- CustinianaThe Many Histories of a Single Trip to Russia 180 Years Ago, and Why It Matters Today
As I prepared to return to Russia in 2019 for the first time in nearly two decades, I found myself reading the travelogue of a minor French nobleman and man of letters, the Marquis de Custine, about a three-month sojourn he had made there 180 years earlier, in 1839. His La Russie en 1839 (Russia in 1839), published in several editions in the 1840s, is a prime example of the well-established genre of travelers' accounts to Russia.1 While most such works quickly fade from view and are left for the narrower consumption of historians, Custine's "letters" have had an extraordinary longevity and impact, far greater than the author might ever have imagined. They live on almost two centuries later as a platform for generations of Westerners, specifically Americans, to judge the Russian polity and reveal the changing American mood about Russia. Moreover, the frequent reprinting and referencing of Custine's view of Russia suggests one of the key reasons why US policy makers have struggled to understand Russia in the postwar period. Again and again, Custine's description of 1830s Russia is used to contrast a presumed native Russian "despotism" versus the ultimate emergence of a Western-style [End Page 345] classical "liberalism." This binary opposition masks the Russian historical orientation toward a strong state rather than the Western preference for a strong civil society. In short, our assumption that Russia must inevitably adopt Western liberalism—using Custine as the totem of a darker past—has failed as an analytical framework. It is time to move on. In the meantime, policy makers and even experienced Russia watchers would benefit from understanding how their predecessors have fared on what has become a distinctive political Rorschach test in regard to Russia.
Custine's travelogue raises the usual academic questions of context, bias, perspective, the approach to the "other," and so on that attends using travelers' accounts as a primary historical source. While acknowledging the importance of those issues, this treatment focuses on the nearly unique deployment of Custine in subsequent prolonged debates about Russia's political future and foreign relations. Custiniana—the longevity and many uses of his account—moves beyond the typical point-in-time perspective of a traditional primary source to its arc of interpretation and meaning through time and to various parties. In Custine's case, that trajectory has been extreme to the point of ironic: his highly critical view of Russia is now, nearly two centuries later, regularly cited by Western observers to point to an alternative, liberal, and benign future path for Russian political development. Indeed, Custine's account has become a constituent of the attitudes, the actual relations, and even the very definition of "Russia and the West," shedding as much light on the observer as on the observed.
At the time Russia in 1839 appeared to acclaim in the 1840s, there was little reason to believe that it would be well read and referenced two centuries later and deeply intertwined with 21st-century views of Russia. It was the work of a minor author and, objectively, a minor work itself. Born in the early stages of the French Revolution, Astolphe de Custine (1790–1857) endured having his grandfather—a general in the revolutionary army—and his young father die by the guillotine. An active salon figure, his mother Delphine only just escaped their fate. As a youth and then as an adult, Custine had traveled widely throughout Europe. At the age of 34, he was outed as a homosexual. While that may have limited some of his social interactions in French high society, he lived openly with another man for the remainder of his life in a way that did not appear to materially hinder his writing opportunities.
Custine emerged as a writer relatively late in life, in the 1830s, when he was in his 40s and enjoyed a degree of financial independence associated with [End Page 346] the income, properties, and title inherited upon the death of his mother in 1826. And although he was close to...