The Marquis de Custine and the question of Russian history
Anka Muhlstein. Astolphe de Custine: The Last French Aristocrat. Teresa Waugh, trans. London: Gerald Duckworth and Company Limited, 2001. 391 pages.
Astolphe de Custine. Letters from Russia. Anka Muhlstein, ed and trans. New York: New York Review of Books, 2002. 654 pages.
RUSSIA IS A TYRANNY the vilest tyranny that ever existed. The great mass of the Russian people are gripped by a gang of cosmopolitan adventurers, who have settled down on the country like vultures and are tearing it to pieces.
— Winston Churchill, 1924
IN FRANCE, revolutionary tyranny is an evil belonging to a state of transition; in Russia, despotic tyranny is permanent.
—Astolphe de Custine, 1843
AS A NATION, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
— Abraham Lincoln, 1855
A Russian friend of mine once remarked, as I was describing my grandfather’s experiences during and after the Russian Revolution, that ‘in 1917 the Russians exchanged the tyranny of the czars for the tyranny of each other’. All cultural and political generalizations are problematic, and this one all the more so as it draws on a surprisingly resilient theme in the discussion of Russian history: it admits to a change in the surface conditions of Russian society but not in an underlying, enduring Russian nature. As this tired lore would have it, only the outward forms of the Russian regime change, while the people and the day-to-day form of rule and administration remain, in some way, the same. We are asked to imagine an eternal, static Russia, grounded in an eternal, static Russian people—and to perpetuate the trope of a particularly Russian, self-lacerating preoccupation with self-identity and its relation to history.
One of the most controversial works in the history of foreign investigations of the Russian people and government is Astolphe de Custine’s La Russie en 1839. As Anka Muhlstein, the editor of Letters from Russia, a newly published translation of Custine’s work, states in her 1996 biography Custine (released in English translation in 2001), Letters from Russia was called by the Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen ‘the most intelligent book about Russia’, and its importance to political history has been commonly compared to that of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
But it was the book’s prophetic description of mid-twentieth century Russia which was to be the basis of its reputation in the last century. Indeed, the book’s publication history speaks volumes about the nature of its impact and its importance: it was remarkably popular when published in 1843, widely translated in Europe, banned by Czar Nicholas I and by Lenin, lost in obscurity for some time, and eventually adopted as the darling text of disgruntled American diplomats who, stationed in Moscow during Stalin’s rule, plundered it for surprisingly apropos aphorisms.1 Custine’s description of the despotism he perceived in Russia in 1839—he discusses ‘the police of the imagination’ and describes the Russian people as ‘voluntary automata’—are easy to recognize as remarkably accurate descriptions of later tyrannies.
The work’s reliability has been more hotly contested than its significance. It has often been criticized as a distorted, myopic representation of Russia through the eyes of a prejudiced, Romantic dandy. But that was not how George Kennan saw it. As he contended in the 1969 Chicele lectures at Oxford, and as he argues in the book which he developed out of the lectures,2 the startling similarity between Custine’s and Stalin’s Russia was not inevitable.
Rather, in Kennan’s view, the changes following the 1917 revolution represented nothing less than a return to an ethos of tyranny and seclusion from which Russia had been emerging at the end of the nineteenth century.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the appeal of La Russie was renewed by interest in the oppressive past from which Russia was perceived to be distancing itself. But soon the rest of the world’s dwindling interest in (or even memory of) the USSR threatened to relegate Custine’s popular and influential work to the ash-heap of history along with the system it had so aptly prefigured. Robin Buss, the editor of a highly abridged 1991 version, argued naturally enough that the value of Custine’s work extends beyond its status as prophecy to its historical importance as fine travel literature and as a representation of the nineteenth century European fascination with Russia.3 However, such a move would no doubt confine this sweeping and highly personal work to specialized academic interest and literary analysis. No longer worth banning, La Russie seemed no longer relevant to contemporary concepts of Russia and Russian identity.
It was at this point that Anka Muhlstein took up the cause of Custine, motivated by a desire to promote interest not only in La Russie, but also in Custine’s other works and in the man himself. In her biography of Custine, subtitled The Last French Aristocrat, she portrays Custine as a neglected genius whose works are significant in the wider contexts of French history and European romanticism. But a revival of Custine’s second-rate novels and poems is rather unlikely, and Muhlstein’s crucial insight, in the end, is that La Russie amounts to a paradigmatic and incisive assessment of Russia and its tyrannies by an educated, liberal aristocrat in the wake of the French revolution. ‘I arrived in a new country,’ he claims of his entry to Russia, ‘without any other prejudices than those which no man can guard against; those which a conscientious study of history imparts’.
Custine’s ‘conscientious study of history’ was not simply bookish: he lived and observed the history of his own times in some remarkable ways. His grandfather was an officer in both the American Revolution and in the wars fought in the aftermath of the French Revolution and was killed—along with his son, Custine’s father—in 1793 during the Terror. The family fortunes soon crumbled, and Custine’s mother was for some time imprisoned, while little Astolphe, just over three years old, was cared for by a nurse in one of the few rooms of the family home which was not sealed by the authorities. ‘The servants,’ wrote Custine, ‘scarcely spoke to me of anything but the misfortunes of my parents; and never shall I forget the consequent expression of terror which I experienced in my earliest intercourse with the world’.
From that point forward, the dominating influence in Custine’s life was his mother Delphine, a renowned beauty who kept many lovers, including René de Chateaubriand, and who was probably the model for the heroine of Madame de Staël’s novel Delphine. Biographers tend to make much of Delphine’s influence on Custine, indulging in the kind of dubious psychoanalyzing she seems to demand. Muhlstein is no exception. Indeed, the opening sections of The Last French Aristocrat are thoroughly incoherent, betraying Muhlstein’s inability to decide between focusing on Custine or on his fascinating mother, with her impetuosity, her inconstancy, her heroic independence, and her lovers.
Custine’s sexuality was certainly an important factor in his emotional life as well as central to his place in the history of the French aristocracy. His homosexuality began to surface in adolescent friendships, but it did not prevent him from marrying (most likely as a consequence of maternal pressure) in 1821, and fathering a son, Enguerrand, in 1822. By this time, the Custine fortunes had revived, and the young Marquis was something of a social success, with literary aspirations, good looks, and a fascinating family history. He was also engaged in diplomatic service, attending the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
But in October of 1824 the open secret of Custine’s sexuality became a public scandal from which he never fully recovered. Custine arranged to meet a young guard for a rendezvous one evening, but the guard reported the tryst to his fellows, who appeared at the appointed time, stripped the Marquis, and beat him severely. When Custine brought in the police, the guards claimed they had beaten him to uphold the honour of the regiment. They were exonerated, and, his homosexuality exposed, Custine was no longer permitted to perform his diplomatic duties nor able to appear as usual in respectable society.
Custine subsequently held only a minor place in Parisian society, and his professional possibilities were severely curtailed. His wife had died in 1823 at the age of 21, and his son died in 1826. Custine turned to writing and throughout his life produced poems, novels, and plays which met with only limited success. In 1838 he published his first successful work, L’Espagne sous Ferdinand VII, based on a journey he had made in 1831. Custine received considerable acclaim for his proficiency as a writer of good travel literature, if not of good novels. It was also during this journey that Custine considered the possibility of a tour of Russia, to compare it with Spain and consider its relation to Europe.
Not until 1839 would he bring his plan to fruition and begin writing what was to become one of the most important representations of tyranny and corruption—and specifically Russian tyranny and corruption—ever written. Custine went on to write other works before he slipped into financial difficulties and died of a stroke in 1857, but his work on Russia—and his history preceding its publication—remain the most important aspects of his life for contemporary readers.
1 See, for example, Journey For Our Time: The Journals of the Marquis de Custine. Phyllis Penn Kohler, ed and trans. London: Arthur Baker, 1951.
2 Kennan, George F. The Marquis de Custine and His Russia in 1839. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1972.
3 Marquis de Custine. Letters from Russia. Robin Buss, ed and trans. London: Penguin Books, 1991.