All absolutisms, appropriately enough, are not created equal. It is possible for a man to support one despot but condemn another, or to be a thoroughgoing monarchist at home and a republican elsewhere. A French aristocrat might go to Tsarist Russia and say, with perfect consistency, “I am a reactionary in France, but, my God, this is an appalling country!” (Paraphrase courtesy of Professor Withywindle.) That is what happened to the Marquis de Custine.
Custine was for Russia what Tocqueville was for the United States, and the two men, born fifteen years apart, had much in common. Both were aristocrats whose parents, under the Revolution, were either guillotined (Custine’s father) or imprisoned and very nearly guillotined (Custine’s mother and both Tocqueville’s parents). Both wrote masterpieces of similar length for similar reasons. Democracy had assumed a new level of importance in European affairs, and so had the United States and Russia—countries that were, coincidentally or not, the most democratic in the world and the least. Tocqueville studied the former to learn more about democracy in practice; Custine visited the latter to learn, as he put it, “new arguments against the despotism at home, the disorder that bore the name of liberty.” The difference was that Custine failed, returning to France a convinced advocate of the ideas he had left looking to refute.
Russia in 1839 even enjoyed popularity equal to that of Democracy in America. It was not quite as acclaimed, but it made up for this deficit with a hefty ladling of scandal. Tsar Nicholas I banned the book and violently rebuked his former guest for ingratitude and inaccuracy. He even withheld permission for Countess Hanska, one of his Polish subjects, to marry the novelist Balzac, because he heard that it had been Balzac who first suggested to Custine that Russia would make a good subject for a travelogue. Had he been more self-aware, Nicholas would have realized that his actions proved Custine’s point.
The tsar’s tantrum was not the biggest strike against the book’s respectability. Ten years before it was published, Custine had been found half-naked and bleeding in a ditch after some soldiers had taken offense at a sexual proposition. From that moment on he would be “France’s most distinguished and notorious homosexual” (according to George Kennan, who wrote a very good book about Custine’s opus, which he calls “the best guide to Russia ever written”). This was an enormous blow to a man whose social life revolved around salons, where whispers are easy to overhear and slammed doors are hard to reopen again, and he devoted much of his later life to foreign travel partly in order to avoid the pains of disgrace. There is nothing in the book that overtly suggests its author is gay—though there is something camp about the way our hero’s first meeting with Tsar Nicholas is nearly derailed when he breaks a heel—but one shouldn’t write off his sexuality as entirely irrelevant. Outsiders have always made the best observers, and in those cases where public humiliation doesn’t completely destroy a man’s capacity for empathy, it often enhances it.
Custine calls himself “an aristocrat both from character and from conviction,” so it is appropriate that it is the Russian courtiers, his counterparts, whose abased and precarious position under the all-powerful emperor first turns him against tsarism:
Things I admire elsewhere, I hate here . . . I find them too dearly paid for. Order, patience, calmness, elegance, respectfulness, the natural and moral relations that ought to exist between those who think and those who do, in short all that gives worth and charm to well-organized societies, all that gives meaning and purpose to political institutions is lost and confounded here in one single sentiment—that of fear. . . . In France, I imagined myself in accord with these rigorous disciplinarians; but since I have lived under a despotism which imposes military rule upon the population of an entire empire, I confess that I have learnt to prefer a little of the disorder which announces vigor to the perfect order which destroys life. . . .
I begin to perceive that I am here talking like the radicals in Paris. But, though a democrat in Russia, I am not the less in France an obstinate aristocrat: it is because a peasant in the environs of Paris is freer than a Russian lord, that I thus feel and write.
He was able to raise some of these objections with Russian aristocrats and even with Tsar Nicholas and other members of the imperial family, with whom he enjoyed a surprising level of intimacy thanks to his connections and his native charm. Even for a man well practiced in the art of tact, this must have taken some courage. Unfortunately, the answer he heard again and again only inflamed him further:
They say to me, “We would gladly dispense with being arbitrary, we should then be more rich and prosperous; but we have to do with an Asiatic people.” At the same time, they think in their hearts, “We would gladly dispense with talking liberalism and philanthropy, we should then be more happy and more strong; but we have to do with the governments of Europe.”
You can begin to see why a U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union was able to write
of Custine during the Cold War, “I could have sent many pages verbatim from his journal and, after substituting present-day names and dates for those of a century ago, have sent them to the State Department as my own official reports.”
Russophiles will want me to point out that Custine’s low opinion of the tsarist system might have been a product of his low opinion of Russia in general. He denigrated their accomplishments by calling them “the Romans of the North—both peoples have drawn their arts and sciences from strangers.” As a deeply pious Catholic (religion had been a consolation during his national scandal), he bristled at their disparagement of his church and held the Orthodox religion in correspondingly low esteem: “The Russians in their prayers seem to me to think more of their emperor than their Creator. An ambassador about to be put to sleep in a Russian church by the Imperial liturgy is said to have remarked, ‘Awake me when you come to the subject of God.’” And as irritating as it must have been to be constantly addressed in the imperfect French favored by Russian aristocrats at the time, it would have been worse to be told again and again that, in the words of one particularly charmless woman, “there is a greater similarity between the French of the Old Regime and us, than between any the roof the European nations. With your aristocratic notions, you must surely find yourself more at home among us.”
There was one Russian family that earned from him nothing but the warmest admiration, and that was the family of the governor of Yaroslavl, whom he refers to only as “Monsieur ——.” Upon arriving in the city he is met by the governor’s young son:
“My father knows Paris,” said the young man; “he will be delighted to see a Frenchman.”
“At what period was he in France?”
The young Russian was silent; my question appeared to disconcert him, although I had thought it a very simple one. At first I was unable to account for his embarrassment; after discovering its cause, I gave him credit for an exquisite delicacy, a rare sentiment in every country and at every age. M. ——, governor of Yaroslavl, had visited France in the suite of the Emperor Alexander, during the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, and this was a reminiscence of which his son was unwilling to remind me.
A lovely story, but the praise is a bit more effusive than the reader has come to expect. Then it becomes clear why Custine is so well disposed toward the —— clan: By some bizarre coincidence, they are familiar with his writing. “All the members of the —— family vied with each other in doing me the honors of the house and of the city. My books were lauded with indirect and ingenious praises, and were cited so as to recall to my mind a crowd of details that I had forgotten.”
I can easily see why Custine is so often compared to Tocqueville, but there is another parallel that strikes me as far more interesting: Edmund Burke in his prosecution of Warren Hastings. It’s not just that both were reactionary Westerners surprised by their confrontations with the East. In each case, our author had established a reputation for siding with aristocrats against whom sophisticated observers were lobbing accusations of tyranny. Then the defender of authority encountered a ruler whom he really did consider a tyrant, a conviction that he was forced to explain in greater detail and with greater insight by virtue of having to distinguish between the faraway tyrant he disliked and the supposedly benign ones in his own backyard. Joe Sobran once wrote that the question one should ask any liberal, before asking him anything else, is “In what kind of society would you be a conservative?” That rule holds true with the positions reversed.