Letters from Russia cover
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Publication date:
April 30, 2002
NYRB Classics
Available as E-Book, History, International Literature, Biography & Memoir

The Marquis de Custine’s record of his trip to Russia in 1839 is a brilliantly perceptive, even prophetic, account of one of the world’s most fascinating and troubled countries. It is also a wonderful piece of travel writing. Custine, who met with people in all walks of life, including the Czar himself, offers vivid descriptions of St. Petersburg and Moscow, of life at court and on the street, and of the impoverished Russian countryside. But together with a wealth of sharply delineated incident and detail, Custine’s great work also presents an indelible picture—roundly denounced by both Czarist and Communist regimes—of a country crushed by despotism and “intoxicated with slavery.”

Letters from Russia, here published in a new edition prepared by Anka Muhlstein, the author of the Goncourt Prize-winning biography of Custine, stands with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as a profound and passionate encounter with historical forces that are still very much at work in the world today.


The most trenchant political text of the 19th century.
— Louis Auchincloss

Much of [Russia in 1839’s] popularity was no doubt due to [Custine’s] biting criticism and flamboyant prose. Throughout the years, Custine’s “Empire” has remained one of the most famous Western accounts of czarist days.
San Francisco Chronicle

Alexander Herzen wrote: “This is unquestionably the most diverting and intelligent book written about Russia by a foreigner.” Herzen’s words are still true today, despite the thousands of books written about Russia since that time.
The New York Review of Books

[Letters from Russia] depicts Russia as it has never been portrayed before, or since… This observant writer described northern landscapes and the capital’s balls, the Moscow Kremlin and the dress of the common people. The power of Custine’s letters as a unified work is in their inner drama.
— Viktor Erofeyev, The New York Review of Books

Historical accuracy, Romantic pretension, and self-display aside, Astolphe de Custine’s Letters from Russia conveys to contemporary readers the need to engage fully with our culture and the cultures of others, whatever our own inevitable limitations of perspective.
— Leonard Epp, The Oxonian Review of Books Witch Grass Raymond Queneau

This desultory tale of undistinguished yet eccentric Parisians circles around a theme that threatens to take over the book the way witch grass invades a field. That theme is the precariousness of reality around us, the imminence of nonbeing, a principle identified in physics as the second law of thermodynamics, namely, entropy.
— Roger Shattuck

A supreme example of the novel-poem
— Claude Simonnet

Happily, Barbara Wright’s grand translations offer pleasures in all ways congruent and equal to those of the original. Her English language Queneau writes with the same dry abandon as the French one, with the same erudite and disruptive affection for the odd things language can do….Wright approaches [Queneau] with an elegant surefootedness and imagination.
— Jordan Stump, Bookforum