Empire of the Tsar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia
Marquis Astolf de Custine
Text by Ian Mitchell
Having spent time in early September marking the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, perhaps it might be right also to mark the hundred and seventieth anniversary of the visit to Russia of the man who arguably started the whole business of thinking of Russia as a “problem” which Europe had, or one day would have, to deal with. It was in the little Rhenish spa town of Ems, in October 1839, that the Marquis de Custine sat down to summarize his impressions of the five-month trip to Russia which gave rise to perhaps the most famous travel account of this country ever written, Russie en 1839, usually rendered into English as The Empire of the Czar: a Journey Through Eternal Russia.
The book is still read getting on for two centuries later, and the reason is simple: de Custine was the first person to describe in an ordinary human way, rather than in a political or theoretical one, the fundamental feature of Russian governance which had been present since the time of the Mongols – namely autocracy. Indeed it was with the personal approval of the Autocrat himself, Nicholas I, that de Custine came to Russia.
He did so thinking he would find a form of government that he could admire. As French aristocrats, both de Custine’s father and grandfather had been executed during the Revolution. The young, homosexual Marquis was an apolitical conservative. He hoped he would find in the Tsar’s Imperium a model which western European countries might wish to emulate. But things did not turn out quite like that.
From the moment de Custine landed at Kronstadt in the early summer, he was assailed by feelings of oppression. Before he was allowed into Russia, he was asked by the customs o& cer why he had come here.
“To see the country,” he answered.
“That is not a motive for travelling,” the officer replied. He then went on to ask if de Custine had a diplomatic commission, or secret orders, or a scientific purpose. When the visitor answered “No” to all of those, the officer then wanted to know if he was employed to examine the social and political state of the country, either by his government or by a commercial association. When de Custine answered “No” to that too, the exasperated official then said, apparently incredulously, “So you travel from mere curiosity?”
“Yes,” de Custine answered brightly.
It was an appropriate start. It presaged much that was to follow. Within a couple of days, the visitor was writing about “this people’s attachment to their slavery”.
De Custine decided early on that the only free person in the whole, vast country was the Autocrat himself. Everyone else was either a servant or a slave. The servants worked for the Autocrat, and the slaves (we would call them serfs) worked for the servants. The idea that anyone could meander around freely, led only by their own desire to see new things, was alien to all Russians. “Pleasure without any ulterior motive, pleasure for its own sake, is unknown here.” De Custine writes mainly about the servants, as the slaves were too different from him, not least in terms of language, to enable much contact to be made. He is not uncomplimentary about ordinary Russians. “They have good mental capacity, and sometimes even elevation of character. But nevertheless, the principle which chiefly actuates their conduct through life is cunning. Ever on guard against their masters, who are constantly acting towards them with open and shameless bad faith, they compensate themselves by artifice for what they suffer through injustice.”
It is their pseudo-Europeanized masters, the servants of the autocracy, that de Custine really dislikes. What are the duties of what he calls this “cringing aristocracy?” The answer is simple and devastating: “To adore the Emperor,” he says. “To render themselves accomplices in the abuse of sovereign power, that they themselves may continue to oppress the people.”
This situation poses a danger for Europe because “either the civilized world will, before another fifty years, pass under the yoke of barbarians, or Russia will undergo a revolution more terrible than that.” He was not far off.
So what of the only free man in this system – the Emperor? De Custine had many meetings and several long conversations with Nicholas, whom he seems to have both liked and pitied. His “predominant expression is that of a restless severity” and he “cannot smile at the same time with the eyes and the mouth”.
De Custine then observes: “Graceful courtesy insures authority, by removing the desire for resistance. This judicious economy in the exercise of power is a secret of which Emperor Nicholas is ignorant. He is one who desires to be obeyed, where others desire to be loved.” But this is a self-reinforcing problem as the more he is obeyed, the more the Emperor fears disobedience and thus, a consequent rupture in the huge, transcontinental machine which he alone directs and which he has to take responsibility for. He labors manfully but miserably under burdens that would have crushed a more sensitive soul.
This unnatural state of affairs even affects the Tsar’s immediate family, especially the Empress Alexandra whom de Custine described as painfully thin, depressed and lonely. “Wife, children, servants, relations, favorites: all in Russia must follow in the imperial vortex, and smile on till they die. All must force themselves to conform to the wish of the sovereign, whose wish alone forms the destiny of all. The nearer anyone is placed to the imperial sun, the more he is a slave to the glory attached to his situation. The Empress is dying under the weight of this slavery.”
The fear which runs through the imperial administration is palpable. Russia is “a country but not a nation” because there can be no common feeling amongst people when all suspect each other of cheating their way up towards the corrupt favor of the elite. Not only do they mistrust each other, but Russians mistrust all foreigners, suspecting them of harboring unfavourable opinions of their strangely unconfident country. Yet they slavishly imitate their habits.
The results of these feelings of inferiority, mistrust and desire for outward show, are seen in the artificiality of “society”. Women, according to de Custine, have elegance without taste, buildings have size without charm, conversation rarely involves any real communication, and a love of superficial novelty co-exists with a fear of innovation.
There is a host of other problems which de Custine draws attention to, including endemic violence (“a Russian of the lower classes is as often beaten as saluted”), and which, taken together, amount to a way of life which few would wish to emulate. Certainly the Russians themselves don’t seem to be happy with it. From the slaves through the servants, right up to the Emperor himself, autocracy gives nothing to Russia but size. Yet Russians continue to insist that they be treated like a people which has created its own culturally-autonomous civilisation. De Custine comments: “I do not reproach the Russians for being what they are. What I blame in them is their pretending to be what we are.”
His basic point is his most harsh. Having asked where this habit of mutual oppression comes from, the Marquis answers that no responsible class of person has, over the long term, performed its role in society properly, conscientiously and fairly. The result is a community entirely without what we would call public spirit. Public life has died as a result. “An oppressed people have always deserved the ills under which they suffer,” de Custine remarks. “Tyranny is the work of the nation.”
Lest we in the West get too smug about this, it is perhaps worth noting that when I described de Custine’s book to a respectable, well-travelled but antiestablishment Russian recently, and emphasized the interrogation which the Marquis was subject to when he arrived at St. Petersburg a hundred and seventy years ago, my friend replied with a laugh: “Those are exactly the kind of questions I am asked today when I apply for a visa to Britain or the United States.”
The book is out of print but readily available second-hand through Amazon and other on-line retailers at prices ranging from £6.00 per copy, plus post and packing