Marquis de Custine

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Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine (18 March 1790 – 25 September 1857)[citation needed] 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 de Sabran, Marquise de Custine, also came from a prestigious family and was noted 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 in prison. Subsequent to the overthrow of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror, notorious Minister of Police under Napoleon Joseph Fouché allowed the Marquise to repair her fortune.

It was a stormy beginning to a difficult life.

Under direction of his strong-willed mother, Custine was raised in an unsettled social atmosphere among the scattered and exiled surviving aristocracy of France. This brought him into frequent contact with noted emigres, such as his mother's ardent admirer François-René de Chateaubriand,[1] considered the founder of Romanticism in French literature. Her château of Fervaques, near Lisieux, in Normandy, was purchased from the Duc de Laval in October 1803, and Chateaubriand noted his visits between 1804 and 1806 and discussed both the Marquise and Custine in Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe. She died at Bex, in Vaud, Switzerland, July 13, 1826.

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.[2]

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.[1] That same year, 1826, several family friends would die, Custine's young son Enguerrand (b. 1822), 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[edit]

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".[3]

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 predicted that Russia would be a great power if its capital were ever moved back to the older city.

Most of Custine's mockery 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 behaved as he did only 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 mid-20th century, many saw predictions of Joseph Stalin in Custine's description of Nicholas I.

Publication and reaction[edit]

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 Soviet Union. Finally, an unabridged version was published in 1996.

Several Russian authors published works critical of Custine's La Russie en 1839, among them Un mot sur l'ouvrage de M. de Custine, intitulé: La Russie en 1839 by Xavier Labenski (Jean Polonius) and Examen de l'ouvrage de M. le marquis de Custine intitulé "La Russie en 1839" (Paris, 1844) by Nicholas Gretsch.[4] Tsarist authorities also sponsored a more scholarly investigation of Russia by a foreigner, Studies on the Interior of Russia[5] by August von Haxthausen. It 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.[6]

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 timetraveling narrator reflect Russia's continued struggle for identity with regards to Europe.


Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia contains remarks on the superiority of Europe over Asia. These statements often coexist in text with racist allusions. Russians are viewed not only as non-Europeans but also as non-whites. Mongoloids and non-white are used by the author as a proof of being inferior. De Coustine has been called a "notorious Russophobe" and, by Paul Starobin, as one of the originators of a putative West European Russophobia.[7][8]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Reviews: The Marquis de Custine and the question of Russian history". the Oxonian Review. 2002. Retrieved 5 February 2009.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  2. ^ Anka Muhlstein, "A Taste For Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine", Helen Marx Books, 1999
  3. ^ Caplan, Bryan. "Czarist Origins of Communism, I". Museum of Communism. Retrieved 2006-06-10. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Layton, Susan (2006), "Russian Military Tourism", in Gorsuch, Anne E., Turizm: The Russian and East European Tourist Under Capitalism and Socialism, Cornell University Press, p. 51 
  8. ^ Starobin, Paul (28 August 2014), "The Eternal Collapse of Russia", Public Interest 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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

External links[edit]