally coincidental) were presented by the State Hermitage. Other participating museums included the Kremlin Museum, Pavlovsk, State Historical museum and State Archive of the Russian Federation. Some of the objects never traveled outside of Russia but still were bight examples of complex relations between Russia and France.

Thus, a two-meter tall vase Russia made in the empire style originated between war and peace, was manufactured by the order of the Tsar family to commemorate the 15-th anniversary of victory over Napoleon, but was produced by French working at the Imperial porcelain factory in St. Petersburg as they were the unquestionably the best in this field.

Despite the military conflict and the victory of Alexander I over Napoleon, Russian and French cultures in 19th century were interconnected. Leading French architects and painters: Auguste Montferrand, Charles Percier, Pierre-Francois Fontaine served as a great inspiration to Russian artists. At the same time French maitres found the Russian Tsar fascinating, displaying his portraits on cameos, fabrics, cups, engravings.

The exhibition in Paris was really popular among the audience and once again proved that the language of culture facilitates rapprochement and understanding.