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The French Language in Russia - History

Updated on May 1, 2018

The French has a long history in Russia, stretching back to the 18th century. Although France itself never controlled Russia, with the exception of a brief invasion under Napoleon, French influence still pervaded Russia among its upper classes, The language of culture, diplomacy, the Tsars, it was a tongue that the Russian elite was for a long time more comfortable in than Russian itself, and one which functioned in the influence of French norms, customs, and ways of thought upon Russia.

The Beginning

At the beginning of the 18th century both Dutch and German were better known among Russian elites than French, even though some attempts at instruction in French had been tried by the tsar Boris Godunov. This had made it easy for some of the first groups of French to end up in Russia, the Huguenots (who often knew Dutch and German), to be able to communicate with the Russian state. However, with the increasing arrival of French catholics, coming as part of Peter the Great's reforms of Russia, a purely Francophone segment of Russian society began to emerge: French doctors and diplomats made their presence felt in the Russian court. Education in French followed thereafter : a primary institution would be the Academie des sciences, founded in 1724. Although at its beginning, among its 100 students, only 2 studied French, by the middle of the century, out of 600 cadets, 364 studied French : while German had more total educated in it, at 530, the popularity of French was growing. Other educational establishments followed with extensive teaching in French, such as the Fine Arts Academy, marine, page, and cadets academies, By 1742, enough of a French-speaking Russian elite existed that when a troupe of la Comedie française arrived in Russia in 1742, their performances to the Russian court were in French, not Russian.


For the noble classes in Russia, the usage of French was widespread, sometimes to the exclusion of Russian in private use. Writing, speaking it to one's family and children, declarations of love : all of these passed in French, and many of the great Russian writers wrote both in French and Russian. French influence was particularly marked in relation to women : etiquette concerning women, references to women, and letters to women. Among the scientific elite as well, much of their work passed in French, and salons and boarding schools, so too part of the formation of the educated classes, conducted much of their work in the language of Molière. This was backed up by extensive collections of French libraries : Klostermannm, a German publisher in Moscow, had some 3,000 books in French during the reign of Catherine the Great, and Weitbrecht, a commissioner of the Académie des sciences, had 7,500!

This immersion in French was amplified by the extensive presence of the typical elements of the French diaspora, which found itself in Russia :cooks, hairdressers, confectioners, tutors to teach the noble children. The grand tour - when nobles left to go on their voyage around Europe - often passed in France. With time, French theatre under Catherine the Great in Russia expanded from the courts into reaching a broader spectrum of society, and by the end of the 18th century French operas and romances were highly popular. At the beginning of the French revolution, as vast numbers of French nobles fled from France, thousands would find homes in Russia, being well received by their Russian aristocratic counterparts.

Some of this vigor of French would dissipate with the invasion of Napoleon and anti-French sentiment, but this was but a brief reduction in French influence in Russia. In most of Europe, the aristocracy would decline in strength and power following the French Revolution, but in Russia the nobility continued its preeminence. As a result, due to the nobility being the main bastion of the French language throughout Europe, it remained a stronger element in Russian than elsewhere. By the end of the 19th century, the official language of the Russian court was French, and street names in Moscow and St. Petersberg could be found in French. The irony of the Russian aristocratic elite using French, the language of Europe's most democratic nation and only republic, is not as intense as it would seem : the usage of French drew from the tradition of the old, aristocratic France of the ancien régime, rather than the France of the 19th century, of which many of the aristocrats who wrote in French (such as Andrei Rostopchin), were deeply critical. This itself raises an irony : it was the French language that brought the ideals of the Enlightenment to Russia, and it was the Enlightenment which spawned the French revolution of which Russian nobles were so critical, as well as at the same time structuring Russian aristocratic society upon the ideals of ancien régime France. French was a many faceted language in its influence. It also particularly left an influence on the Russian language, such as sidewalk (trottoir), screen (écran) baggage, café, floor (on a building - étage), mirage, voyage, and a host of other words. This gave rise to linguistic patriotism, about the introduction of loanwords into French, and although many loanwords in the 18th century were short-lived, many others stuck such as the ones above.

Despite this tremendous influence, French would remain a language which was principally found among the elites, the aristocrats of the country. Thus, although it enjoyed an outsized role in Russia, when the situation of the aristocrats and nobility declined, the decline of French naturally followed. Thus appears the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

The Soviet Union

The end of the Russian Empire would put a halt to much of the influence which France had previously had, as the USSR took its place instead. With the destruction of the Russian Empire, many of the nobles, and thus a significant fraction of Russian francophones, fled overseas. A large portion of them would end up in France, such as in Paris, or in French territories (such as French Shanghai, where a great number of Russian emigrés arrived). German as a result would arrive as the principal foreign language in the 1930s, and English following the Second World War. The ratio of foreign language learning was laid out as 50% English, 25% German, 20% French, and 5% Spanish. However, the position of foreign languages in the USSR as a whole had declined as compared to the Russian Empire : Imperial schools had never been particularly proficient at instruction in foreign languages, and Soviet schools declined further due to less time allotted to this, but furthermore the institution of governors and governesses who instructed the Russian intelligentsia in foreign languages had also disappeared.

Still, French continued to exist within the USSR. Increased cultural contacts began in the 1950s, with a program of mutual cultural exchange that sent books, films, disks, and collaborated on artistic projects, starting in 1958. French and Russian professors were sent to the respective two countries, and although the numbers of French in the USSR started small, 4 in 1960, they grew to 15 by 1966.

Furthermore, indirect influence from French would maintain itself in Russia, such as the continuing legacy of Balzac, Zoma, Dumas, and Jules Verne among written works in Russia. The USSR would also use URSS, the Romance-languages name for the Soviet Union (Union des républiques socialistes soviétiques in French), as its latin-script acronym, until after the Second World War. La comédie française (the French state theatre), would tour the USSR in 1954.


Continued education in French exists in Russia. French is the third most taught language, after German and English. The extensiveness of French education fell in Russia since the end of the USSR, due to the increasing attraction of English, the end of quotas and support for French, and the obligation to only learn one foreign language, which most often has been English. During Soviet times around 20% of students studied French, which had fallen to 7% in 2000. 372 schools specializing in French do exist in Russia, including the Collège universitaire français de Moscou and the Collège universitaire français de St. Pétersbourg. The alliance française and various French cultural institutions are present in Russia as well. Each year, around 2,000-2,500 Russians study in France : this number has stayed stable, but because of the decline of Russian population since the 1990s, are slightly more numerous as a portion of the country since then.

Number of public education students

Thus, although French has declined in Russia, it still continues to be taught and to be learned, paying homage to its long tradition in Russia which has done so much to affect Russian civilization.

Recommended Reading

La langue française en Russie au XVIIIe et au XXIe siècles

La langue française en Russie au siecle des lumières : élements pour une histoire sociale

Xenophobia in French: Count Andrei Rostopchin's reflections in the catalogue of his library

La France et le français dans la culture russe

Scherba and the Status of Foreign Languages in the USSR and the USA

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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