Courtesy Reuters

Through the Russian Looking-Glass

The Future in Retrospect

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

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