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 La Russie en 1839. 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.
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, 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. An income of 60,000 francs a year enabled him to live as he pleased, including at Saint-Gratien, his estate outside Paris, where Frédéric Chopin was such a favoured guest he came without notice. Custine spent time in the diplomatic service, attending the Congress of Vienna, and even accepted a military commission. In 1821 Custine married Léontine de Saint-Simon de Courtomer, an arrangement made by his mother. The Marquis, later to admit his homosexuality and to live openly with a male lover, was genuinely fond of his wife, who was of constant good humour, and they had a son, Enguerrand. During the marriage Custine met and established a romantic relationship with an Englishman, Edward Saint-Barbe, who moved into the house with the couple, and remained his life companion. In 1823, while in the early stages of a second pregnancy, Léontine fell ill and died, aged only twenty.
On 28 October 1824, Custine's life was irrevocably changed. That night, his 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, 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).
In 1835, an extremely attractive Polish count, the twenty-three year old Ignatius Gurowski (1812-1887), moved into Custine and Saint-Barbe's home in the rue de La Rochefoucauld to form a ménage à trois. Wrote Custine: "He has an excellent heart, an original mind, is graciously ignorant of everything, and what settles it all, a charming bearing and countenance."  The capricious Gurowski was not an easy guest, running up debts and seducing both men and women, but appears to have amused the couple. The detailed register of homosexuals, then maintained by the Paris police prefecture, and which termed Custine's inclinations 'frantic', wrote of Gurowski with a comical note of possible despair: "It is hereditary in his family: his father and grandfather were of the same religion." In 1841 Gurowski married an Spanish infanta Ferdinanda-Isabella de Bourbon.
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, and was struck by the "smothering enormity of power and the randomness of everyday life and death". 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.'" Other tart and much-quoted observations included:
"In Russia, everything you notice, and everything that happens around you, has a terrifying uniformity; and the first thought that comes into the traveler's mind, as he contemplates this symmetry, is that such entire consistency and regularity, so contrary to the natural inclination of mankind, cannot have been achieved and could not survive without violence."
"The nature of its Government is interference, negligence and corruption. You rebel against the notion that you could become accustomed to all this, yet you do become accustomed to it. In that country, a sincere man would be taken for an idiot."
"A wealth of unnecessary and petty precautions here engenders a whole army of clerks, each of whom carries out his task with a degree of pedantry and inflexibility, and a self-important air solely designed to add significance to the least significant employment.""The profession of misleading foreigners is one known only in Russia....everyone disguises what is bad and shows what is good before the master's eyes."
Custine criticized Tsar 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
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. Tsarist authorities also sponsored a more scholarly investigation of Russia by a foreigner, Studies on the Interior of Russia 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.
The Tsar also commissioned french writer Hippolyte Auger to pen an extensive refutation. However, as the scandal of it subsided, the Tsar decided it was best not to remind the public of the book, and the project was abandoned.
Custine died of a stroke in the evening of 25 September 1857.
Custine's observations in La Russie en 1839 continue to be admired for their insight, prescience and sheer entertainment value, but they also disliked by others for reasons that can include the belief they are inaccurate, pretentious, racist, and that the idea of national stereotypes is an absurdity. It has been suggested that he is one of the originators of a putative West European Russophobia.
However, as one critic has written, what is indisputable is that "Above all, the Marquis valued freedom; freedom from fear, hypocrisy and the shackles that restrain the human spirit."
A character representing Custine appears in the 2002 film Russian Ark; his conversations with the timetraveling narrator intended to reflect Russia's continued struggle for identity with regards to Europe.
Notes and references
- "Reviews: The Marquis de Custine and the question of Russian history". The Oxonian Review. 2002. Retrieved 5 February 2009.
- "A French Marquis' Adventures: Dandy Stuff for Biography". 1999-11-22. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
- Anka Muhlstein, "A Taste For Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine", Helen Marx Books, 1999, pp184-186, p261
- Erlanger, Steven (1996-06-16). "Word for Word/The Marquis de Custine;A Long-Ago Look at Russia: (So What Else Is New?)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
- Ruvigny et Raineval, Melville Henry Massue marquis deThe Blood Royal of Britain, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1994, p87
- Murat, Laure La tante, le policier et l'écrivain in Sexologie et théories savantes du sexe, Revue d'Histoire des Sciences Humaines, 2007; https://www.cairn.info/revue-histoire-des-sciences-humaines-2007-2-page-47.htm
- Almanacco della Real Corte di Lucca, 1847, Tipgrafia Giusti,Luca 1847, p104
- 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.
- Tolley, Bruce A Saint-Simonian writer: Hippolyte Auger (1797-1881), Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol 11, Issue 3
- Muhlstein, Anka, A Taste For Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine", 1999, p378
- Starobin, Paul (28 August 2014), "The Eternal Collapse of Russia", The National Interest
- 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
- 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, A Taste For Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine", 1999. Republished as: 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