Dignity, National Pride and Language: an Exploration into the Culture of the Russian Elites in the Eighteenth Century

In eighteenth-century Russia, the concept of dignity and the national language were linked in the consciousness of the elites, both intellectual and social. In this respect we have a certain consensus on the question, at least before the criticism of some excessiveness (real or imagined) of the Russian elite’s francophonie in the last quarter of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Russian language was steadily promoted thoughout the eighteenth century: at the Academy of Sciences (cf. its statutes adopted in 1747), in the main educational institutions of the Empire (the Noble Cadet Corps, Moscow University), at least after Catherine II acceded to the throne, and through two institutions specifically designed for its promotion (the Russian assembly at the Academy of Sciences in the 1730s and the Russian Academy in the 1780s)… This promotion was sometimes explained by pedagogical needs, but in most cases it was linked to the notion of national and personal dignity and pride. The discourse linking dignity with the promotion of the national language is particularly clear in the case of Mikhail Lomonosov. The first part of my paper will be devoted to the analysis of this strategy. I will argue that it was linked to the Petrine heritage and to the imaginary inclusion of Russia in the common European space, which explains the frequent comparison between Russian and the main European languages and the desire to symbolically put the Russian language on the same level as the main European languages of culture used in Russia (German, French and Latin). After an overview of this discourse, I will analyse more particularly one case in which the concept of “dignity” («честь») in the Russian language has been discussed specifically. There were several protagonists in this story: Elisabeth’s favourite Ivan Shuvalov, Lomonosov, Voltaire and Frederick the Great. This little-known episode will help us to understand better how the notion of dignity was linked to the language and how the polemic about the image of Russia in Europe helped to shape this link in the consciousness of the Russian elites.