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Tartars at whose gates? Framing Russian identity through political adaptations of nineteenth-century French works by Astolphe de Custine and Jules Verne Matheson, Mary Carol

Abstract

This study examines the historical influence of literary works adapted to political purpose, with reference to two significant nineteenth-century French books about Russia: a memoir by Astolphe de Custine entitled Lettres de Russie (1843), and a novel by Jules Verne entitled Michel Strogoff (1876), each based on travelogue sources. Taken together, these two works framed the poles of an ongoing debate about Russian identity related to the long-term effects of the thirteenth-century Mongol invasions of Russia. Custine's memoir characterized Russia as a threatening Tartar horde at the gates of European civilization, while Verne portrayed Russia as a legitimate European great power engaged in taming its rebellious Tartar subjects. Uniquely among the corpus of nineteenth-century French texts on Russia, these books demonstrate exceptional influence. Indeed, political adaptations of both have resonated substantially in international relations. During the Cold War, Custine's Lettres de Russie was discovered and republished by American diplomats in a heavily abridged 1951 edition, to serve as a cipher for an imminent Russian threat. In 1880,Verne's Michel Strogoff was adapted for a theatrical production in Paris; for the next twenty years, the play served as a vehicle to express public support for the Franco-Russian Alliance negotiated between 1891 and 1893. Political adaptation of these works ultimately led to their entrenchment in cultural repertoires of America and France, where they persist today at the levels of state and popular culture. The analysis concludes that an insistent myth concerning Tartar identity remains embedded in the international imaginary concerning Russia. The characterization of Russia as legitimate great power or despotic aggressor continues to reflect earlier questions concerning whether it had tamed its Tartar past, or fallen victim to miscegenation.

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