Russians in France


December 31, 2013 | BY Hong Kong Tatler

Recently, while I was strolling in Nice, I stumbled upon St Nicholas Cathedral in the middle of Le Piol, a residential district. I was enthralled to see an onion-domed Russian building amidst a foray of western architecture. When I went in to visit, I discovered that it is still a functional Russian Orthodox church and there was a sizeable congregation of Russians attending a mass in their own language.

Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Nice, France

This recalled memories from a Russian Literature course I took at university, where I learned that France was the leading power of Europe between 17th to 19th centuries due to trendsetting French Kings such as Henry IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV, and thought leaders of the Age of Enlightenment such as philosophers Voltaire and Diderot.

Through their influences, French was then the lingua franca of educated Europe. That was reflected in Russian novels where conversations between aristocracies were written in French while the rest of the novel remained in Russian. Discovering the large Russian population in Nice got me very curious on how this came to be and I decided to use what I know as a starting point and set out to find out why.

Coastline of Nice

Starting from the 17th Century, the Russian nobility adopted French as the language of conversation and correspondence. The nobility hired French governesses and tutors and thus contributed to the spread of French culture and educational methods among the aristocracy. Many Russians travelled to France for pleasure or study and vice versa. Overtime, the Russians and French shared a common cultural space, encouraging exchanges most notably in the areas of fine arts, sciences, and teaching.

Between 1892 to 1917, Europe was in a very unstable political environment. France and Russia shared geo-political interests vis-à-vis Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and drew them together diplomatically and economically, resulting in the French-Russian military pact in December 1893.  After the October Revolution of 1917, a large population of Russians fled the country, and France became an important country of Russian emigration in Europe.

1893 political cartoon depicting the French-Russian military pact.
The lady is Marianne, the symbol of France, and the bear is the symbol of Russia.

Due to the pleasant weather, many members of the Russian nobility chose to settle in the French Riviera and, in particular, Nice. By the end of the 19th century there was such a large Russian community in the city that the Tsar Nicolas II funded the construction of the Saint Nicholas Cathedral. (It was and still is the largest Russian Orthodox Cathedral built outside Russia.)

Saint Nicholas Cathedral is stunningly beautiful inside and out. Not only is its exterior dominating, its interior is equally attractive. In typical Russian Orthodox style, the interior is a treasure-trove of gold and religious icons. It contains a vast collection of icons, decorative woodwork, crowns and items of huge historical value, in part moved from Russia to Nice during the troubled times of the Russian Civil War.

Next time, when you are in Nice, don't forget to check out the Saint Nicholas Cathedral!

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