The Russians and the French share significant historical ties. Confining ourselves to recent history, both nationalities were allies in the conflicts of last century and subsequently witnessed reciprocal exoduses. In another era, during the times of the tsars, upper-class Muscovites would flock to the Côte d’Azur—a stretch of the Mediterranean in the south of the Gallic country—for their holidays. Located in the heart of this luxurious leisure complex, Nice has always held a privileged position in this ritual migration, which generally takes place in the summer.
The international pull of this mid-sized city, with a population of around 342,000, dates back to the second half of the 19th century, shortly after it became part of France, consigning the passports issued by neighbouring Italy, whose border is just 30 kilometres away, to history. However, it was during the Belle Époque (the period from the end of the Franco–Prussian War through to the First World War) and up to the 1930s, that tourism boomed and the streets filled with mansions to such an extent that they practically outnumber normal residential buildings.
Aside from the Promenade des Anglais (a name dedicated to other latitudes), attentive visitors will spot a distinctive Slavonic influence in some of the street names. Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Emperor Nicholas I, spent part of their fortune on the construction of the Saint Nicholas and Saint Alexandra Orthodox Church in the city. However, the building was quickly overshadowed by the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, a larger, more imposing edifice better suited to the growing Russian community.
Its construction began in 1902 and ended in 1913. Ever since then, the Russian presence has been split between occasional visitors and a population fluctuating between 200,000 and 500,000, spread throughout France. One of the most famous Russian residents, however, remained loyal to the city. The painter Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, to the north of Belarus, and died at the age of 98 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, another town in the Alpes-Maritimes region around 20 kilometres from Nice.
Chagall was commissioned to produce biblical works for a gallery that would house collections telling the story of the bible. The initiative, which dates back to 1969, was the brainchild of the then minister of culture and novelist André Malraux. The artist was fascinated by the site on Cimiez Hill, which at the time had fallen into disuse and had been transferred to the state. He produced 17 canvases depicting the history of the creation, took part in the opening and was involved in a number of projects before his death in 1985.
“Marc Chagall offered a beautiful gift to France throughout the 1960s and 1970s: seventeen masterpieces constituting his work on the Bible. These pieces make up part of the permanent collection of more than 400 paintings, watercolours, ink drawings, and pastels. This universe, dedicated to the works of Chagall, is teeming with colours used in original and unexpected ways,” explains the French Tourist board website, extolling the gallery’s monastic calm that invites visitors to follow his mystic career.
The building that houses the collection was designed by the architect André Hermant and renamed the Marc Chagall National Museum in 2008. It concentrates the artist’s work in two rooms on a single floor. The first room contains 12 large paintings illustrating the first two books of the Old Testament: Genesis and Exodus. The second contains five more paintings, dedicated based on the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon. According to the tourist board, the space “naturally aims to be a welcoming place for visitors,” with its light offering “ideal conditions to discover the paintings, mosaics, windows, and paper drawings, thanks to an architectural design well adapted to the artist’s works.”
Thanks to considerable interest and media publicity, this monument to the Russian painter in the Côte d’Azur capital has gone from 30,000 visitors when it was opened to 200,000 over the last decade, attracting people from all over the world, not just France and Russia. Many are struck by the museum’s gardens, where the blooming African lilies mark the painter’s anniversary on 7 July. The grounds also house an outdoor Arabic mosaic and their pines, cypresses and olive trees provide shade for curious visitors who, this time without the figure of a woman with a hat (to evoke the lyrics of the Spanish singer Silvio Rodríguez’s famous song), contemplate the oil paintings of this key avant-garde figure A fitting tribute to an artist who came from Soviet lands, participated in the Revolution and, in the end, became an illustrious resident of Nice, a champion of relations between these two nationalities.