LA RUSSIE EN 1839, par le Marquis de Custine. Paris: Amyot, 1843, 4 v.

"AN immense inordinate ambition, the kind of ambition which can take root only in the soul of an oppressed people and be nourished only on the misery of an entire country, is now astir in the hearts of the Russians. This essentially aggressive nation lives in a state of submissiveness so degrading that it seems to be expiating in advance, at home, its expectation of tyranny abroad over other men. The glory and the booty to which it looks forward turn its thoughts away from the shame to which it is being subjected; and in the hope of washing himself clean of his impious sacrifice of public and personal liberty, this kneeling slave fills his dreams with visions of world domination."

It was not about the Russia of Lenin and Stalin that a French traveller, the Marquis de Custine, set down these words. He wrote 110 years ago. The subject of his book was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas I. Its title was "La Russie en 1839." When it was published at Paris in 1843,[i] and translated into English the following year, it created a furor throughout Europe so great that merely because Balzac did not write a review condemning it, the Tsar refused for several years to allow his Polish subject, the Countess Hanska, to marry the French novelist.

Astolphe de Custine had what we should now call an ideological reason for going to Russia. He was born in 1790, the son of an ambassador and grandson of a general in the service of Louis XVI. Both fought against Prussia and Austria in 1792, in defense of revolutionary France; yet both were sent to the scaffold by Robespierre in the Terror of '93. Brought up by his mother to revere those dead as martyrs and the Ancien Régime as the perfect society, this devout Christian and amateur political philosopher was a genuinely patriotic Frenchman who loathed the Revolution and all its works. Like those western intellectuals who during the depression declared themselves the personal enemies of the capitalist state and travelled to Russia for a sight of a better world, Custine, the absolutist, "went to Russia," as he himself confesses, "in search of arguments against representative government." Like most though not all of our intellectuals, he came away chastened by what he found there, and a defender of constitutional democracy.


It goes without saying that a writer who strained to derive historical analogies from a comparison of Nicholas' Russia with the Russia of Stalin would end by falsifying history. In 1839 the Russians were overwhelmingly illiterate; today, we may assume, a majority can read and write, and few would believe, as their forbears did in 1825, that "Long live the Constitution!" meant "Long live the wife of Grand Duke Constantine!" Two-thirds of Nicholas' 60,000,000 subjects were serfs attached to the glebe, chattels bought and sold whenever the land on which they lived changed ownership; today the Russian peasants and workers are freemen, happy, as soon as they reach the age of 17, to spend four years at work in enterprises and regions to which they are directed by government authority. The land which under Nicholas belonged to the Crown and the nobles now belongs to the people; and as the peasant watches his produce leave the farm, he can reflect that, wherever Stalin may be sending it, that produce is going to fill a national purpose and not a nobleman's barns. Under Nicholas the commercial and professional life of the nation was largely in German hands; under Stalin, trade and medicine, industry and astronomy, banking and biology, are not only in Russian hands, they are squarely founded on Russian theory. Just as it is a wonderful thing to own your own land and to know that its produce is being distributed to more deserving men than you are, so it is thrilling to feel that your native intellectuals owe nothing to French bacteriologists, German chemists, Danish physicists, or British astronomers. In these matters too, Nicholas' Russia was retrograde.

But if historical parallels are absurd, we are still free to acknowledge the existence of historical constants when they stare us in the face; and the interest which Custine's book holds for us lies in the force with which he reminds us that national traits do survive the flow of time and the accidents of change. More than four centuries ago, around the year 1510, the Habsburg ambassador to Moscow wrote to the Emperor Maximilian: "The Tsar speaks, and the thing is done. The lives and fortunes of laymen and clergy, nobles and merchants, hang upon his supreme will. As if he were a god, everything about him is deemed just, and he knows not what it is to be contradicted; for the Russians are convinced that their ruler executes the decrees of Heaven." Half a century later, the versified dispatches of Turberville, who headed a mission to Ivan IV (the Terrible) for Elizabeth of England, were couched in the same terms. And in 1806 we find a young Anglo-Irishwoman, Catherine Wilmot, writing from Russia: "I look upon every Noble as an iron link in the massy chain which manacles this Realm, & as to the individuals amongst them that I have met at Moscow, 'tis impossible to be in their Company without recollecting that they are Subjects under a Despotism, for in their judgements bad & good literally appears to be synonymous with favour & disgrace!" To this testimony Custine added in 1839: "This perpetual and perpetually worshipped reign would be an entertaining spectacle if the lives of 60,000,000 people did not depend upon its continuous performance and upon the man you see standing before you in the attitude of an emperor, giving his people permission to breathe and dictating to them what use they are to make of that permission."

Who can deny that when he reads such lines, instinct prompts him to see in them a prefiguring of the Russia of Stalin the Vozhd, the Leader, surrounded by his party chieftains and his worshipping people? In Russia you may not write Stalin's name (as Gide was chagrined to discover) unless you precede it by some such adjective as great, or magnanimous, or savior; and the reason is that the Russians are still "convinced that their ruler executes the decrees of Heaven." Today as when Catherine Wilmot was visiting the Princess Daschkow, the grandees of the nation are "Subjects under a Despotism," and so, we know, are the Russian poets, scientists, architects -- forced, all of them, to apply to their arts the principle that bad & good is synonymous with favour & disgrace.

This is why we may say, a little playfully but not without seriousness, that the particular kind of satisfaction which men as different as Harry Hopkins and Eric Johnston took from their conversations with Stalin is reminiscent of Custine's appreciation of Nicholas I. "The Emperor," Custine discovered, "is the only man in the Empire to whom you can talk without fear of informers. He is also thus far the only Russian who has talked to me out of his natural feelings and in straightforward language. If I lived in Russia and had anything to hide, my first care would be to tell him my secret."

"Government in Russia," he found, "is the discipline of the armed camp substituted for the legal order of the civil state." From the time of Peter the Great, more than a century before Custine's visit, Russian civil society had been classified in 14 ranks paralleling the permanent ranks of the Imperial Army from the corporal to the field marshal. This was the famous Tchin, the "regimented nation," as Custine calls it. Only the Tsar himself could promote a Tchinovnik, and though solicitation of promotion was forbidden, wires were constantly pulled to obtain advancement, for the sufficient reason that neither birth nor wealth but only rank in the Tchin conferred privilege. Custine comments: "The result of this kind of society is to engender a fever of envy so violent, a world of men so tense with ambition, that the Russian people must have become inept for everything except world domination. Apart from this aim, there is no explaining the extreme sacrifices imposed upon the individual by this society."

What Custine saw in the Russians was a gifted people perverted by its rulers. He was not impervious to the celebrated charme slav: "The Slavic character is a mixture of simplicity, gentleness, and sensitivity that goes straight to your heart." But he was revolted by what had been done with this admirable human material.

The temptation to draw a parallel besets us again when we read that in Nicholas' Russia "existence is so fettered and restrained that everyone seems to cherish a secret desire to go somewhere else, but no one has the means to do so. The great have no passports, the humble no money; and all stay put, made patient by despair." "Go-somewhereing," as a brilliant American Communist used to call it, is probably less prevalent among the Russians now than it was in the 1920's, and the idea that every Russian would like to clear out must be received with caution. The Soviet "great" who lack passports may not want them. It would be foolish, perhaps dangerous, for us to forget that they are engaged upon what is to them a thrilling adventure. Unquestionably they must find in their work as much excitement and emotional reward as most American executives in business and government find in theirs -- and certainly they have less cause to complain of the ingratitude of customers or citizenry. As for the humble, they are Russian humble. Two-thirds of them were born since 1917. Not only do these children of "holy Mother Russia" love their land with an almost mystical feeling, but they have -- as we ourselves have -- the immense spiritual gratification of self-identification with one of the two greatest Powers on earth. And if we are to believe that the Kremlin possesses effective propagandists, then we must believe that the external world has been painted for the Russian people as one which hates them and seeks their destruction -- and which is, in any case, a wretched world where only the rich possess such extraordinary amenities as motorcars and inside water closets. Thinking of Russia proper, and not of the Baltic region and Poland, I incline to believe that if emigration and immigration were suddenly universally free, not more than half the population of Russia would want to emigrate to the United States.

We ask about Soviet Russia, as once we asked about Hitlerian Germany, what binds men to such a régime. Terror is one answer; success is an even more convincing one. Custine concludes that the successful despot persuades his people that his régime is morally good. If Stalin has succeeded in instilling this conviction in the Russians, then no propaganda by the Voice of America can dissipate it before the system cracks from within.

The Tsars [Custine says] have taught us that despotism is never so fearsome as when it claims to be doing good, for then it assumes the right to explain away its most revolting acts by its good intentions, and to offer ills endlessly in the guise of remedies. Overt crime can triumph only for a day; it is sham virtues which forever mislead the minds of men. People who are dazzled by the glittering accessories of crime, by the vastness of heinous deeds which events are summoned to justify, end by believing in a double standard of good and evil. They are taught that necessity, "reasons of state" as we used to say, suffice to vindicate crime in high places, provided the criminals are able to adapt their crimes to the passions of the nation. . . . If what you fear is naked power, go to Russia; there you will learn to fear, above everything, hypocritical tyranny.

Tyranny, we know, is founded upon the instilling of fear. But Custine reminds us that it is a régime characterized by two kinds of fear, fear of government, and fear by government: "In Russia the government's power is absolute, but at the same time the government is extremely fearful of criticism, even of frank utterance. All men born in Russia . . . conspire tacitly to observe unanimous silence concerning what goes on. Nothing is ever said, yet everything is known. . . . In Russia, to converse is to conspire; to think is to revolt. Thought is not merely a crime, it is a misfortune." And with that gift for deriving general laws from particular phenomena, in which the French excel, he goes on:

Under an unlimited rule men feel the gnawings of ambition as much as under a republic, but with this difference, that the agitation of an autocrat's subject is more painful because of the silence and concealment which ambition has to impose upon itself if it is to succeed. The unlimited monarch dislikes no man so much as the servant who is publicly and ostentatiously devoted to his service. All zeal that exceeds a blind and servile ambition is felt by the despot to be both troublesome and suspect. Exceptions lead to presumptuousness; presumptuousness soon takes the form of rights; and the subject who fancies that he possesses rights is by definition a rebel.

Such a man is of course unendurable. One thinks of that Brooklyn-born giant, Borodin, who was master of south China a quarter of a century ago, and how he was "cut down to size" -- brought back to Moscow and made head of an industry, at which he failed; then of a single factory, at which he failed; then of the insignificant English-language paper, the Moscow Daily News -- after which he vanished.

Custine's observations are not maxims propounded in a vacuum, they are conclusions born of direct observation. If he says that men cannot be honest under a tyranny it is because he has seen men live as a tyranny demands that they live. Thus, of the peasantry: "They are not so degraded mentally as they are debased socially. They possess intelligence, sometimes pride; but the dominant note in their character and way of life is cunning." Together with all other Russians they are victims of the delusion, as Custine calls it, that lying is efficacious. "It is a well known fact, though not very easy to understand," Turgenev wrote in Virgin Soil, "that Russians are the greatest liars in the world." Custine believed that he understood why this was so: "It is not that the Russians lack cleverness and understanding; but in a country where the governors have not yet learnt the advantages of liberty, even for themselves, the governed are obliged to recoil from the instant punishment that is the reward of honest expression." And as lying is never without its twin, which is secretiveness, "in Russia secrecy presides over all things; administrative, political, social secrecy; discretion both useful and useless; silences wholly superfluous."

Where ruse and lying and secrecy are present, spies and informers abound. What is worth noting is that the man you are not sure of may be more dangerous than the obvious secret agent. A professor who seemed to speak too freely about the Tsarist régime was to Custine an object of suspicion; on the other hand, a self-evident spy almost allowed him to enjoy himself: "Your spy is foiled by your seeming assurance, and then he makes a really grotesque face. The reason is that as soon as he sees that you are not afraid of being compromised by him, he is convinced that he has been compromised by you. Spies really believe in espionage. If you slip through their net, they imagine that you have a net in which they have somehow got entangled."

But the spy game is not always amusing, and it becomes actually distressing when you meet Russians you incline to like: "Here in Russia friendship itself partakes of police surveillance. How is a man to feel at ease with people so circumspect, so discreet in whatever concerns themselves, and so inquisitive in what concerns others? . . . The excessive suspicion with which you are looked upon here by people of every class is a warning which keeps you on your guard. The danger you run is revealed by the fear you inspire." And under Nicholas as under Stalin, there is no one to vouch for you: "This Byzantine government, and indeed all Russia, have always looked upon the diplomatic corps and Westerners in general as envious and malevolent spies."

"We of the West," says Custine, "see in a Russian political prisoner an innocent victim of oppression; the Russians see in him a reprobate. This is what political idolatry leads to. Count Repnin governed the Emperor and the Empire. Two years ago he fell from grace. For two years no Russian has pronounced this man's name, a name which, two years ago, was on every man's lips. . . . In Russia when a minister is dismissed his friends become mute. From the moment when he seems to be out of favor, he is buried alive. I say 'seems to be' because nobody will speak of him even to say that he is out of favor." Names of Soviet Russians who met with Repnin's fate will spring to every reader's mind. I think of Kossior, secretary general of the Party in the Ukraine, member of the Politburo, the fourth or fifth ranking Russian of his day. Suddenly, in May 1938, his photograph disappeared from the thousands of public places where it had hung. Nothing was explained; his name was never again printed or pronounced; there was not even a public accusation: not only had he vanished, he had never existed.

George Orwell recently wrote a novel called "1984," to demonstrate that the past is as controllable by authority as the present. It is not altogether surprising that here too the Bolsheviks follow a pre-Communist tradition. "In Russia," Custine writes, "history is part of the royal domain; it is the immaterial property of the ruler exactly as men and lands form his material property. History is kept locked away with the crown jewels, and only that part of it is displayed which the ruler deems useful to display. The memory of what happened in the past belongs to the Tsar alone. He amends the annals of the nation at his good pleasure, and dispenses daily to the people those historic truths which are consonant with the fiction of the moment."


Is there any hope that things in Russia will ever be otherwise? Custine says: "Nothing can discredit authority among a people for whom obedience has become a condition of life. Men have worshipped the sun: the Russians worship an eclipse. How can we expect their eyes to be unsealed?" Yet he is not everywhere so pessimistic. "One grain of truth dropped into Russia," he says in another place, "is like a spark landing in a barrel of powder." And again: "Unhappy country, where every foreigner seems a kind of savior in the eyes of a herd of the oppressed, because he stands for truth, publicity, liberty, among a people deprived of these goods." And finally: "The more I see of Russia the more I approve of the Tsar's forbidding Russians to travel abroad and making access to Russia difficult for foreigners. The Russian political system would not stand out twenty years against free communication between Russia and the West."

Custine was merely the first of a number of farsighted Frenchmen who saw in the Russian east, a century ago, the familiar cloud no bigger than a man's hand. Ten years after him, in 1849, Tocqueville wrote, "Our Occident is threatened with falling sooner or later under the yoke, or at least under the direct and irresistible influence, of the Russians." Five years after Tocqueville another French observer, Emile Montégut, focussed the problem more sharply. "There is at bottom no difference between the idea of domination by peoples and the idea of domination by kings," he wrote. "The Russian spirit consists in the hatred of the individual and his absorption into the State to the advantage of despotism; for despotism, as a régime, is a prerequisite to the establishment of world dominion. There have been times when Russia was not above rousing democratic passions; and when she did, she was acting in conformity with her principles. . . . Unless we are on our guard we shall witness the infallible success of a man who will appear and will summon the peoples of Europe to rise up in the name of equality; a man who will offer to the dark and voiceless masses protection against their own unruly natures and an equal turn at the common soup-ladle, in exchange for a kind of freedom useful only to a handful of men destined to contribute to mankind exactly what the despot contributes." And when, after the Paris Commune of 1871, Montégut asked, "Who is the secret Attila, who is the mysterious Tamerlane inspired by such a dream?" he himself was prepared to answer that when the barbarian conqueror came, he would come out of Russia.

We may say if we like that it was chance and a distaste for Socialism which caused a Montégut to link the Communist ferment of the west with the absolutism of the Tsars and the imperialism of those Russian racial-nationalists who in his day called themselves Slavophils. And yet the most supremely gifted of those Slavophils, Dostoevski himself, wrote in his diary in 1876: "Very soon -- perhaps in the immediate future -- Russia will prove stronger than any nation in Europe. This will come to pass because all great powers in Europe will be destroyed for the simple reason that they will be worn out and undermined by the unsatisfied democratic tendencies of an enormous part of their lower-class subjects -- their proletarians and paupers. . . . There will remain on the continent but one colossus -- Russia."

Custine spent a bare three months in Russia, communicated with hardly a Russian who was not of the governing class and who did not speak French; yet his glance went so deep, his political intuition was so sensitive, his power of reflection was so dynamic that he was able to anticipate the conclusions of the thinkers and observers who came after him. "The Russians," he wrote, "see in Europe a prey which sooner or later must fall to them as the result of our dissensions. . . . Men say in Petersburg, 'Europe will go the way of Poland; it will wear itself out with its futile liberalism, while we remain strong precisely because we are not free.'" And he warned that against such an adversary, our own institutions could be a source of our defeat: "If better diplomats are found among the Russians than among the most advanced peoples, the reason is that our press informs the Russians about every plan that is proposed and every event that occurs among us. Instead of prudently concealing our weaknesses we reveal them every morning with passion, while the Byzantine policy of the Russians, at work in the shadows, is careful to hide what they are thinking and doing and fearing. We go forward in the light of day; they advance under cover. The game is unequal. We are blinded by the ignorance in which they leave us; they are enlightened by our candor. We are weakened by rumor; they are strengthened by secrecy. And there you have the secret of their cleverness."

Did he believe the Russians would succeed in conquering Europe? Early in his visit to Russia he seemed to think so, but after he returned to France, though he still believed that the Russian attempt to dominate the world would be made, he was no longer so pessimistic: "The brilliant future of which the Russians dream does not depend upon them alone. If passions die down in the west, if harmony is established between the European peoples and their governments, the greedy hope of the Slav aggressors may prove a chimaera." And he added this warning -- which one might expect to read in one's own newspaper: "The greater therefore is the danger of allowing them to intervene in our policy and in the councils of our neighbors."

It has already been said that Custine went into Russia with anti-liberal sentiments. Upon returning home he wrote: "I left France horrified by the way in which we abused a mistaken idea of liberty: I return to my country persuaded that although, logically, the republican system is not the most moral form of government, practically it is the wisest and most moderate, for it preserves the people from both the excesses of democratic license and the abuses of despotism." He was still on his travels when he wrote: "You have to go to Russia to see the terrible results of the conjunction of Western thought and science and the native genius of Asia. . . . If ever your son becomes dissatisfied in France, use my recipe: say to him, 'Go to Russia.' That is a most useful journey; for whoever sees Russia will be content to live anywhere else. It is always good to know that there exists a society in which happiness is impossible because, by a law of his nature, man cannot be happy without being free."

The lessons to be learnt from a reading of Custine are obvious. One is that despotism is much the same under an anointed monarch as under a Vozhd -- or, Custine would have added today, under a Duce or a Caudillo. Another is that the more Russia changes the more she remains herself. A third, which our agents in Germany might meditate, is the likelihood that the notion of planting the seeds of constitutional democracy in the soil of an ancient land without democratic traditions is an idle dream. Beyond these conclusions, which impose themselves self-evidently, Custine tempts us to believe that we are right to say that in the tag, "Russian Communism," the adjective is weightier than the noun. A Soviet state is one thing, is the authentic Russian thing. A "people's democracy" (Hungary, say) is another thing; and indeed in the eyes of the Kremlin it is a lesser thing. A Communist Ireland would be still a third thing. It is now clearer than before that the Old Bolsheviks, with their ideal of a stateless, moneyless, truly egalitarian Utopia, animated by a kind of Christian ethic prescribed and enforced by men who rejected the Christian faith, were doubly wrong: they forgot that politics is power and they forgot that they were not founding a new nation but refurbishing an old one. Even Lenin failed to see what Stalin saw -- that Russia could not be trimmed and snipped to fit the Communist coat, but the Communist coat had to be cut to the Russian measure. Stalin was no more taken in by Marx than Henry VIII of England, say, was taken in by St. Augustine.

How slow the Russians themselves were to see this is told in the small fact that the full text of Custine's four volumes was published at Moscow, in a Russian translation, as recently as 1930. It was brought out under the auspices of the Association of Political Prisoners and Exiles and extolled in their foreword as the "most intelligent book on Russia written by a foreigner." In 1930 there were still loyal Communists in Russia who were the victims of the delusion that a Communist régime must be a humanitarian régime, and that the oppression and the cruelties of a Tsarist reign must in the nature of things be repellent to the Kremlin of a new age. But a great deal of water has gone over the dam since 1930. The Old Bolsheviks are no more. Stalin is waging a new Kulturkampf in the name of a superior cultural breed known as "Soviet man." It would be interesting to know if "La Russie en 1839" is still to be read in Soviet libraries, and what has become of those who were responsible for bringing it out in Russian 20 years ago.

[i] Selections were republished recently: "Lettres de Russie," Editions de la Nouvelle France, Paris, 1947, 367 p.

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  • LEWIS GALANTIÈRE, author, editor and translator from the French; Director of French Overseas Operations of O.W.I., 1942-45
  • More By Lewis Galantière