Prophecy about Putin’s Russia testified by Marquise de Custine. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



Even if we admit that “La Russie en 1839” was not a very good book about Russia in 1839, as the famous diplomat and historian George Kennan said we are confronted with the disturbing fact that it was an excellent book…about the Russia of Joseph Stalin, and not a bad book about the Russia of Brezhnev and Kosygin”. And a prophecy about Putin’s Russia, we would add...


Anatol Țăranu

Cover image: Russian singer and actor Igor Talkov (1956-1991). Screenshot from the video for the song Глобус. «Покажите мне такую страну, где славят тирана.../Show me such a country where the tyrant is glorified...»

In the recent past, I reread the Romanian variant of the volume signed by Marquise de Custine, “La Russie en 1839”. I admit that the first familiarization with the book at the end of the 1990s didn’t impress me much. But the rerun reading amidst the war that is being waged by Putin’s Russia on Ukraine revealed the whole prophecy of such literary that makes you realize how insignificantly the Russians have changed as a cultural genotype and national character during hundreds of years. Surely, for the Russians it can be very unpleasant to look at them through the content of this book as through a mirror and to see less honorable qualities. But Marquise de Custine was the one who showed capacity to detect profoundly and precisely the fundamental qualities of the Russian people, of what is called Russian soul, and could write about this openly and without hesitation. Some criticize today this book, but the best proof of the author’s honesty and impartiality is to recognize a number of traits depicted then among descendants of those Russians at present already.

Astolphe Louis Lénor, known as Marquise de Custine, wrote a book consisting of 36 letters about Russia – a volume recognized as one of the most intelligent books about this country written by a foreigner. Disgusted by the hypocrisy of the July Monarchy in France under Louis Philippe, this French aristocrat in 1839 made a four-month visit to Saint Petersburg and to Moscow, at the time of Russian Tsar Nicolas I. But, “leaving for Russia with the thought of looking for arguments against the representative government there, I return from there a partisan of constitutions”, he admitted in his book.

Marquise’s book caused a shock in Russian society and was actually banned in Russia during the period before the Revolution of 1917, remaining banned also under the Communists, but it didn’t stop circulating clandestinely. In the West, Custine was revived by the Cold War, while in Eastern Europe he became publishable after the fall of communism.

“La Russie en 1839” represents a view on the Russian state and society from inside. Moreover, this view in a number of places matches the modern Russian realities and this confirms once again the author’s perception and observation. His conclusions are not always incontestable and are sometimes contradictory. However, during four months he managed to see enough to state a sententious opinion on Russia, the Russian method of government and the characteristics of the Russian soul whose vices and mores were passed on in time and still exist, and where “victims become the most zealous accomplices of their executioners”. Custine’s Russia is “the saddest, dullest and emptiest country on earth. Infinite lowlands, dark and insipid wilderness.

During his trip via Russia, the Marquise showed to be an exceptional analytical observer. In the form of letters to imaginary friends, Custine extracted the essence of Russia: abusive, backward authoritarianism and, what is more terrible, stunning collaborationism of victims with the regime that refused their freedom. “Nothing can discredit the authority in the case of a nation for which obedience became a condition of life. There were people who adored light. The Russians adore the eclipse: how can their eyes be ever opened? I don’t say that their political system doesn’t produce anything good; I only say that everything it produces costs a lot. The foreigners have marveled at this nation’s love for the own slavery not from today or from tomorrow”.

Until recently, the Russian readers knew Custine exclusively as a critic of Nicholas I of Russia. In reality, Custine, as no one else, managed to create the image of a giant empire of fear, a country in which the people cannot protect themselves from the state machinery. He said that “the Russian Empire is a camp discipline instead of a state structure; it is a state of siege raised to the rank of normal state of society”. The fear of Siberia penetrates the whole spirit of the Russians even if, as he admitted, “Siberia is actually the same Russia, but is more terrible”. After he visited the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, he noted with surprise that its walls separated both political criminals and the graves of Russian emperors from the rest of the world. With pathos worth of being depicted by the best publicists, he describes the situation in Russian society with general lack rights and police supervision. “In Russia”, stated Custine, “I became a democrat”.

Marquise de Custine regarded Russia with the eyes of the man of Western culture, which is so different from the Russian culture. Even if the personal experience of the author – his grandfather and father were guillotined during the Great French Revolution and this fact probably made him an opponent of the French political system – he yet revealed not simply a Russian historical reality that is so different from the Western one, but a tragic and eternal reality that got stuck in two human hypostases: that of a victim that adores the executioner, voluntarily accepting torture, and that of a torturing leader who transforms the own country into an arbitrary hell. Very attentive to the picturesque detail and with special literary charm, Custine reveals the permanence of a monstrous universe against which tsarist authoritarianism and Bolshevik totalitarianism were only two masks put on the same face... Other nations also endured oppression, but the Russian nation loved this; and still loves it.

Speaking about the role of the Russian Church, Custine notes: “Today Russia is one of the most curious states of the world and this is due to the combination of extreme barbarousness aggravated by the state of slavery of the Church, and refined civilization borrowed by the eclectic government from foreign powers”. In continuation, Custine names the Russians “an imitating nation” that uses the discoveries of other nations. It is evident for the author that the European shine of the court in Saint Petersburg is only a screen and a parody, “the result of a terrifying combination of the European science and mind with the spirit of Asia.” While the Europeanism of the Russians is depicted through the assessment that “from the time of Peter I , the problem to be solved by the persons who govern Russia was that of profiting from the administrative progress of the European nations so as to manage 60 million people in an oriental manner”.

Due to this quality of the Russian governing class, Marquise de Custine describes the Russians as “esthetics”, “blond Arabs”, “disguised Chinese people” , while their leaders “are like Batu or Tamerlan”. At the same time, their country is filled with “such powerful fever of envy... that the Russian people should lose their capacity to do anything except for conquering the world”.

Ultimately, speaking about the enigma of the Russian soul, Custine notes for his reader: “If you had accompanied me on this trip, you would have discovered, together with me,  the deepness of the soul of the Russian nation, the fatal deserts left by the arbitrary power  pushed up to its last consequences: first, the crude indifference to the holiness of the word, to the genuineness of feelings and justness of facts; then, the captivating lie in all the actions and deals in life; lack of honor, the bad faith, deception in all its forms; in one word – the morality is blunted. It seems to me I see a procession of vices escaping from the Kremlin through all the exits for inundating Russia”.

The truth is none of the books about Russia can compete with Custine’s “La Russie en 1839” in terms of popularity. In the U.S., Marquis’s work was named the best work about the Soviet Union ever written. The famous Zbigniew Brzezinski, in the preface to the next edition of the book, noted: “No Sovietologist has yet improved on de Custine’s insights into the Russian character and the Byzantine nature of the Russian political system”.

It is admitted that the main characteristics and assessments of the Marquise can be attributed not only to Russia under the reign of Nicolas I, but also to any other epoch of the history of this country. Even if we admit that “La Russie en 1839” was not a very good book about Russia in 1839, as the famous diplomat and historian George Kennan said “we are confronted with the disturbing fact that it was an excellent book…about the Russia of Joseph Stalin, and not a bad book about the Russia of Brezhnev and Kosygin”. And a prophecy about Putin’s Russia, we would add.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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