Translated in to English from Moscou, capital de l’Europe?, originally written in French by Alexandre Latsa for Tribune Libre.
France and the French people are, in their majority, europhils. This may seem paradoxical since foreigners visiting the country are at once struck by the people’s seeming closed-mindedness, lack of knowledge of foreign languages, and chauvinistic zeal.
However that may be, it is from the French that the first attempt at unifying Europe arose. Charlemagne, the late 9th-century western emperor, reigned, shortly before his death, over an empire stretching from modern France, parts of Spain and Italy to large swaths of the Germanic world and parts of the Balkans. For many scholars and historians, Charlemagne is the “father of Europe.” Luckily or not for Europe, Charlemagne’s empire fell apart after his death and was divided between his successors. The second French attempt at building Europe was led by Napoleon, who envisionned himself at the head of an empire stretching from Corsica to Moscow. As we all know, however, and particularily in Russia, this attempt at building a unified Europe by force of arms failed in 1812, as the Emperor was met both by fierce Russian resistance and a deadly winter.
After World War II, Europe was divided in two halves: a pro-American and Atlantist block on the one hand, and a Soviet-controlled and continental half on the other hand. Reconstruction in Western Europe was financed through the Marshall plan, in exchange for integrating NATO, an American-led military alliance formed in 1949, whose goal was to check Soviet imperialism. In 1955, Eastern European countries under Soviet rule are integrated into the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance created to rival NATO. Again, French europhilia comes to the fore when, in 1967, President De Gaulle withdraws his country from NATO’s command structure and develops its nuclear capabilities. Turning his back on the anglo-saxon world, De Gaulle embraces his visionary project for Europe, a continental Europe; he temporarily erases the Iron Curtain, advocates closer ties with Germany at first, and then with Russia to build his dream of Europe spanning from the Atlantic to the Ural. In 1960, Paris presents itself as European capital and launches a new attempt at building Europe. De Gaulle’s idea of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, and the idea that Russia–then part of the Soviet Union–is fully European, appears even truer today.
In France, debates concerning the European identity of Russia go on. I am often asked about this gaullian boundary that is the Ural. The Ural range, a physical boundary that divideds Europe from Asia; is it really also a boundary in the heart of Russia or of Europe? We may also ask if the peoples and ethnic groups that dwell east of the Ural are different from those that inhabit the western side. To whomever is acquainted with Russia, such questions may seem ludicrous, yet they are in no way uneducated inventions, and, in my opinion, understandable, as far as De Gaulle’s semantic mistake is concerned, as well as the general lack of knowledge regarding Russia.