Nostalgia for la belle France will no doubt be cherished in the hearts and minds of Russians for some time to come, but for many in French society today, it seems love for Russia begins and ends with a bottle of Russkii Standart
In 2013, the world-renowned French actor and Russophile, Gerard Depardieu, featured in this (rather dramatic) Russian watch advert promoting the "Proud to be Russian" collection:
It's a rare occurrence to see a well-known European speaking Russian. But Depardieu is one of a kind. He had recently accepted Russian citizenship, presented to him personally by President Putin. For Russians it was a symbolic gesture; a celebration of Russian-French relations, which had always been congenial on a cultural level, if not always on a political one.
From Catherine the Great's great friendship with Voltaire, to the Russian obsession with mayonnaise, Russians have had an affinity with French literature, food, art and music for centuries. Even nineteenth century Russia's love of the French arts, epitomised in their adoption of ballet, extended into the Soviet period, with stars such as Jean Marais and later Gerard Depardieu and Patricia Kaas becoming household names.
But has the feeling been mutual? The 2013 BBC World Service survey, notably carried out prior to the Ukraine crisis, reflected a striking discord between French and Russian public opinion, as 63% of French viewed Russia's influence as negative and only 25% considered it positive. By contrast, 49% of Russians believed France had a positive impact and a minority of 10% regarded it as negative. Fueling French opinion apparently was perceived disregard for human rights and freedom of speech under the "Putin regime". However, a contributory factor undoubtedly was German-led EU foreign policy, firmly in line with the US position on Russia. It seems that politics is colouring the French-Russian relationship more than it has ever before. After all, not even the invasion of Napoleon inflicted long-term damage on their "particular bond", as it was described by political scientist Marie Madras.
With the absence of a mutual enemy — Germany — in the 21st century, opposing views on the Syrian crisis and the recent French threat to cancel its delivery of Mistral helicopter ships to Russia due to the Ukrainian crisis, it seems that the relationship faces a dubious future. Economic pragmatism is the order of the day on both sides; a mercurial phenomenon subject to slight changes on the diplomatic thermometer. Nostalgia for la belle France will no doubt be cherished in the hearts and minds of Russians for some time to come, but for many in French society today, it seems love for Russia begins and ends with a bottle of Russkii Standart. And with EU sanctions in place, the future of that is not certain either.
Johanna Ganyukova is a graduate from the University of Edinburgh in Russian Studies and is completing an Msc at the University of Glasgow in Russian, Central and Eastern European Studies. She is RI’s Russian Media Editor