Returning home from a visit to Russia in 1774, the philosophe Denis Diderot wrote that in France, he could not “help but think that I’ve the soul of a slave in a country where men are called free,” whereas in Russia he “had the soul of a free man in a country where men are called slaves.”
Has Gérard Depardieu had similar thoughts of late?
On Sunday, President Vladimir V. Putin welcomed the French actor to Russia with a newly issued Russian passport. Mr. Depardieu, outraged by the French Socialist government’s proposed 75 percent wealth tax, had walked out on his country. A fan of Russia’s low taxes, he also praised its “great democracy”: “I love your country, Russia — its people, its history, its writers. I love your culture, your intelligence.” Mr. Putin’s increasing authoritarianism went unmentioned.
In the centuries since French celebrities began washing up on its shores, Russia has used them to affirm itself as a center of European culture, as well as to poke its finger in the eye of Western nations. Russia has always needed its Depardieus, just as much as they needed Russia.
Diderot’s reasons for visiting were not terribly different from Mr. Depardieu’s. Catherine the Great had repeatedly expressed her desire to meet the celebrated philosophe. In an age of enlightened despotism, when kings made a show of seeking the guidance of philosophers on how best to rule, such an invitation was hard to ignore. This was certainly the case for Diderot, editor of the Encyclopédie, whose entry on government affirmed that the laws of nature and reason must guide rulers in bettering the lot of the people, for whom the greatest good is liberty. (That famous line attributed to Diderot — about the last king being strangled by the entrails of the last priest — did not make the great work.)
The more pressing motivation, however, was financial: Diderot was broke. Catherine thus took the extraordinary step of buying Diderot’s personal library, leaving it in his possession until his death and paying him a salary as librarian. In return, in 1773, Diderot went to St. Petersburg, where he enjoyed long tête-à-têtes with Catherine, whom he described as embodying the charms of Cleopatra and the soul of Caesar.
Catherine was thrilled to boast of Diderot’s friendship, and their conversations left some lasting marks — the bruises on Catherine’s legs, for example, when the excited philosophe grasped them tightly to make a point — but the empress had little patience with his idealism. “If I had followed his advice,” she said of her visiting Frenchman, “everything would have been turned upside down in my kingdom.”
La mission civilisatrice — France’s civilizing mission — was nevertheless started in Russia, and furthered by a wave of French celebrity émigrés fleeing the very event for which thinkers like Diderot were held responsible: the revolution. Few countries seemed safer for French aristocrats than reactionary Russia.
Small wonder, then, that Joseph de Maistre, the dark genius of counterrevolutionary thought from Savoy, ended up taking a diplomatic posting in St. Petersburg. The city became the setting for his “St. Petersburg Dialogues,” which, in voluptuous French, offered a profoundly grim view of human nature. Man was violent and domineering; society needed a strong hand. Near the beginning, Maistre, gazing on a statue of Peter the Great, rhapsodized: “His terrible arm is still extended” over Russia. “Looking at him, one does not know whether this bronze hand protects or threatens.” The answer for Maistre, of course, was both, and he helped provide an intellectual justification for the dim brutality of the czarist state.
A new generation of French intellectuals and artists arrived after 1917, the revolution that grew out of 1789. The Surrealist Louis Aragon, who toured Russia in the 1930s, was just one who was dazzled by what he wanted to see. He praised the science of the re-education of man unfolding in Stalin’s gulag, while in his notorious poem “Red Front” he urged, in Lenin’s name, the massacre of France’s bourgeois political leaders.
Set alongside these remarks, Mr. Depardieu’s sallies on Russian democracy are mostly silly. But they also have a history. From enlightened despotism through absolute autocracy to Soviet communism, Russia has been a screen against which France has projected its ideological or merely idiosyncratic dreams. That these dreams have proved nightmares for those who really lived them is, of course, beside the point for Russia’s leaders.
One of Mr. Depardieu’s best-known roles is as Georges Danton, the revolutionary leader consumed by the events he helped incite. As he is led to the guillotine, Danton tells his executioners, “Show my head to the people — it is worth seeing.”
Considering the many photographs of Mr. Depardieu embracing the Russian leader this week, we can well imagine this is a sentiment Mr. Putin happily shares.
Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston, is working on a book about Albert Camus.