Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia (Russia in 1839)
Russia in 1839 depicts Russia as it has never been portrayed before, or since. Through images that seem to be reflections in separate distorting mirrors, the Marquis de Custine almost involuntarily created a composite portrait of a backward Russia that was otherwise hidden from view to other visitors, although hardly to the Russians themselves.
The author of this elegant epistolary account was a vindictive French aristocrat who traveled to the distant despotic empire in order to gather arguments in favor of absolutism and against the legacy of the French revolution, which had sent both his grandfather and father to the guillotine. He returned from Russia a convinced liberal and produced a book he had never quite intended to write. And if this sounds like an insult to an intelligence that was formed by the unconditional rationalism of the eighteenth century, it is well to remember that Custine was not a man of genius. His talent was for the most part a mediocre one. If his book turned out to be far above its author in quality, then many are responsible: not only Custine, but the circumstances that drew him to Russia, and Russia itself.
Astolphe de Custine was born into an aristocratic family at the height of the revolution, on March 18, 1790. His grandfather sympathized with the new order, and was the general in command of the Army of the Rhine. In 1792, after losing several engagements, he was recalled to Paris, accused of treason, and beheaded on the guillotine. The general’s younger son, Astolphe’s father, was in turn guillotined for defending the “traitor.”
Custine’s mother, Delphine, was widely known in Parisian society for her beauty and intellect. She was faithful to her husband to the last and was thrown into prison, only by a miracle escaping the death penalty. The family fortune was confiscated. Custine was a true victim of the revolutionary Terror. Later he was brought up “in the shadow” of Chateaubriand, since the great poet was attracted to Delphine and in time became her lover. However, Chateaubriand did not take the place of a father.
Custine himself grew up to be highstrung, handsome, and sickly. As a young man he vaguely felt that he had a flair for literature (“For years I have been searching for my talent and cannot find it, although I feel that something must come of it”). He also discovered a tendency toward homosexuality, which at first he firmly repressed. Need this be mentioned? Custine’s sexual preferences have no direct relation to his book on Russia, but when the book caused a sensation, they were raked up by his detractors, who wanted to discredit its author, and in fact they had something to do with his impulse to travel.
Submitting to his mother’s request, Custine married, but his young wife soon died after giving him a son. In 1824 there was a scandal which forever compromised Custine in the eyes of high society. He was discovered near Paris, unconscious, lying on…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.