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. His trip changed his mind about which major power France should befriend: “Everything which tends to hasten the perfect agreement of French and German policy is beneficent.”
Many of Custine’s conclusions would not seem out of place in American or European analyses of contemporary Russia. Current EU policy toward Moscow, based on the French-German alliance that Custine advocated, presumes precisely the Russian duplicity and danger that he described.
Serhii Plokhy, Shaun Walker, and Masha Gessen, the authors of three recent books on Russia, walk, perhaps unconsciously, in Custine’s footsteps. They rely on history and direct observation to explain eternal Russia and to chart the enigmas of its statehood, its foreign policy, and its president, Vladimir Putin. They explore Putin’s recipe for despotism: conjuring a glorious Russian past from the rubble of Soviet and prerevolutionary history, presenting himself as the apogee of this past, and exerting his power as a strong ruler blessed by fate.
Yet all three books, stimulating and insightful as they are, bypass the problem that has most vexed Western policy since 2014. The psychology of Putin,
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