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Saint-Exupéry and his memory in Russia

8-10-2019, 09:12

A gift from Russia - bust of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the city of Saint-Raphael, France.

Photograph by Tatyana Starovoitova

 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a writer, and author of the famous, kind hearted fairytale “The Little Prince” (“Le Petit Prince”), a pilot, who died at the end of the Second World War, and a romantic, whose pen gave the world the sincere lines from the novel “Wind, Sand and Stars”: “the only real luxury is the luxury of human communication”. Last but not least, he was a journalist, who visited our country in the 1930s and wrote about that time period.

In our country he is well known by many people of the older generation and almost all students of international language faculties,  because “Le Petit Prince”  is often used in the study of French. His memory in our country is greatly honored, and the most recent confirmation of this became the initiative of the Association of Russian Diplomats (ARD), which took part this summer in the Second International Festival “The Little Prince”. This festival was held in Saint-Raphael, a city with which the best years of the life and art of the prominent French humanist writer are associated, a writer the circulation of whose famous work “The Little Prince” in more than three hundred language is perhaps, as they say, second only to the Bible.

The official website of the Russian Foreign Ministry reported that a grand opening of the bronze bust of the writer, which was gifted to the city by the Moscow Fund “Universe of Saint-Exupéry”, took place on the site in front of the Lyceum of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The ceremony was attended by many representatives of the municipal government, figures of the cultural and educational fields, representatives of the press, and members of the Saint-Exupéry family. During the ceremony speeches were made by the mayor of Saint-Raphael Frederic Masquelier, President of the Fund Mstislav Listov, deputy Chairman of the ARD, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Valery Egoshkin, and the nephew of the writer Francois d’Agay.

Another participant of the ceremony was Kirill Aleksandrov from Belgorod, a young singer and member of the educational program of the ARD “Diplomats of the Future”. As a participant of the finale of the Russian contest and TV show Junior Eurovision, he sang the song by Aleksandra Pakhmutova “Nezhnost” (“Tenderness”). It is important to note that this song has become a sort of hymn for the fans of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Russia.

In line with this, the local publication “Ville-Saint-Raphael” wrote: “the bust of the author of “The Little Prince” was unveiled on the school site as a gift made with the donations of the Russian Fund “Universe of Saint-Exupery”. This event brings us back the memory of the life and fate of an exceptional person, who is in many ways associated with Saint-Raphael. 

 

Mstislav Listov, Frederic Masquelier and Valery Egoshkin.

Photograph from “Ville-Saint-Raphael”

In his speech, the mayor of the city Frederic Masquelier said that, “it is here that the family with which he was so close still lives till this day. It is here that most of the history of the d’Agay family was written. Since then, a fountain dedicated to “The Little Prince” has been preserved, and the school took the name of the man who shone with devotion, values, beauty and depth of his literary talent. I am very glad that our Russian friends thought about our city of Saint-Raphael and brought us their gift. This bust is a bronze poured, eternal, unchanging tribute to the memory of Antoine de Saint-Exupery”.  He also highlighted the close relationship between Russia and France, particularly at the cultural level.

That is what “Ville-Saint-Raphael” wrote.

It would seem that this information would suffice for the author to have published it some time ago, however,  unexpectedly, the story began to take an interest turn and we decided to postpone the publication until all of the most interesting material has been collected.

The thing is, that during the ceremony in Saint-Raphael, the Russian guests agreed with the family of Saint-Exupéry to provide, especially for International Affairs magazine, rare photographs of the writer along with the recollections of the family. This is why we are publishing this material at this time, now that we have collected the material that we wanted to share with our readers.

And so, here we present the historic recollections and never before published photographs from the family archive.

We’ll begin with the story of the visit to Moscow of Isabelle Le Ru. Isabelle is the granddaughter of a close friend of Saint-Exupéry, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking. She not only answered my questions, but also sent me written recollections and some photographs. Here for instance, we can see her grandfather together with Antoine sitting at a table in a cafe. She writes, “the only memory of them sitting with a glass of wine in Bamako (Mali) in those years. De Saint-Exupéry is the one the left, and my grandfather is the one in the squadron officer’s uniform”.

Thus, Isabelle, in answering my questions, said that she knows that Russian universities use “The Little Prince” as a study guide for learning French, however, she assumes that this is not widely known in France. Isabelle also could not unequivocally answer the question about whether the memory of the pilots of the  “Normandie-Nieman” squadron who fought against the Nazis on the Soviet-German front is alive: “In my opinion, this is not remembered here”.

However, here I present the text that she provided already after our meeting. She ultimately wrote about what we had discussed, which are her recollections:

“From the year of 1935 till 1937 my grandfather Auguste-Pierre Corney lived with his family in Bamako (Mali) and served there as an AirForce officer of the French Air Force Squadron No.1 in Africa. It was there that he met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and became his friend, and it was also there that Antoine taught my grandfather to fly his personal new airplane “Caudron Simoun”.

On board his personal aircraft, de Saint-Exupéry searched for new routes in Africa. Back then, in the years of the beginning of aviation, distances on our planet still seemed very big, in fact they were so big that it was difficult to imagine and define their contours. A new era was beginning for the pioneers of the sky, and the company “Air France”, which was established in 1933, entrusted de Saint-Exupéry with a mission to study the possibility of creating the Casablanca (Morocco) - Dakar (Senegal) air route through Mali, through Timbuktu and Bamako.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry lived in “Aviation”, which is what a simple and rather dirty room near the runway was called back then. It served both as a flight registration point and as an aircraft hangar. Itwasalsotheplacewherethemechanicsworked. 

Antoine (in the center with his hand at his helmet) greets those who welcome him at the airport in Bamako. 

Photograph from the family archive.

 

De Saint-Exupéry dressed in a leather jacket, and his glasses girded around his soft helmet. He always waited for my grandfathers arrival, who got used to an officer’s disorder in that corner of the airfield, where the pilots talk about everything and laugh, in the very buzz of the squadron’s propellers and among the bustling of the mechanics. 

If they disappeared from sight in the airport it was because they were under the hangar or on the runway, where they liked to meet near the dashing small plane and, with sparkling eyes admire this small “precious stone” - the “Caudron Simoun” plane! It had a graceful shape that aspired for the sky, and its long gray haul, decorated with a round cockpit, seemed safe and so friendly. Before climbing on the wing and then crashing into the narrow glass cockpit onto the pilot seat, they liked to knock on the fuselage, which, once in the air,  became the best companion.   

In the cockpit of this new vehicle, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry passed on to my grandfather the secrets of the plane, and told him about the particularities of piloting: they studied the dashboard,  instruments with fluorescent graduations and yellow turned needles, and, of course, the control handle and steering wheel. They especially like the new propeller that was barely noticeable from the tall cabin but that moved forward the proud, small “Simoun”. It was an electric helix, created in those days. The very first! But, the work of the propeller was complex, one needed to learn to vary the speed upon take-off, during the flight itself, and then during the landing, in order for the plane to land with maximum ease. My grandfather was very interested in these aviation innovations and he wanted to know every, as he liked to say, small “trick” of this machine. This was especially the case since the French Air Force just started to receive these types of new engines and wanted to train their pilots, because they considered these little planes to be ideal.

Conversations between the two friends were not only about mechanics. They also discussed new places that they visited, new countries, the African sun and new acquaintances. They discussed the characteristics of flights related to weather changes, talked about turbulence “up there”, which destabilizes the plane, about low altitude winds that lead to deviations from the course, or air vortices that complicate landings.

What else do I know about their friendship? Antoine and Auguste-Pierre were well versed in navigation and piloting in order to plan maneuvers in the bizarre sky with its changing winds, they knew how to “play” at a height. And when they made their first flights side by side in the blue morning sky above Mali, they allowed themselves to get drunk from this prosaic freedom”.

Then Isabelle retells a curious incident from those days. As she told me, “a small anecdote”, which she heard many times from her grandmother: “In the capital of Mali, Bamako, my grandmother and grandfather called Antoine de Saint-Exupéry “The holy expert”. They often greeted him in their “box”, as the beautiful house in which they lived was called. And their garden had two small cub lionesses. You are surprised? But this is Africa.

Time and time again Antoine took these animals with him on flights. He often flew to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Of course, by taking such a small, fluffy, playful “second pilot” Antoine violated safety instructions. And so, one time, he flew there and left the small lioness in his hotel room, and she, “enchanted by the freedom”, fled the room and caused a panic in the area of the hotel. And of course it did, a lioness went for a walk in the city! There were so many screams and such turmoil! Thankfully the lioness cub was caught and Antoine brought her back  as solace to my grandparents”.

A special thanks to Isabelle Le Ru for such a fun story!

And now, some impressions from the participants of the celebration in Saint-Raphael. The Art Director of the art festival “Little Prince’s World” Tatyana Manina said that this festival was dedicated to a memorable date - 75 years ago, on July 31st 1944 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry took his last flight and was never to be seen again. The goals and aims of the festival are to enable children and youth creative groups from different countries to demonstrate their vision and interpretation of the ideas that lie at the heart of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s works, and introduce participants and guests of the festival to the cultures of Russia and France. 

As part of the festival, a grand unveiling of the bronze bust of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which was given as a gift to the city from the Russian public organizations “Alley of Russian Heroes” and “Universe of Saint-Exupéry in Russia”, took place. The bust was designed by the honoured artist of Russia, sculptor Ivan Cherapkin, and cast in bronze in the south of Russia, in the city of Kropotkin, in the workshop of Mikhail Serdyukov.    

A worthy place was chosen for the bust -  on the esplanade of the regional lyceum named after Saint-Exupéry in Saint-Raphael, the city where the author spent a lot of time. A place near which his family lives till this day.

The bust installation project was supported by the Embassy of France in Russia, and thanks to the efforts of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to France of the Russian Federation Madame Sylvie Bermann and the Air Force attache of the Embassy Ms. Fleur Tardif, the bust was sent by diplomatic mail from Moscow to Paris and then to Saint-Raphael.

The success of the festival would not be possible without the team effort of the French and Russian sides. From the bottom of my heart I would like to thank Assistant to the Consul General of France Mr. Cedric Blanchard, representative of the City Hall of Saint-Raphael Ms. Anne Joncheray, and organizers of the event from the French side Valeria Le Duc, Franck Garibaldi, Natalya and Jean Cheryachukin, for their help in preparing and conducting the events.  

Participants of the unveiling ceremony. 

Photograph by Tatyana Starovoitova

 

Very welcome guests of the festival were the young admirers of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's works, children from different cities of France and Russia. This is not a coincidence, as the coat of arms of Saint-Raphael depicts an angel holding a child's hand. At the end of the festival, all of the young participants were deservedly awarded the title of Laureates. The Grand Prix was unanimously awarded to vocalist Kirill Aleksandrov. He is pictured below in a Cossack costume:

Photograph by Tatyana Starovoitova

And here are the impressions shared by Kirill Aleksandrov himself: “I’m 12 years old, I live in Belgorod and study in Lyceum № 32. This summer I received an opportunity to fly to France, to the city of Saint-Raphael and perform during the unveiling of the bust of the legendary writer de Saint-Exupéry. Then our group got to watch a movie about the famous writer and pilot, and in the evening we visited the wonderful city of Nice, the excursion there was unforgettable. The next morning at the “Little Prince” festival I performed Russian songs of different genres: Cossack, military, and patriotic. The family of Saint-Exupéry surprised me with an invitation to live with them for a month and study French. I gratefully accepted the invitation. The house of the de Saint-Exupéry family, which is simply huge, has an amazing territory around it, there is a beach, a beautiful garden and a divine view of the sea. We were very well received. Our group and I then travelled to the city of Marseille, where we walked along the streets and got to enjoy its sights. This was an amazing and unforgettable trip to France!”

France. Saint-Raphael.

Photograph from “Ville-Saint-Raphael”

This is how, piece by piece, the material with the memories about the French writer and pilot, who is well known in Russia and whose works are cherished, came together, along with the unique photographs shared with our publication by the de Saint-Exupéry family as well as the family of his friend, which of course enriched this report.


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