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Review Essay

The People’s Authoritarian

How Russian Society Created Putin

In This Review

Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation
Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation
By Serhii Plokhy
Basic Books, 2017, 432 pp. Purchase
The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past
The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past
By Shaun Walker
Oxford University Press, 2018, 288 pp. Purchase
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
By Masha Gessen
Riverhead Books, 2017, 528 pp. Purchase

In 1839, the French aristocrat Astolphe Louis Léonor, better known as the Marquis de Custine, traveled to Russia to understand “the empire of the Czar.” Competing with his compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville’s study of American democracy, Custine produced a travelogue that was also an analysis of “eternal Russia.” Russians excelled at submission, Custine believed. Dissidents were dispatched to Siberia, “that indispensable auxiliary of Muscovite civilization.” Despotism at home kindled the desire for empire abroad. “The idea of conquest,” Custine wrote, “forms the secret aspiration of Russia.”

More than anything, Custine was overwhelmed by the artificiality of imperial Russia. “The Russians have everything in name, and nothing in reality,” he wrote. He called its princes “false and crafty” and deemed the country “better served with spies than any other in the world.” A conservative, Custine began his trip as an advocate for a French-Russian alliance, a union of Christian autocrats.

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