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 a muddy road, beaten and robbed. Newspapers hastened to report that Custine had been beaten by soldiers for attempting to arrange a rendezvous with one of them. What really happened is unclear, but it is certain that from then on Custine was a pariah. The 1820s were altogether a time of misfortune for Custine. His wife’s death was followed by that of his son, in infancy, and then by his mother’s death.

Though Custine was rejected by aristocratic society, writers and musicians gladly frequented his salon. Chopin played at his soirées, and Victor Hugo, Balzac, Baudelaire, Stendhal, George Sand, and Lamartine all knew him. In search of his literary “self,” Custine tried various genres, including verse, prose, and drama. He wrote four novels: Alois (1829), The World as It Is (1835), Ethel (1839), and Romauld, or The Calling (1848), but none of them was either genuinely successful or an ignominious failure. Custine sought to forget his troubles in traveling, literature, and Catholicism. The rest of his life was not rich in dramatic events. He died in 1857.

Until the publication of Russia in 1839, Custine remained, in the words of his German friend Heinrich Heine, “un demi-homme de lettres.” He smoothly described his visits to Switzerland, Italy, England, and especially to Spain (the cycle of letters Spain Under Ferdinand VII, 1838). But these travel notes were not of great historical importance and quickly became dated. The four volumes of letters Russia in 1839 (the first edition appeared in 1843) were the culmination of Custine’s literary career and became a best seller in Europe.

Custine himself observed that he saw little in Russia, but guessed a great deal. Indeed, during his less than three-month stay there he could see little, his travels being limited to Petersburg, Moscow, Yaroslavl, and Nizhni Novgorod. Despite not knowing the language, he divined so much about Russian life that 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.


Custine was treated like a welcome guest in Russia. Nicholas I himself greeted him cordially and during several court receptions had confidential talks with the Frenchman, touching on such “hot” topics as autocracy, republicanism, and the participants in the Decembrist uprising of 1825, who had been exiled to Siberia. The emperor tried to enlist the support of the well-known European traveler and, through him, to improve the international prestige of Russia, which had been severely affected by the bloody suppression of the Polish insurrection of 1830–1831. Custine, an accomplished master of polite conversation, lavished compliments on the Tsar in exchange for tsarist confidences.

Custine was particularly interested in obtaining permission for a Parisian friend, the Polish émigré Ignace Gurowski, to visit Russia. He appealed to the empress in this matter, but met with a polite but definite rejection. Custine’s critics later tried to ascribe the sharp words in his letters to just this rejection, but this is to explain him too simply.

This observant writer described northern landscapes and the capital’s balls, the Moscow Kremlin and the dress of the common people. But he did not confine himself to ethnography. In the spirit of such books as Madame de Staël’s Germany and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which were well known at the time, Custine endeavored to present his own perception of the country. He was emphatically subjective in his aesthetic judgments: He disliked the famous Petersburg monument to Peter the Great by Falcone, and referred with dilettantish audacity to the “imitativeness” of Pushkin’s poetry. But what mainly interested him was the Russian national character and the regime.

Custine’s Russia in 1839 was ostensibly drawn from letters intended for anonymous friends, but he apparently made use of notes he wrote at the end of the day during his visit to Russia. After returning to France, Custine spent another three years working painstakingly on the text of the book. It is impossible to know just what revisions he made, since no drafts have survived, but evidently he was trying to master Russian history at the same time, relying on the many volumes of Karamzin’s History of the Russian State and Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letter, a harsh criticism of Russian isolationism and divisiveness that caused the authorities to declare Chaadayev officially insane and put him under house arrest for a year. Whether Custine actually met Chaadayev in Moscow no one knows. But his conversations with such prominent Russian dissidents of the time as A. I. Turgenev and P. B. Kozlovsky must have had an effect on Custine’s ideas. He was also unquestionably influenced by the numerous Polish émigrés then residing in Paris.

Russia in 1839 greatly excited Russian society, dividing it into two camps of admirers and adversaries, as was the case with the first of Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letters when it was published in 1836. And as with much of Chaadayev’s other work, the censors prohibited the publication of Russia in 1839 for many years. But while Chaadayev’s texts were finally published in Russia after the 1905 Revolution, Custine has not been published in full in the Russian language to this day. True, in spite of the ban, virtually all educated Russians have managed to read it—another Russian custom.

The first attempt to publish a Russian translation was made at the end of the last century. Several excerpts appeared in the magazine Russkaya starina in 1891 and 1893, along with disparaging commentaries. Then in 1910 a condensed version of the book appeared in Russian under the title The Era of Nicholas I: Memoirs of a French Traveler, the Marquis de Custine. Rather than translate the book’s most critical passages, the Russian translator abridged and softened them, reproaching the author for his “tendency to make overly hasty generalizations.”

In 1930, a condensed version of a new translation, The Russia of Nicholas I (Russia in 1839), was published by the Publishing House for Former Political Prisoners and Exiles. The authors of the preface, S. Gessen and A. Predtechensky, placed Custine’s book “among major historical documents,” terming it “an enormously interesting document from that gloomy and sinister epoch associated with the name of Emperor Nicholas I.”

At a time of mounting Stalinist terror, the publication of a substantial part of Custine’s book, with its merciless castigation of Russian absolutism, no doubt appeared provocative, and it was not by chance that a saving word was arbitrarily added in the last paragraph of the translation: “Whoever,” we read in the Russian text, “has well examined that country [Tsarist Russia] will be content to live anywhere else.” (Italics mine.)


Russia in 1839 was reprinted nineteen times in Europe between 1843 and 1855; according to the French researcher Julien Frederic Tarn, this was an “absolute record for that period.” During that time there appeared one Danish, twelve French, three German, and three English editions.

Custine’s book was then forgotten in the West for a long time; after World War II it was rediscovered as a political work. Several abridged versions of the book have been published during recent decades (a complete reprint appeared in England in 1971). These editions may be found in the library of virtually every Western Slavicist, diplomat, and political analyst dealing with the Soviet Union. Condensing much of the historical information about Russia that Custine borrowed from Russian historians, modern Western editors, as with the current edition under review,* have mainly directed their readers’ attention to the topicality of Russia in 1839, to its unsurpassed importance for understanding the essence of Russia, rather than to the book as a “historical-social document,” as was the case in the USSR. Custine’s book has turned into a kind of Everyman’s Guidebook to eternal Russia.

The Western apologists for Custine, however, are clearly opposed to those members of the Russian emigration, including Solzhenitsyn, who tend to regard the history of prerevolutionary Russia as a part of a painful, but also “organic” and on the whole progressive, process that was cut short by the Bolshevik Revolution. No doubt Custine himself traveled to Russia believing he would see benign absolutism at work. But he rapidly became disillusioned with the Russian Empire. The power of Custine’s letters as a unified work is in their inner drama. After spending less than a month in Russia, Custine notes that he is beginning to speak the “language of Parisian radicals,” the language that he once vehemently rejected. He found in Russia an immobile and stagnant empire:

Russia is a book, the table of whose contents is magnificent, but beware of going further. If you turn over the leaves you will find no performance answering to the promise…. How many of the…cities and roads exist only in project! The nation itself is as yet nothing but a puff placarded upon Europe, dupe of a diplomatic fiction.

Custine clearly doubted whether civilization existed in Russia, citing the awful state of Russian medicine as an example. Risky generalization and the nicety of a specific example: this combination is the basic literary device of his book:

If you send for the nearest doctor you are a dead man, for medical art in Russia is in its infancy…. The skill of the most learned practitioners will rust at court…. I could read the secret memoirs of a Russian court physician with great interest, but I would not follow his prescriptions.

Reading this, I suddenly recall the “Kremlin” doctors of recent Soviet times, and wonder: Can it be that this sixth part of the globe has its own special relationship to time and social development, so that stagnation and misfortune are the constant elements not only of the regimes of Brezhnev and Nicholas I but of Russian national history in general, a history that moves in circles? If so, what historical swamp will eventually swallow up perestroika and all the hopes connected with it? How can we break out of this vicious circle?

Accursed Custine! For a Russian to read his book is to invite an onslaught of depressing associations, unfavorable comparisons, and unpleasant personal memories. His success does not lie in his having profoundly understood Russia, but in having emphasized those aspects of the country that are foreign to the Western consciousness, and therefore all the more striking to contemplate. Naturally, this is a limited view from outside. A country is best judged by the standards of its own culture; but sometimes its defects are more visible from the outside.

Vasily Rozanov, the early twentieth-century Russian philosopher, once observed that he himself hated many things in Russia but that he became angry when foreigners criticized it. This, it must be said, is still the general Russian view of things, and it is probably why Custine has never been published in full in Russia. Russians will not easily forgive a “cold” and skeptical view of their country from the outside. Like children, they want to be loved. And whoever doesn’t love children is an enemy of mankind.

Deep in the Russian national character is a polarized attitude toward the foreigner—a unique combination of an inferiority complex and a superiority complex. The foreigner in Russia is seen as a suspicious character; he is prying into the affairs of others. “Everyone tries to help his Sovereign by hiding the unattractive aspects of Russian life from a foreigner,” Custine complained. But why should a foreigner be shown any unattractive aspects of Russia at all? This seems a natural question to many Russians to this day; they don’t understand that Russia will not solve its problems so long as the question seems natural. Civilization cannot be created in one country by itself.

Every Russian who has traveled abroad will have a shock of recognition when he reads Custine’s account of his conversation with the landlord of his hotel in Lübeck. The landlord, with “true German geniality,” tries to dissuade the French traveler from going to Russia:

“You are acquainted with Russia?” said I to him.

“No sir; but I am with Russians….They have two faces…. When they arrive in Europe they have a gay, easy, contented air, like…birds let loose from their cages…. The same persons when they return have long faces and gloomy looks; their words are few and abrupt; their countenances full of care. I conclude from this, that a country which they quitted with so much joy, and to which they return with so much regret, is a bad country.”

The simple ideas of the German landlord make a certain ruthless sense. It’s not that we Russians are bad patriots, glorying in every opportunity to leave our country. But we are nevertheless bad patriots in another way. Many of us love our Russia with a “strange love”—we see the country as indissolubly linked with a chronically sick regime. There is nothing surprising in this. We are bad patriots because we are perpetually ready to tolerate an unbearable regime which always seems stronger than our prospects of opposing it. We don’t just go happily “on holiday” abroad. We find refuge when we flee from the state to wherever we can: to our families, our friends, or simply to the bottle. These are also forms of border crossing. We have never been able to force the state to work for us, and therefore our every encounter with the state, whether in the form of a militiaman or in the shape of an immediate superior, is tormenting and humiliating. Each of us bears the mark of a state that is alienated from us, and this division between us and Russia gives rise to social schizophrenia.

Custine sharply criticizes Peter the Great for imposing a military hierarchy on the civil administration of the empire by introducing the system of official ranks, with the result that there arose a “permanent martial law, which became the normal condition of the empire.” Like a parting gesture from Peter, these official ranks still exist today in the form of the nomenklatura, which shows that the military-bureaucratic basis of the state proved to be stronger than three Russian revolutions; the hierarchy shows inexorably through every form of the Russian state system.

What was Custine’s attitude, not toward the regime but toward the Russian people? This question particularly agitated Custine’s Russian contemporaries. Gogol, who had a generally unfavorable attitude toward Custine’s book, nevertheless noted that its author “often acknowledged that nowhere in the other European lands where he had traveled did the image of man appear to him in such majesty, close to his patriarchal-Biblical image.” In my opinion Gogol, in his usual manner, exaggerates Custine’s delight in such impressions, although he is certainly right to some degree. Writing of enserfed peasants, Custine notes that although Russian laws have deprived them of everything, they have nevertheless not fallen as low morally as they have socially:

They chief trait of their character, as of their whole lives, is deviousness.

Russian deviousness is indeed an elaborate system for defense against authority, the only one possible in the absence of the rule of law; but on the other hand, when it sinks into the soul and becomes a test of personality, deviousss degenerates into the cynicism of apathy and laziness, into lack of belief in the possibility of change.

Custine saw the relation of Russia to Europe as one between the appearance of civilization and genuine civilization:

It is here [in Petersburg] only too easy to be deceived by the appearances of civilization. If you look to the court and the people who are its votaries, you may suppose yourself among a nation far advanced in social culture and in political economy; but when you reflect on the relations which exist between the different classes of society,…when you examine attentively the groundwork of manners and of things—you perceive the existence of a real barbarism, scarcely disguised under a magnificence which is revolting.

What could be the reason for the Russian incapacity for creating civilization? The question is an urgent one. Perhaps it lies in a contemptuous attitude toward the group that serves as a base for civilization: the middle class, which in Russia was given the humiliating designation of meshchantsvo (petty bourgeoisie). Russian art and literature not only slighted the meshchantsvo, but tried to undermine it by denying it had a moral basis for existence. In Russian culture the petty bourgeois was always the source of philistine values and many social ills. You could say that in Russia the balance between culture and civilization was violated long ago. Our tendency to go to extremes is summed up by the slogan that it is impossible to love both sausage and Andrei Rublev, the icon painter of the early fifteenth century who is one of Russia’s greatest artists. It must be one or the other. The Russian intelligentsia never seriously fought for sausage for the people, instead it fought for their “liberation”; and that is being repeated today. Abstract thinking prevailed. The intelligentsia would not agree to less than salvation, and as a result Russia has nothing—neither salvation nor sausage.

Custine wrote about the situation of Russian society under Nicholas I without the slightest condescension:

Let the reader figure to himself all the skilfulness of our [own] governments,…put into exercise in a still young and uncivilised society; the rubrics of the administrations of the West, aiding by modern experience the despotism of the East: European discipline supporting the tyranny of Asia; the police employed in concealing barbarism, in order, not to destroy, but to perpetuate it,…and he will be able to understand the social and moral state of the Russian nation.

It’s no wonder that Nicholas I threw Custine’s book on the floor and shouted: “It’s my fault. Why did I talk to that scoundrel!”

The Russian government tried hard to refute Custine and suppress his work. Russian diplomats bought up huge numbers of his book in Paris, so that it would not be available to the European public. This only promoted its sales. In addition, the authorities printed “independent” commentaries on the book. Ya. N. Tolstoy, a major agent of the Tsarist secret police living in Paris, wrote and published two books (one under a pseudonym) designed to refute Custine. Tolstoy wrote bluntly that this was the “anti-Russian” work of a “mad-man” (the Tsar’s opinion of Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letter was along the same lines) not lacking, however, a certain quality of entertainment.

The great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, who was close to the Slavophiles, wrote indignantly:

M. Custine’s book serves as a new proof of [the Westerners’] intellectual shamelessness and spiritual decadence (a distinguishing feature of our times, especially in France), thanks to which…they dare to judge the entire world less seriously than they have sometimes viewed a critical analysis of vaudeville.

I personally feel closer to the words of the secret police chief, General Benckendorf, who, with a policeman’s cynicism, said to Nicholas I,

M. Custine has only put into words those thoughts about us which everyone (including ourselves) has long had.

Perhaps, as Custine wrote, an enslaved people deserve their chains: “Tyranny is the creation of the people who have obeyed it.” He added a presentiment that, whatever else he wrote, would prove him to be an exceptionally perceptive traveler:

Not fifty years will pass before…revolution will erupt in Russia, a revolution far more terrible than that whose consequences Western Europe still experiences to this day.

Translated from the Russian by Shirley M. Benson

This Issue

June 14, 1990