From the New York Times, June 16, 1996: A few years after the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled through America, trying to describe this new culture of democracy, his compatriot Astolphe Louis Leonor, the Marquis de Custine, did the same for Russia and its despotism.
He published his tart and prescient remarks in 1843, in a book presented in the form of letters and titled "Russia in 1839." Custine is loathed by those who regard national character as an absurdity, and by those who regard his acid remarks about the Russians as both pretentious and inaccurate.
Still, many feel that Custine predicted both the revolutionary upheaval that destroyed the czars and its transformation into a new totalitarianism. And some of what he wrote after a visit of only three months can ring very true today, as Russians vote for a President for the first time as an independent nation, furthering another of its tumultuous experiments with social organization.
Custine, born in 1790, was the grandson of a general in the French revolutionary army. Both his grandfather and father were executed in the Terror, but his mother, a freethinker [Delphine de Sabran, marquise de Custine], was an important social and literary figure during the Napoleonic period. Custine, though married for social reasons, was homosexual, and was the focus of a public scandal when an assignation with a young guardsman went awry. Barred from polite society at home, he turned to literature and travel, maintaining an outsider's eye.