The French Language in Russia: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Literary History

By Gesine Argent

Many accounts of life in the Russian empire, especially the empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, express the idea that French was a universal language for the higher echelons of Russian society. French, so the story goes, was adopted by the Russian nobility in the eighteenth century, and became the only acceptable language for communication among this social group. However, the language fell out of use in the nineteenth century as a result of the Napoleonic wars, rising national sentiment and a rejection of the former ‘Western’ ways. This straightforward version of the history of the French language in Russia can be found both in popular accounts and in scholarly studies of Russia, but hides the more complex picture of French language use that a recently published major monograph unveils.

The French Language in Russia: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Literary History presents the overall results of the project “The History of the French Language in Russia” at the University of Bristol, directed by Derek Offord and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. The project ran from 2011 until 2015; further information on its activities and outputs can be found here.

Cover of the book „The French Language in Russia“

The French Language in Russia examines the adoption of the French language by the elites of imperial Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is interdisciplinary, approaching its subject from the angles of various kinds of history and historical sociolinguistics. The research for this book made use of a large corpus of archival documents and manuscripts. The book examines where French was used (in which physical places, social situations, and genres of text), when Russians started to use French, who spoke and wrote French and why, and what comments and debates this language use elicited. Another major topic for the research project was whether the Russian case was exceptional or whether French use in Russia was part of a larger transregional practice.

Foreign language use first started spreading in the Russian empire from the days of Peter the Great (sole ruler 1696-1725), who drove forward the modernisation of the empire, which meant Westernisation. Knowledge about diverse fields, from architecture, shipbuilding and mining to art, music and literature, could only be accessed via experts who spoke foreign languages, and the books and instruction manuals they wrote in those languages. French by no means had a preeminent position among the many foreign languages spoken in Russia in Peter the Great’s time. The book details how French rose to prominence in an age when new codes of sociability developed, driven by the imperial court but also the wider noble sphere. With Elizabeth I (ruled 1741-1762), a highly Francophile ruler ascended the throne. French then became a sign of social status, an important marker of social identity. Speaking and writing in French went hand in hand with other signs of noble habitus and French was the language bound up with pursuits such as salon culture, dancing at balls, card-playing and musical life.

Of course French was used also to communicate with those who had no Russian language skills, for example in diplomacy and other official domains, as one chapter of the book shows. French was also used for propagandistic purposes, to forge a favourable image of Russia as an international, westward-looking country that was a legitimate member of the European family of nations and to counteract accounts of Russia as a backward, uncivilised place. Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-1796), for example, corresponded with Voltaire in French – Voltaire praised her as ‘the Semiramis of the North’ – and bought Denis Diderot’s library in a bid for positive publicity. Many publications in French written by Russians were intended for an international audience, to show how advanced literary, political and social life was in Russia.

As important as French was, the notion that it was the only acceptable language for the Russian nobility until it was roundly rejected in the nineteenth century is not borne out by research carried out on the basis of archival documents which forms the basis for this book. In fact, we find a multilingual and multifaceted situation, where French was used alongside other languages, and Russian was used across genres and by many people who were also using French, colourful anecdotes of this or that Russian personage expressing themselves clumsily in Russian (if at all) notwithstanding. What is more, even when debates commenced about the harm of using French rather than Russian (which was felt to be in need of much development to be serviceable as the language of all domains), French continued to play a significant role. The famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin may serve as an example. He was nicknamed ‘the Frenchman’ at college for his impeccable French language skills and many extant letters show him as an accomplished correspondent in French. Yet, he lamented the ‘laziness’ that induced his peers to use French words and phrases rather than carefully cultivate their own native language, a statement which continues to be quoted in language debates of today.

French language use was cited by nineteenth-century thinkers and later scholars such as Jury Lotman as evidence for Russians’ estrangement from their roots. On an individual level, however, the overwhelming majority of francophone nobles display an uncomplicated attitude to language use. These individuals feel themselves part of a transregional, pan-European corporation and combine patriotic feelings towards Russia with using multiple languages. Francophonie was of course a pan-European phenomenon. Despite the particularities of the Russian linguistic landscape, there is much it has in common with other European countries were francophonie was widespread. Thus, the book invites the reader to look beyond the experience of a single nation and the social groups and individuals within it in order to discover how languages and the cultures and narratives associated with them have been shared across national boundaries.


The French Language in Russia. A Social, Political, Cultural and Literary History, ed. by Gesine Argent, Derek Offord and Vladislav Rjéoutski (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 702 p., ISBN 978 94 6298 272 7.

Gesine Argent is Centre Manager and Research Associate at the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

Derek Offord is Emeritus Professor and Senior Reserach Fellow at the University of Bristol.

Vladislav Rjéoutski is a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Moscow.


Citation: Gesine Argent, The French Language in Russia: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Literary History, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.12.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/16019.


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