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From HSE to the Sorbonne and Back

Alexey Lukashin, graduate of the HSE master’s programme ‘Comparative Studies: Russian Literature in Cross-cultural Perspective’, studies how real people often copy literary characters and how they themselves can become unusual characters. He is now writing a thesis on this at the Sorbonne and plans to go for his doctorate at HSE.

 

Alexey Lukashin

Rocambole is a lot like Game of Thrones 

I study French popular literature of the 19th century. In particular, I am interested in a series of adventure novels written by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail and published in France between 1857 and 1870. These are stories about Rocambole’s adventures, which were incredibly popular. Everyone knew them, just like how everyone today knows about ‘Game of Thrones’ (even if they don’t watch it). The name of the main character, Rocambole, became synonymous with being ‘adventurous’. There is a word still used in French, ‘rocambolesque’, which means ‘fantastic’, ‘miraculous’, or ‘Rocambole-style’. But only few remember the books today, even though Rocambole is the French forerunner of future heroes, from Arsène Lupin and Fantômas to Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. I’m interested not only in the texts of these novels, but also related social issues and everyday behavior.

Rocambole and Russia

In Russia, the stories about Rocambole’s adventures were especially popular, not only because everything French was in fashion, but also because their appearance coincided with a period of social instability and the spread of anarchist and revolutionary ideas throughout society.

The entire series of books was translated into Russian. The first translation was published in Saint Petersburg in 1868. In 1871, a group of ‘elite youth’ in Moscow formed something similar to the ‘Knaves of Hearts Club’ described in the book of the same name, consisting of 36 young aristocrats, who were engaged in extortion and fraud.

I was interested in answering the question - did this group use the novel as a ‘guide for action’? Is it possible that criminal gangs follow the same patterns, and that this was just about copying the characters in this novel? After comparing some documents, it became clear that this ‘Knaves of Hearts Club’ really copied Rocambole’s style in some cases. For instance, he loved reckless adventures, which he thoroughly invented and played out as an experienced stage director. For example, they engaged in a real performance to force a rich merchant sign various bills. They befriended him and invited him to a suburban house, while some members of the group played the roles of coachmen, servants, and guests. There, they wined and dined their victim and didn’t let him go until he signed everything. The details of this scene repeated the actions of the main characters in ‘Knaves of Hearts Club’ novel, where Rocambole plays the leading role.

However, these Moscow imitators also had some ideas of their own. For example, they sold the Moscow General Governor’s (the 19th century equivalent of the Moscow Mayor) house to a foreigner. When he moved in with his belongings, the owner of the house, upon returning home, was quite surprised with his claims on the house. Everybody in the Moscow aristocracy was disturbed by this case. When the group was caught, society was divided into those romanticizing their deeds and those who absolutely disapproved of them. Many believed that copying the characters of a French novel was a sign of degeneration within the Russian aristocracy.

As a researcher, I’m interested situations when copying a fictional character becomes a widespread model of everyday behavior, as well as cases when literature inspires real people and they themselves become unusual characters.

France is the best place to study French literature

When I started seriously studying the Rocambole novels, I came to understand that I had to work with the original French sources. So, I had to go to France to do that. Elena Penskaya, my academic supervisor, supported my plans and, during my second year of master’s studies, I went to Paris-Sorbonne IV as an exchange student. Prior to that, I already had gone to France to attend language school several times. During the first year of my master’s studies, I passed my C1 level French language exam, which allows me to study in France.

I spent the first semester of the second year of my master’s studies in Paris. I then came back to Russia and finished the course together with my HSE classmates. I chose seven subjects at the Sorbonne, which were equal to the sum credits for over half a year at HSE. Looking back now, I realize that this half -year was one of the most difficult challenges in my life, and selecting seven subjects were too much (people usually just choose five). The formal academic process is different in France. In particular, they adhere to a strict three-part structure for academic papers. Any essay or thesis must consist of three parts, each of which comprises of three subparts. Furthermore, each subpart must elaborate on three separate ideas.

In addition, I had to pass exams in all of my selected disciplines. I did my best, as they count towards my academic record at HSE. Unfortunately, when I came back, not all subjects were automatically accounted for. So, I had to pass exams in a few more subject areas, which my classmates were studying while I was away. That was hard, but I don’t regret it. If I had gone to France as a non-degree student, without any need to pass exams, I probably wouldn’t be studying for my PhD at the Sorbonne today. It was during my difficult exchange when I met my current academic supervisor, who does a course in 19th century French literature.

Postgraduate studies

After defending my master’s thesis at HSE, I applied to the PhD programme at the Sorbonne. You don’t need to pass any exams for it. You just have to prepare a portfolio and a 10-page outline of your research. If the doctoral school committee approves your application, you are enrolled. I study for free, but I don’t get a bursary. So, I found a side job, which allows me to earn a living.  

Since I’m continuing to work with Professor Penskaya, I started thinking about applying this year to the doctoral programme at HSE. The format of my PhD allows for studying at two universities. This way, I’ll be able to get degrees from the two universities, which may help expand my future career prospects. In addition, I would be able to get a bursary in France as a double-degree student.

The master’s course at HSE has provided me with a research base, which makes me feel more confident while taking part in the Sorbonne doctoral programme. Thanks to our professors, whose deep interest in their subject areas has inspired us and who have been involved in various international projects, I understand what is going on around me, who sets trends, and what is key today in my sphere of interest. 

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