Il parlait assez bien français et plusieurs langues: Foreign Language Acquisition and the Diplomatic Self-Fashioning of Prince Boris Ivanovich Kurakin




Prince B. I. Kurakin, foreign language acquisition, French language, language of international diplomacy, duc de Saint-Simon, 18th century


Using the example of Prince B. I. Kurakin (1676–1727), the Imperial Russian diplomat who served as extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador to France (1724–1727), this article seeks to contribute to the ongoing discussion about the possible reasons for the adoption of French as the language of international communication in general and eighteenth-century diplomacy in particular. It asks when the Moscow-born Gediminid prince learned to speak French and how this non-native speaker of the language became proficient enough to impress a finicky and fastidious interlocutor like Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (1675–1755). The author suggests that the answer to these questions lies not in Russia or France, but in Poland and Italy; and not in the halls of formal educational institutions, but in the networks of personal connections that were sustained as much by face-to-face communication as by written correspondence. This brief biographical survey of the development of Prince Kurakin’s “linguistic personality” demonstrates the mediating role of modern, vernacular languages (Russian, Polish, Italian) in the transition from Latin to French as the lingua franca of international diplomacy. It also emphasizes the intimate connection between foreign language acquisition and diplomatic self-fashioning, showing how linguistic knowledge could be instrumentalized for both personal and professional advancement. In doing so, it illustrates the active role that individual brokers – especially, but not exclusively, aristocratic royal servitors with broad linguistic skills and extensive international connections, like Prince Kurakin and the duc de Saint-Simon – played in creating the very notion of an early modern “European” style of diplomacy based on the cultural dominance of the French language.

Author Biography

Ernest Zitser

PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Duke University.

27708, Durham, North Carolina, USA.

ORCID 0000-0002-4060-2810


Aïssaoui, D. (2002). Les Mémoires: un genre errant. In Dalhousie French Studies. No. 61, pp. 12–26.

AKK = Semevsky, M. I. (Ed.). (1890–1902). Arkhiv knyazya F. A. Kurakina, kn. 1–10. [Archive of Prince F. A. Kurakin. Books 1–10]. St Petersburg, Tipografiya V. S. Balasheva.

Altbauer, D. (1980). The Diplomats of Peter the Great. In Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. Neue Folge. Bd. 28. H. 1, pp. 1–16.

Bachmann-Medick, D. (2009). Introduction: The Translational Turn / transl. by K. Sturge. In Translation Studies. Vol. 2. No. 1, pp. 2–16.

Bazarova, T. A. (2019). Perevodchiki russkikh poslov v Stambule v nachale XVIII v. [Translators of Russian Ambassadors in Istanbul in the Early 18th Century]. In Liseitsev, D. V., Shamin, S. M. (Eds.). Perevodchiki i perevody v Rossii kontsa XVI – nachala XVIII stoletiya. Materialy mezhdunarodnoi nauchnoi konferenstii. Moscow, Institut rossiiskoi istorii RAN, pp. 9–15.

Benzing, J. (1953). Andreae, Johann Philipp. In Neue Deutsche Biographie [online-version]. No. 1, p. 281. URL: (accessed: 19.11.2022).

Billson, M. (1977). The Memoir: New Perspectives on a Forgotten Genre. In Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture. No. 10, pp. 259–282.

Bushkovitch, P. (2001). Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725. Cambridge, N. Y., Cambridge Univ. Press. 485 p.

DBI = Ghisalberti, A. M. (Ed.). (1960–2020). Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. 100 vols. Roma, Istit. della Enciclopedia italiana.

Durov, I. G. (2014). Podgotovka spetsialistov dlya flota pri Petre Velikom [Training of Specialists for the Fleet under Peter the Great]. In Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal [website]. No. 7. URL: (accessed: 19.11.2022).

Eskin, Yu. M. (2015). Vstrecha lyudei Srednevekov’ya na poroge veka Prosveshcheniya (knyaz’ Kurakin i gertsog Sen-Simon) [Meeting of the People of the Middle Ages on the Threshold of the Age of Enlightenment (Prince Kurakin and Duke Saint-Simon)]. In Vivlioѳika. E-Journal of Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies. No. 3, pp. 1–19. DOI 10.21900/j.vivliofika.v3.555.

Fedyukin, I., Zitser, E. A. (2011). ‘For Love and Fatherland’: Political Clientage and the Origins of Russia’s First Female Order of Chivalry. In Cahiers du monde russe. Vol. 52, pp. 5–44.

Fumaroli, M. (1971). Les Mémoires au carrefour des genres en prose. In XVIIe siècle. No. 94–95, pp. 7–38.

Gatti, I. (1976). Il p. Vincenzo Coronelli dei Frati minori conventuali negli anni del generalato (1701–1707). 2 vols. Rome, Università Gregoriana.

Gus’kov, A. G. (2013). O poezdke dumnogo d’yaka Ukraintseva k Ferentsu II Rakotsi [About the Trip of the Duma Clerk Ukraintsev to Ferenc II Rakoczi]. In Khavanova, O. V. (Ed.). Osvoboditel’naya voina 1703–1711 gg. v Vengrii i diplomatiya Petra I. St Petersburg, Nestor-Istoriya, pp. 139–147.

HBL = Hrvatski biografski leksikon. 3 vols. (1983–1993). Zagreb, Jugoslavenski leksikografski zavod.

Holm, S. (2021). Multilingual Foreign Affairs: Translation and Diplomatic Agency in Eighteenth-Century Stockholm. In J. of the History of Ideas. Vol. 82. No. 3, pp. 469–483.

Ivonina, L. I. (2012). Zapad i vostok: otnosheniya s Feretsem II Rakotsi [West and East: Relations with Ferec II Rakoczi]. In Vestnik Udmurtskogo universiteta. Seriya: Istoriya i filologiya. No. 3, pp. 33–38.

Joachimiak, G. (2011). Uwagi do ‘wrocławskiego’ druku ‘Cabinet der Lauten’ Philippa Franza Le Sage’a de Richée i muzyczna działalność rodziny neidhardtów. In Muzyka. No. 3, pp. 111–137.

Keblusek, M., Noldus, B. V. (Eds.). (2011). Double Agents: Cultural and Political Brokerage in Early Modern Europe. Leiden, Boston, Brill. 296 p.

Kiss, G. (1965). Franz Rákóczi Il., Peter der Große und der polnische Thron (um 1707). In Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. Neue Folge. Bd. 13. H. 3, pp. 344–360.

Knyazhetskaya, E. A. (1973). Svyazi Rossii s Dalmatsiei i Bokoi Kotorskoi pri Petre I [Relations of Russia with Dalmatia and Boka Kotorska under Peter I]. In Sovetskoe slavyanovedenie. No. 5, pp. 46–59.

Köpeczi, B. (1971). La France et la Hongrie au début du XVIIIe siècle: é tude d’histoire des relations diplomatiques et d’histoire des idées. Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó. 624 р.

Kuran, M. (2020). Venice in Polish Literature of the Latter Half of the 16th Century and in the 17th Century as a Model Political System, a Leading Centre in the Fight Against the Ottoman Empire, and the Centre of the Pilgrimage Culture. In Czytanie Literatury. Łódzkie Studia Literaturoznawcze. No. 9, pp. 13–50. DOI 10.18778/2299–7458.09.02.

Leach, C. S. (1976). Introduction. In Leach, C. S. (Ed.). Memoirs of the Polish Baroque: The Writings of Jan Chryzostom Pasek, a Squire of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania / foreword by W. Weintraub. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, pp. XXVII–LXII.

Lose, M. (2010). An Unrecorded Silesian Sundial by John Rowley. In British Sundial Society Bull. Vol. 22. No. 3, pp. 40–45.

Martinovich, M. (2015). Nautika: lektsii Marka Martinovicha russkim moryakam v Peraste, 1697–1698 [Nautika: Lectures by Mark Martinovich to Russian Sailors in Perast, 1697–1698] / transl. by M. ђivul’ski, ed. by V. M. Zagrebin, Zh. L. Levshina, R. Raspopoviћ. Podgoritsa et al., Istorijski institut Tsrne Gori et al. 292 p.

McDonald, M. (2021). Striving After Style: Francophone Diplomacy in Prussia, 1740–86. In The George Rudé Society: News and Papers from the George Rudé Seminar. French History and Civilization. Vol. 10, pp. 19–39.

Memoirs = The Memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon on the Reign of Louis XIV and the Regency. 4 Vols. / transl. by B. St. John. (1913). 8th Ed. L., G. Allen & Co.

Minerva, N. (1991). Jean Vigneron dit Veneroni (1642–1708). In La Lettre de la SIHFLES. No. 11, pp. 8–10.

Minerva, N. (2013). Un siècle de lexicographie bilingue: le Dictionnaire de Giovanni Veneroni et ses adaptations. In Lillo, J. (Ed.). Les best-sellers de la lexicographie franco-italienne XVIe–XXIe siècle. Roma, Carocci, pp. 33–51.

Mormile, M. (1989). L’italiano in Francia e il francese in Italia: storia critica delle opere grammaticali francesi in Italia ed italiane in Francia dal rinascimento al primo Ottocento. Torino, A. Meynier. 297 р.

Nikolaev, S. I. (2015). O kul’turnom statuse pol’skogo yazyka v Rossii vo vtoroi polovine XVII – nachale XVIII veka [On the Cultural Status of the Polish Language in Russia in the Second Half of the 17th – Early 18th Centuries]. In Russkaya literatura. No. 2, pp. 132–138.

Offord, D., Rjéoutski, V., Argent, G. (2019). French as a Diplomatic and Official Language in Imperial Russia. In Jus Gentium. J. of Intern. Legal History. Vol. 4. No. 2, pp. 419–494.

Osborne, T., Rubiés, J.-P. (2016). Introduction: Diplomacy and Cultural Translation in the Early Modern World. In J. of Early Modern History. Vol. 20. No. 4, pp. 313–330. DOI 10.1163/15700658–12342502.

Rothman, E. N. (2012). Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects Between Venice and Istanbul. Ithaca, Cornell Univ. Press. 328 р.

Ryan, W. F. (1990). Navigation and the Modernisation of Petrine Russia: Teachers, Textbooks, Terminology. In Bartlett, R., Hartley, J. (Eds.). Russia in the Age of the Enlightenment: Essays for Isabel de Madariaga. N. Y., St Martin’s Press, pp. 75–105.

Shmurlo, E. F. (1891). Novyi svidetel’ epokhi preobrazovanii [A New Witness to the Era of Transformations]. In Zhurnal Ministerstva narodnogo prosveshcheniya. Part 273. No. 1, pp. 187–223.

Tereškinas, A. (1993). The King as Mirror: Autobiographies in 18th Century Poland-Lithuania. In Lituanus: Lithuanian Quarterly J. of Arts and Sciences. Vol. 39. No. 4, pp. 32–48.

Ternovsky, F. A. (Ed.). (1884). Semeinaya khronika i vospominaniya knyazya Borisa Ivanovicha Kurakina [Family Chronicle and Memoirs of Prince Boris Ivanovich Kurakin]. In Kievskaya starina. No. 10, pp. 105–128, 478–498, 621–638.

Tyulenev, S. (2012). Translation and the Westernization of Eighteenth-Century Russia: A Social-Systemic Perspective. Berlin, Frank & Timme. 272 p.

Watts, D. A. (1975). Self-Portrayal in Seventeenth-Century French Memoirs. In Australian J. of French Studies. No. 12, pp. 263–285.

Yasinskaya, M. B. (2003). K predystorii salonnogo yazyka v XVIII veke. Na materiale sochinenii knyazya B. I. Kurakina [On the Prehistory of Salon Language in the 18th Century. Based on the Works of Prince B. I. Kurakin]. In Ot slova k delu. Sbornik dokladov X Kongressa mezhdunarodnoi assotsiatsii prepodavatelei russkogo yazyka i literatury (MAPRYaL), Sankt-Peterburg, 2003. Moscow, Gosudarstvennyi institut russkogo yazyka imeni A. S. Pushkina, pp. 433–441.

Yasinskaya, M. B. (2004). Amor, amur ili lyubov’: o nekotorykh zaimstvovaniyakh v sochinenii knyazya Kurakina [Amor, Amur, or Love: About Some Loanwords in the Work of Prince Kurakin]. In Russkaya rech’. No. 1, pp. 87–90.

Yasinskaya, M. B. (2010). Yazykovaya lichnost’ knyazya B. I. Kurakina i motivirovannost’ leksicheskikh zaimstvovanii (na materiale istoriko-biograficheskoi prozy) [The Linguistic Personality of Prince B. I. Kurakin and the Motivation of Lexical Loanwords (Based on Historical and Biographical Prose)]. In Lingvistika i mezhkul’turnaya kommunikatsiya. No. 4, pp. 181–186.

Zitser, E. A. (2011). The Vita of Prince Boris Ivanovich ‘Korybut’-Kurakin: Personal Life-Writing and Aristocratic Self-Fashioning at the Court of Peter the Great. In Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. Neue Folge. Bd. 59. H. 2, pp. 163–194.

Zitser, E. A. (2012). Boris Ivanovich Korybut-Kurakin (1676–1727). In Norris, S. M., Sunderland, W. (Eds.). Russia’s People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present. Bloomington, Indiana Univ. Press, pp. 59–68.

Zitser, E. A. (2016). Une petite caisse pour Pierre le Grand: Le prince Boris Kurakin, agent, acquéreur des livres de la cour de Russie, 1707–1708 / trad. de l’anglais par Ph. Malgouyres. In Medvedkova, O. (Ed.). Pierre le Grand et ses livres: les arts et les sciences de l’Europe dans la bibliothèque du Tsar. Paris, Alain Baudry et Cie, pp. 76–82.



How to Cite

Zitser, E. (2023). Il parlait assez bien français et plusieurs langues: Foreign Language Acquisition and the Diplomatic Self-Fashioning of Prince Boris Ivanovich Kurakin. Quaestio Rossica, 11(4), 1232–1247.



Problema voluminis