Marquis de Custine
Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine (18 March 1790 – 25 September 1857) was a French aristocrat and writer who is best known for his travel writing, in particular his account of his visit to Russia in 1839 Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia. This work documents not only Custine's travels through the Russian empire, but also the social fabric, economy, and way of life during the reign of Nicholas I.
Astolphe de Custine was born in Niderviller, Lorraine, of French nobility. His father's family had possessed the title marquis since the early 18th century and owned famous porcelain works. His mother, Delphine, also came from a prestigious family and was known for her intelligence and great beauty.
Custine's father and grandfather both sympathized with the French Revolution but were both guillotined. Custine's mother barely escaped the same fate. It was to be the beginning of a difficult life for Astolphe Custine.
Custine was raised by his strong-willed mother and saw a lot of the writer Chateaubriand, who was his mother's lover. Custine was given an excellent education and seemed to be headed towards a life in society. He spent time in the diplomatic service, attending the Congress of Vienna, and even accepted a military commission. In the early 1820s, Custine went along with a marriage arranged by his mother. The Marquis, later to admit his homosexuality and to live openly with a male lover, was genuinely fond of his wife and had a son with her, but she died after only a few years of marriage. Still, during the marriage he met and established a romantic relationship with an Englishman, Edward Saint-Barbe, who remained his life companion.
On 28 October 1824, after his wife had died, Custine's life was irrevocably changed. That night, Custine's unconscious body was found in the mud outside of Paris, stripped to the waist, beaten, and robbed. The attack had been carried out by a group of soldiers with one of whom Custine allegedly had attempted to have a sexual encounter. The exact reason for the attack was never proven. Nevertheless, news of the incident quickly spread around France — "From this time on to the end of his life Custine would figure, in the cruel gossip of the day, primarily as France's most distinguished and notorious homosexual." Even though the literary salons, as opposed to the society salons, remained open to Custine, many people who were friendly with him sneered at him behind his back. His diplomatic career was also cut short by this incident. That same year, several family friends would die, Custine's infant son by his late wife, and his mother. In the years after this tragedy, Custine became very pious.
Custine gravitated toward the Romantic movement and spent the next few years writing poetry and novels. Custine wrote one play and purchased a theater to produce it, but the play closed after three performances. None of his literary works received much attention. Heinrich Heine called Custine "un demi-homme des lettres" (a half-man of letters).
La Russie en 1839
Custine eventually discovered that his knack was for travel writing. He wrote a decently received account of a trip to Spain and was encouraged by Honoré de Balzac to write accounts of other "half-European" parts of Europe, like southern Italy and Russia. In the late 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America appeared, whose last chapter contained the prophecy that the future belonged to Russia and America. With that, Custine decided that Russia would be his next writing effort. Custine was later dubbed by some historians "the de Tocqueville of Russia".
Custine visited Russia in 1839, spending most of his time in St. Petersburg, but also visiting Moscow and Yaroslavl. A political reactionary in his own country, fearful that democracy would inevitably lead to mob rule, he went to Russia looking for arguments against representative government, but he was appalled by autocracy as practiced in Russia, and equally by the Russian people's apparent collaboration in their own oppression. He attributed this state of affairs to what he saw as the backwardness of the Russian Orthodox Church, combined with the baleful effects of the Mongol invasion of medieval Russia, and the policies of Peter the Great. He mocked contemporary Russia for its veneer of European civilisation hiding an Asiatic soul. Custine criticized St. Petersburg for being the creation of one man and not the result of spontaneous historical forces. Custine, however, loved Moscow architecture and said Russia would be a great power if its capital were ever moved back to the older city.
Most of Custine's mocking was reserved for the Russian nobility and Nicholas I. Custine said Russia's aristocracy had "just enough of the gloss of European civilization to be 'spoiled as savages' but not enough to become cultivated men. They were like 'trained bears who made you long for the wild ones.'"
Custine criticizes Nicholas for the constant spying he ordered and for repressing Poland. Custine had more than one conversation with the Tsar and concluded it was possible that the Tsar only behaved as he did because he felt he had to. "If the Emperor has no more of mercy in his heart than he reveals in his policies, then I pity Russia; if, on the other hand, his true sentiments are really superior to his acts, then I pity the Emperor." (Kennan, 76)
Kennan describes Russia as a horrible domain of obsequious flattery of the Tsar and spying. Custine said the air felt freer the moment one crossed into Prussia. In the middle 20th century, many saw predictions of Joseph Stalin in Custine's description of Nicholas I.
Publication and reaction
La Russie en 1839 went through six printings and was widely read in England, France, and Germany, but banned in Russia. Nevertheless some books printed in France were smuggled in and made an impact on Russian society. From 1890 to 1891, fragments of the book were published in Russian journals. Poorly-abridged versions of the book were published in 1910 and in 1930 in the USSR. Finally, an unabridged version was published in 1996.
Several Russian authors published works critical on Custine's La Russie en 1839, among them Un mot sur l'ouvrage de M. de Custine, intitulé: La Russie en 1839 by Xavier Labensky (Jean Polonius) and Examen de l'ouvrage de M. le marquis de Custine intitulé "La Russie en 1839" (Paris, 1844) by Nicolas Gretch. Tsarist authorities also sponsored a more scholarly investigation of Russia by a foreigner, Studies on the Interior of Russia by August von Haxthausen. This presented research on Russia's traditional social institutions, which the Tsar's advisors believed would effectively counter Custine's work. Studies was translated from German into French and English in 1848.
The Marquis de Custine may also be known to contemporary audiences as the European visitor in the 2002 film Russian Ark, whose conversations with the time-traveling narrator reflect Russia's continued struggle for identity with regards to Europe.
"Russia is a nation of mutes; some magician has changed sixty million men into automatons."
"Nations have always good reasons for being what they are, and the best of all is that they cannot be otherwise."
"The love of their country is with them only a mode of flattering its master; as soon as they think that master can no longer hear, they speak of everything with a frankness which is the more startling because those who listen to it become responsible."
"I came here to see a country, but what I find is a theater... The names are the same as everywhere else... In appearances everything happens as it does everywhere else. There is no difference except in the very foundation of things."
"I don't reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I blame them for is their desire to appear to be what we [Europeans] are.... They are much less interested in being civilized than in making us believe them so... They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric than they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them better and more civilized."
Quotations are from George F. Kennan, The Marquis de Custine and his Russia in 1839, Princeton University Press, 1971.
Notes and references
- "Reviews: The Marquis de Custine and the question of Russian history". http://www.oxonianreview.org/ the Oxonian Review. 2002. Retrieved 5 February 2009.
- Anka Muhlstein, "A Taste For Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine", Helen Marx Books, 1999
- Caplan, Bryan. "Czarist Origins of Communism, I". Museum of Communism. Retrieved 2006-06-10.
- Studien über die Zustände, das Volksleben, und insbesondere die ländlichen Einrichtungen Russlands, the first two volumes published in 1847, with a third published in 1852.
- Fisher, David C. "Russia and the Crystal Palace 1851" in Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851 ed. Jeffery A. Auerbach & Peter H. Hoffenberg. Ashgate, 2008: p. 124.
- The Truth About Putin and Medvedev by Amy Knight, The New York Review of Books 55/8
- Christian Sigrist, Das Russlandbild des Marquis de Custine. Von der Zivilisationskritik zur Russlandfeindlichkeit, Frankfurt 1990.
- Irena Grudzinska Gross, The Scar of Revolution, Custine, Tocqueville, and the Romantic Imagination, Berkeley 1991.
- Anka Muhlstein, Astolphe de Custine: The Last French Aristocrat, London 2001.
- Astolphe de Custine, Journey For Our Time: The Journals of the Marquis de Custine. Ed. Phyllis Penn Kohler, Washington 1987.
- Astolphe de Custine, Journey For Our Time: The Journals of the Marquis de Custine. Ed. Phyllis Penn Kohler, London 1951.
- Astolphe de Custine, Empire of the Czar. A Journey Through Ethernal Russia, Auklend 1989.
- George F. Kennan, The Marquis de Custine and His Russia in 1839, London 1972.
- Albert Marie Pierre de Luppé, Astolphe de Custine, Monaco 1957.
- Francine-Dominique Liechtenhan, Astolphe de Custine voyageur et philosophe, Paris 1990.
- Julien Frédéric Tarn, Le Marquis de Custine ou les Malheurs de l'exactitude, Paris, 1985.
- Leonard Epp, 'The Marquis de Custine and the Question of Russian History', review of Anka Muhlstein, Astolphe de Custine: The Last French Aristocrat and Astolphe de Custine, Letters from Russia in the Oxonian Review
- Letters from Russia, edited by Anka Muhlstein (NYRB Classics, 2002)