In 1799 Sophie Rostopchine was born into an aristocratic Russian family. Her father, Count Feodor Rostopchine, was Czar Paul I’s advisor, and as governor of Moscow during the Napoleonic wars, may have given the order to burn the city in order to save it from French conquest in 1812. From this Russian Orthodox and still feudal background, Sophie was to develop into a fervent Roman Catholic, loyal to her new country, France, and concerned with the challenges of a society undergoing transformation through urbanization and class conflict.
Sophie’s father was a strong figure, tender yet volatile and eccentric. Rostopchine influenced Sophie’s relations to men and to authority in general, as her later writing shows respect for worthy authority figures alongside a rebellious mockery of petty defenders of order. Her mother, a strict disciplinarian who believed in Spartan habits and who withheld demonstrations of affection, was responsible for the inculcation of strong moral expectations and for Sophie’s sense of the mother figure as central to the development of children.
Raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, Sophie was influenced by her mother Catherine’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, an act that provoked the anger of the Czar himself and created a schism within the family. Although her father and siblings remained in the Russian Orthodox Church, Sophie converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen.
In 1816 inquiries into Rostopchine’s role in Moscow impelled him to move the family to Paris, in what the count perceived as an exile. Intelligent and lively, well educated and able to speak several languages, Sophie entered into a brilliant social circle in which religious life ranged from conventional observance of Roman Catholic practices to skepticism or agnosticism. In 1819, she married the aristocrat Eugène de Ségur, a former page of Napoleon and later an administrator for the national railways. Although the couple had eight chil-