Last August, while preparing for the G-7 summit in Biarritz, French President Emmanuel Macron opened the doors of his summer residence at Fort Brégançon to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Armed with a bouquet of flowers, the Russian ruler praised the residence’s superb view of the Mediterranean and his host’s equally superb tan. In return, the French leader praised the cultural role in France of Russian artists such as Ivan Turgenev and Igor Stravinsky. These artists served as a reminder, Macron announced, that Russia is très profondément European.
Macron’s declaration was not improvised. Not only did it throw important light on recent French diplomatic activity but it also reflected an older source of light—namely, le siècle des Lumières, or the Enlightenment. It was fitting that a président philosophe—pace the title of a recent Macron biography—reaffirmed Russia’s ties to Europe. Who could be better qualified? After all, the eighteenth-century French philosophes were the ones to both inspire and thwart Russia’s long effort to be counted as a European nation.
Say what one will about the Enlightenment—and much can be said in light of the furious debate over the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s recent work, Enlightenment Now—one cannot gainsay its impact. The Enlightenment revolutionized Western conceptions of both time and space: its thinkers created the idea of the Middle Ages as a foil to their own age and “Eastern Europe” as a mirror for their native “Western Europe.” Tell us how far in the past and far to the east you live, declared the philosophes, and we will tell you how far from civilization—a word they also reinvented—you happen to be.
Having reshuffled this geographic deck of cards, the Enlightenment dealt the joker to Russia. The French philosophes were not certain how to classify this distant land that, ever since Peter the Great, sought to join the European club. As the historian Larry Wolff
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