PARIS — From Lenin to Turgenev, Paris has been the adopted home of countless famous Russians, often lured by the city’s free and revolutionary spirit.
But since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the City of Light has become a hostile ground for Russian residents.
Whether or not they support Russian President Vladimir Putin, many admit that the war in Ukraine has become an increasingly sore subject in France and they fear becoming targets of retaliation amid rising anti-Russia sentiment.
“There are people who feel ashamed of being Russians here,” said Irina Krivova, the administrator of the Alye Parussa Franco-Russian school in Paris. “But people must be careful to not mix up Russia, Russian culture and Russian leaders.”
Last week, an unidentified person lobbed a Molotov cocktail at the gates of the Russian House of Science and Culture, a major cultural institution in the French capital that promotes Franco-Russian ties. There were no casualties, but the incident prompted the Russian foreign affairs ministry to “demand that the French authorities ensure the proper security of our official institutions.”
A few days earlier, anti-Putin graffiti, including calling the Russian leader a “pig,” covered a wall of the opulent, Kremlin-sponsored, Russian Cathédrale de la Sainte-Trinité in central Paris. On Monday, a sign on the building’s main entrance said events at the church and cultural center were “temporarily suspended for administrative reasons,” though a French police car was stationed nearby and a security guard admitted that it was closed “because of the war [in Ukraine].”
Such acts of vandalism provoked unease among the many Russian citizens in a country that has traditionally welcomed them, particularly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Today, there are up to 200,000 Russians living in France, according to Russian consular estimates, including “tens of thousands” in Paris – making it one of the largest Russian diasporas in Western Europe.
There are also countless associations promoting ties between France and Russia, including the Friends of Leo Tolstoy and the Franco-Russian Lawyers Association. Paul Leboulanger, a former journalism student, even created a website called “L’Ours Magazine” — The Bear — featuring profiles of Russians in France and cultural events linked to Russia to “show what Russians do in France,” and “satisfy all those many people in France who are interested in Russia,” he said.
Many in this Russian diaspora, including store owners and the city’s Russian Orthodox community, admit they have had to defend themselves against insults often directed against Putin. Those who support the Russian president say they suffer from a stubborn lack of understanding among both French and Russians who are victims, they say, of Western disinformation.
“Since the first day of the war, I take medicines to calm my nerves,” said Marina, who owns La Troïka Russian grocery store. “This war does not reflect the Russian nation, it is not Russian literature, it is a crazy person who is doing this,” she said tearfully.
Marina said a “Frenchman” came into her shop days after the war began and said she “should be ashamed to be Russian.” She said she replied that she was “not pro-Putin and he ended up apologizing.”
“Both my mother and grandmother were born in Kharkiv,” she continued, referring to the eastern Ukrainian city that has suffered repeated shelling by Russian forces. “We, Russians and Ukrainians, are all friends,” she added.
After reading about the anti-Putin graffiti on the Russian cathedral, Nicolas Lopoukhine hired a security guard to keep watch outside the Russian Orthodox church of Notre Dame de la Dormition in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, near Paris, where he works as treasurer. Lopoukhine, who is also treasurer for the archbishop’s office of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe, later dismissed the guard as there was “no evidence of any animosity against us,” he said.
But he acknowledged that the war in Ukraine had become “a thorny issue” for his community. “In the archbishop’s palace, there are different sensitivities,” Lopoukhine said. “Our archbishop rose up against the war … but we also have people who are very attached to the Russian nation, to the Russian president and to the patriarch [the head of the Russian Orthodox church].”
The war is also making life uncomfortable for those who back Putin and for those who work to promote Russian culture in France.
Anna Kouzin, a 65-year-old antiquarian, defends Putin and says French people are “victims of Western disinformation.”
“I’m disappointed, what I hear on TV here are lies,” Kouzin said. “The war is between Russia and the United States,” and “Ukraine depends on the U.S.,” adding that Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy “does whatever the U.S. asks him to do.”
But her views, she said, have created such unease and misapprehension that she has quit work for a while to avoid arguing with her colleagues.
“A colleague told me that Putin was Hitler, that it was like fascism, that Russia is guilty,” Kouzin said. “I decided to stop working for two months.”