Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Russia's Tocqueville: Astolphe de Custine

Custine Quote: "Nations have always good reasons for being what they are, and the best of all is that they cannot be otherwise."

The Russian Dilettante Weblog compares a French Aristocrat to Tocqueville:

Back in 1831, a young French gentleman took a boat to New York,
planning to study American penal institutions. He spent nine months in the
States of North America, met people from various walks of life and in due course
published two volumes of what an encyclopedia of American life. Several years
after Tocqueville's American journey, an older French aristocrat stayed in
Russia for two months and produced another influential book. I am talking about
Astolphe de Custine and his Russia in 1839. George Kennan found
it prophetic; Theodore Dalrymple based a book on it; Alexandr Sokurov (the film
director) centered
The Russian Ark around a Custine-like figure.
However, for the Marquis de Custine, the Russians can't win:

...don't reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I
blame them for is their desire to appear to be what we [Europeans] are . . .
They are much less interested in being civilized then in making us believe them
so . . . They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric
then they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them
better and more civilized. (

Perhaps Custine's attitude toward Russia is merely a reflection of his French aristocratic background- or simply a common attitude toward Russia among Europeans. I wonder what Pushkin would have thought- though he died before the decade (1830s) was out.

A new blog entry by The Russian Dilettante has some relevant observations about Custine's visit (scroll down). Amazon currently features Journey For Our Time: The Journals of the Marquis de Custine Russia 1839

Update: Given his observations above, I can imagine Custine sneering at The Bronze Horsemen -(picture). Why?
It has frequently been noted that Peter gestures to the West, the
source and inspiration for his ideas of transforming Old Russia. Peter's horse
tramples on a serpent, generally interpreted to stand for the backwardness of
Old Russia. (


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