Two months in the wrong country, continued

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December 13, 2005 by AK

Marquis de Custine visited Russia in 1839, nearly at the acme of Nicholas I’s reign, at the foothold of the 1840s — a decade which came to be described (even by some moderate and conservative thinkers like (the great historian) Sergei M. Soloviev) as stiflingly unfavorable for independent thought in Russia. Neither Nicholas’ predecessor and brother, Alexander I, nor his successor and son, Alexander II, earned the same reputation.

— Custine mostly observed the life of the court, hence, of a rather thin and unrepresentative slice of Russian society. He also caught a few glimpses of imperial bureaucracy at work. Custine relied mainly on anecdotal evidence in his notes on the life of the Russian peasantry and on Russian history.

— Custine’s literary method. Far-fetched, sweeping generalizations (based, one would suspect, on flimsy evidence) are chased by other, no less sweeping ones contradicting those reached earlier. As the author takes care to explain, this is essential to his writing, and, indeed, we are not dealing with a careless, undisciplined mind.

— Some of Custine’s characterizations just can’t be right. There is no way Russian men en masse had Greek profiles and Russian women were, by contrast, nothing to be admired. There is no way the Finns native to the vicinity of St. Petersburg were “dirty”, flat-faced savages who knew no family ties, nor were they descendants of Scythians — you might think you were reading a Greek historian.

— The political context motivating Custine. French legitimists harbored certain hopes for Russian interference. Those letters from a fellow royalist were to shatter the Russophilic half-hopes: look, says Custine, what your treasured Russia really is. If Custine indeed had this message in mind from the beginning, so should we, re-reading his letters.


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