Paris has always held a special attraction for Russians. “For them, it is the cultural center of the world,” says one of the city’s most famous Russian inhabitants, Andreï Makine, the latest Prix Goncourt winner. “There have been quite a few Anglophiles in Russia, but they have always played second fiddle to this infatuation for France.”
It was Czar Peter I’s trip to France in 1717 that opened the floodgates to what has since been a constant stream of Russian immigrants. A new exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet, “Les Russes à Paris au XIXe siècle” (Apr 2 to June 30, Tue-Sun, 10am to 5:40pm, 29, rue de Sévigné, 3e, tel: 22.214.171.124), is devoted to visitors to the city during the last century. It spans the period between March 31, 1814, when Alexander I entered triumphantly into Paris after defeating Napoleon’s army, to the state visit of Nicholas II in 1896.
Throughout this time, Franco-Russian relations fluctuated greatly. In 1854-55, the two countries were enemies in the Crimean War, but by 1893 they had signed an agreement. To mark the new friendship, Nicholas II laid the first stone of the Pont Alexandre III three years later. Whether as friends or foes, the Russians’ fascination for Paris was constant.
Until 1825, Russian aristocrats spent their winters in Paris and various Franco-Russian liaisons were formed. Count Rostopchin’s daughter Sofya, who married Count Eugène de Ségur, would become the most famous children’s author in France as the Comtesse de Ségur.
The accession of Nicholas I to the Russian throne, however, impeded relations between the two countries. When young aristocrats rose up against their new leader, the czar took measures that made traveling abroad extremely difficult. Those who did manage to come lived on the Right Bank and frequented the Tuileries gardens and the cafés on the boulevard des Italiens.
After the Crimean War, exchanges began to flourish once more. Mrs. Rimsky-Korsakov (known as the “Venus of the North”) and the Duchesse de Morny (née Sofya Trubetskoi) were received at the court of Napoleon III and painted by Winterhalter. The portraits form part of the exhibition, along with numerous drawings, photos, engravings, busts and views of Paris by Russian artists such as Repin, on loan from Moscow’s Tretiakov Gallery.
Literary exchanges were also rife. Turgenev emigrated to Paris and became friends with Dumas, Flaubert, Zola and Mérimée. He also played host to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky when they visited.
By the 1860s, the Russian population of Paris had become so large that a Russian Orthodox church was built on the rue Daru (see below). The Cathedral Church of St-Alexandre-Nevsky was inaugurated on September 11, 1861; the exhibition traces the stages of its construction and the role it played in Parisian life.
Today, the cathedral is at the center of a little Russian quarter near the Parc Monceau. Although the immigrant population is no longer as active as in its heyday in the 1920s, Paris still has enough to offer even the most ardent Russophile:
Cathédrale St-Alexandre-Nevsky – The cathedral on the rue Daru at the rue Pierre-le-Grand was built in the Russo-Byzantine style; inspired by the architecture of 17th century Moscow and Novgorod, it is topped by five golden domes. It is best approached from the boulevard de Courcelles via the rue Pierre-le-Grand. Even before you enter, you will be overwhelmed by the incense. Once inside, admire the altar screen with its gilded icons, the darkened wall paintings and the huge chandeliers hanging on long ropes from the ceiling. Chairs are arranged around the edge rather than in the center and are currently fighting for space with a folded-up crane. 12, rue Daru, 8e, Mº Ternes, tel: 126.96.36.199. Sunday liturgy at 10am, Saturday vespers at 6pm.
Eglise St-Serge et de la Dormition de la Mère de Dieu – This picturesque church, reminiscent of a Russian country church, must be one of Paris’s best-kept secrets. It is a former Protestant temple, set back from the road, that was converted into an Orthodox church in the 1920s. A wooden spire was added, as well as a picturebook wooden staircase, decorated with green, brown and red motifs. The slight state of disrepair only adds to its charm. The church is usually closed outside the hours of services. However, if you are lucky, one of the students at the adjoining theological institute may open it. Try knocking at the door of the rose-colored house, which is the first building you come to when you enter from the road. Inside, the church is full of exquisite icons, some from the famous school of Vladimir. There is also a striking representation of the Virgin and child, and the royal door at the center of the altar screen dates from the 16th century. 93, rue de Crimée, 19e, Mº Laumière, tel: 42.08.12.93. Services daily at 7am and 6pm. Liturgy on Sundays at 10am.
La Librairie du Globe – Definitely the most comprehensive and pleasant Russian bookstore in Paris, it stocks almost everything from cassettes of Russian music and films to the Russian daily papers. On the ground floor are guides to France in Russian, guides to Russia in French, maps of the ex-Soviet Union, Russian language study books (in French and English), dictionaries and Russian novels translated into French. On the first floor, you will find books on Russian history, economy and religion in both French and Russian. You can also subscribe to Russian papers and magazines through the bookshop. 2, rue de Buci, 6e, Mº Odéon, tel: 188.8.131.52, Tue-Sat, 10am to 7pm; Mon, 2am to 7pm.
Les Editeurs Réunis – A more old-fashioned, atmospheric bookshop, it stocks a wide range of new and secondhand books in French and Russian, from novels and essays on Russian society and politics to coffee table books and tomes on the Orthodox Church. Be prepared, however, for a rather frosty welcome from the two Russian female bibliophiles who hold court here. 11, rue de la Montagne-Ste-Geneviève, 5e, Mº Maubert-Mutualité, tel: 184.108.40.206, Tue-Sat, 9:30am to 6:30pm; Mon, 2-6pm.
L’Age d’Homme – This small, disorganized bookshop shares the address with a publishing house of the same name. For the moment, they only stock their own titles, but there are plans to develop a Slav section this summer with books from other publishers in both Russian and French. For the moment, you can sample Russian literature translated into French, essays on Russian culture and politics and about 20 volumes of a revue entitled “Communisme.” 5, rue Férou, 6e, Mº Saint-Sulpice, tel: 220.127.116.11, Mon-Sat 10am to noon and 2:30-6:30pm.
Librairie de Sialsky – Just by the Russian cathedral, this “bookshop” is an eclectic mix of books and Russian objects. There are dusty old copies of the complete works of Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and coffee table books on Russian church art, icons and the Hermitage Museum. The rest of the shop is full of fine Russian dolls, bowls, eggs painted in the style of icons (950F) and two fine 19th-century samovars (4,000F). The back section is chained off, but displays icons that are also for sale. 2, rue Pierre-le-Grand, 8e, Mº Ternes, tel: 18.104.22.168, Wed-Sat, 10am to 1pm and 2-7:30pm; Sun, 10am to 1:30pm; Tue, 3-7:30pm.
L’Oiseau de Feu – A real Aladdin’s cave of everything Russian. Collectors’ Russian dolls start at 400F, miniature boxes from the Fedoskino school at 900F and amber jewelry at 500F. Inside, there are painted eggs, plates decorated with scenes from Russian folk stories, a wide selection of shawls and greetings cards. 49, rue de Seine, 6e, Mº Odéon, tel: 43.25.07.85, Tue-Sat ,11am to 7:30pm; Mon, 1-7:30pm.
Caviar Kaspia – This ne plus ultra of Paris’ Russian foodstores is definitely for rich Russophiles. Salmon and caviar fill the window along with gherkins and bottles of vodka. Inside, there are blinis, salmon and meat pirojkis, purée d’aubergine and as much caviar as you could ever eat. A 100g box of Russian Beluga caviar will set you back 870F. 17, pl de la Madeleine, 8e, tel: 22.214.171.124, Mon-Sat, 9am to midnight.
L’Epicerie Russe – Over 60 varieties of vodka line the shelves of this friendly restaurant-cum-foodstore. You can also pick up caviar, blinis, salmon, koulibiac (salmon in puff pastry), salmon eggs, borscht, pirojkis, herrings and vatrushka (poppy seed cake). 13, rue de la Terrasse, 17e, Mº Villiers, tel: 40.54.04.05, Mon-Sat, 10am to 3pm and 5pm to midnight; also, 3, rue Gustave Courbet, 16e, Mº Victor Hugo.
Daru – This cozy bar, restaurant and delicatessen has bottles of vodka for sale everywhere you look. It also offers Iranian and Russian caviar, salmon eggs, borscht, pickles, salmon, eel and smoked sturgeon. 19, rue Daru, 8e, Mº Ternes, tel: 126.96.36.199.
A La Ville de Petrograd – Opposite the Russian cathedral, this is yet another restaurant-cum-foodstore. The usual selection of caviar, borscht, blinis and salmon is offered, as well as Russian wine, tea and appetizing desserts. 13, rue Daru, 8e, Mº Ternes, tel: 48.88.07.70.
Petrossian – Probably the most complete Russian food store in Paris. As well as caviar, salmon, blinis, borscht and pirojki, Petrossian has its own label vodkas (cherry, pepper and lemon), Russian caramels, vodka-flavored sweets and tea. Russian objects like painted eggs and dolls are also on sale. The decor, with its luxurious light fittings, is exceptionally chic. It’s just a shame that the salespeople are so unpleasant. 18, bd de La Tour-Maubourg, 7e, Mº Invalides, tel: 45.67.60.00, Tue-Fri, 9am to 8pm; Sat and Mon, 9:30am to 8pm.
Centre Culturel de Russie – This government-sponsored cultural center hosts exhibitions, conferences, debates and literary meetings around the theme of Russia. There are also projections of Russian films (most with French subtitles) every other Saturday at 3pm and a Pushkin Museum on the second floor, which displays books, photos and documents relating to the author’s life (call to arrange a guided visit). The building is also home to a Russian-language school, the Centre Pouchkine. 61, rue Boissière, 16e, Mº Boissière, tel: 188.8.131.52.
Musée Zadkine – This museum, housed in the apartment where the artist lived and worked from 1928 until his death in 1967, features sculptures, gouaches, drawings and engravings. 100 bis, rue d’Assas, 6e, Mº Vavin, tel: 184.108.40.206, Wed-Mon, 10am to 5:40pm.
Cimetière russe de Ste-Geneviève-des-Bois – The town of Ste-Geneviève-des-Bois in the Essonne is home to a magnificent Russian church built in the style of the churches of Novgorod of the 16th and 17th centuries. Its cemetery is the resting place of many famous Russian immigrants, including the poet Ivan Bunin, the dancer Serge Lifar, the painter Serge Poliakoff and the film director Andrei Tarkovsky. Rue Léo Lagrage, 91700 Ste-Geneviève-des-Bois, tel: 220.127.116.11. Open March to Sept, 7am to 7pm, and Oct to Feb, 8am to 5pm.