One of the most important books ever written about Russia is La Russie en 1839 (Paris, 1843) by the Marquis Astolphe de Custine. The book was an instant success with the French reading public and was subsequently translated into most European languages. In Russia, the book was banned and several attempts to discredit it were published in France and Germany. It was only in the early twentieth century that it became possible to consider a translation into Russian, and two highly abridged versions were published.
Custine’s book had a second revival in the west, where George Kennon called it the “best book about the Soviet Union.” No doubt for this reason, the book did not appear in Russia from the 1930 reprint of one of the abridged versions until the early 1990s, when a number of reprints of Nikolaevskaia epokha appeared. Finally, at the end of the century, Russians had their first chance to read Custine’s book in its entirety, thanks to a translation by Vera Mil’china and Aleksandr Ospovat. It was at this point that Custine experienced a new revival, this time among Russians, as they discovered this fascinating analysis of the Russian state and national character. Reviews by Viktor Erofeev and others pointed to the deep veracity of Custine’s observations on such matters as Russian bureaucracy, inefficiency, subservience to authority, suspicion of foreigners and manipulation of the truth. Custine’s observation of his own growing paranoia in the autocratic Russian state rang true to Russian readers. Moreover, research suggested that several dissidents in Nicholas’s Russia used Custine as a mouthpiece for their own criticisms of the system: here was a kindred spirit, so to speak. Moreover, Custine’s homosexuality resonated with Russian intellectuals at a point where homosexual Russians were finally coming out of the closet. The piquant suggestion of a sexual attraction between de Custine and Nicholas, whom the Frenchman met, was a cause for amusement.
Custine’s apotheosis came in Aleksandr Sokurov’s film Russkii kovcheg, which can be read as a dialogue between Custine and the film-maker. Custine represents the threatening figure of the foreigner who sees too clearly through the Potemkinesque nature of Russia and says what many Russians think, but few dare say, about their country. The film can be seen as an attempt both to come to terms with the image of Russian presented in Custine’s book, and at the same time to reaffirm the superiority of Russian culture in the face of Custine’s criticisms.
de Custine, Astolphe. La Russie en 1839, 2 vols., Paris: Solin, 1990.
-------------------. Nikolaevskaia epokha: vospominaniia frantsuzskogo puteshestvennika — Markiza de Kiustina. M., 1910. Reprint: M., 1930.
-------------------. Nikolaevskaia Rossiia M., 1910; reprinted Moscow, 1930.
-------------------. Rossiia v 1839 godu. 2 vols. M., 1996-2000.
Kennan, George F. The Marquis de Custine and his RUSSIA IN 1839. Princeton, 1971.