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Letters from Russia by Astolphe De Custine

Letters from Russia

by Astolphe De Custine

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Edit to add: I just realized that Custine was the French aristocrat in the film Russian Ark.

This was almost like reading a great epic in some ways, with the hero a man on a quest to find a beautiful truth. Instead, he finds himself traveling through a bleak, oppressive landscape where the truth he seeks is a miserable, twisted thing held captive by a ruthless villain.

After the opening section about the author's childhood experiences during the French Revolution, which was chilling, I was engrossed in his initial descriptions of Russia:

"I was entering the empire of Fear.... Thus, I was afraid and I was sad... out of politeness... to be like everybody else."

"This automaton population resembles one side of a chessboard, where a single individual causes the movements of all the pieces, but where the adversary is invisible."

Then, in the middle part, as Custine continued on his quest for the truth about Russia, the characters got much crankier and the pace slowed down a bit. (Which is also similar to many fantasy epics I've read, though a bit of editorial pruning would have been welcome, to be honest.)

Despite his occasional meandering asides, I adored Custine's insightful comments, his intelligence and civility. However, he definitely has his prejudices. (Nothing too surprising, and maybe less than one might expect from a 19th century French aristocrat.) I did find it somewhat amusing to read the author refer to the "natural slovenliness and inborn filthiness" and general barbarity of the Russians, given that I remember Castiglione making similar comments about the French a few centuries earlier.

But even with those chastisements, it was hard to tell who the real villain of the story was. Was it the indolent, generally uneducated, obsequiously polite slaves (i.e., everyone not the emperor) or was it their ruler, born into a position which allowed for two apparent options: rule with an iron fist or die at the fists of others? Custine was on a quest for truth, and the one group blocked his access to it on the orders of the other.

However, by the end the only consistent villain was the culture, the government, the system which defined everyone's roles. As Custine observed, self-preservation was gained through strict adherence to those roles and not just apathy, but deliberate ignorance and cynicism about the people who occupied them. The suit is more important than the man in it, and self-interest always wins over compassion. Even those who rebelled against the czar, the traitors and terrorists, demonstrated those same tyrannical characteristics.

Custine, who initially prided himself on his superiority, became aware of his own susceptibility to the attitudes he condemned:

"In France, where they respect life, even that of a brute creation, if my postilion had not thought of rescuing the colt, I should have obliged him to stop. I should myself have appealed to the peasants for aid, and should not have proceeded on my journey until I had seen the animal in safety. Here, I aided in destroying him by an unmerciful silence. Who would be proud of his virtues, when forced to acknowledge that they depend upon circumstances more than upon self?"

And how can such attitudes be changed? Custine didn't know, but he was afraid of what the future would bring. After accomplishing his quest to find the truth about Russia, he fled back to France to release it -- with the hope that Russia would not follow ( )
1 vote thewalkinggirl | Sep 19, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0940322811, Paperback)

The Marquis de Custine's record of his trip to Russia in 1839 is a brilliantly perceptive, even prophetic, account of one of the world's most fascinating and troubled countries. It is also a wonderful piece of travel writing. Custine, who met with people in all walks of life, including the Czar himself, offers vivid descriptions of St. Petersburg and Moscow, of life at court and on the street, and of the impoverished Russian countryside. But together with a wealth of sharply delineated incident and detail, Custine's great work also presents an indelible picture--roundly denounced by both Czarist and Communist regimes--of a country crushed by despotism and "intoxicated with slavery."

Letters from Russia, here published in a new edition prepared by Anka Muhlstein, the author of the Goncourt Prize-winning biography of Custine, stands with Tocqueville's Democracy in America as a profound and passionate encounter with historical forces that are still very much at work in the world today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:36 -0400)

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