Astolphe de Custine.

His name has sometimes popped up on Facebook unexpectedly, sandwiched between quotes on positive thinking by Steve Jobs, Gandhi or the Dalai Lama: Ever since Russia returned to the center of global concern, there have been increasing references to Astolphe de Custine. Has a political opponent been murdered? On social media, here’s what the French marquis had to say: “The Russian government is an absolute monarchy tempered by assassination.” All accompanied by comments expressing as much enthusiasm as fear: Custine had said it all!

This has been his fate since the publication almost two centuries ago of his most famous book, La Russie en 1839 (“Russia in 1839”). Every 20 or 30 years, when the Kremlin has cracked down, Custine has been rediscovered.

A timeless and blunt marquis: “This nation [Russia] − at its heart conquering, greedy by dint of deprivation − atones in advance, at home, through a debasing submission, in the hope of exercising tyranny elsewhere: the glory, the wealth that it expects distract it from the shame it suffers; and, to wash away the sacrifice of all public and personal freedom, the slave, on his knees, dreams of world domination.”

Lettres de Russie (Letters from Russia), its alternative title, was a bestseller when it came out in 1843 and has remained a staple of Russian studies, one of the many travel accounts that have shaped the West’s understanding of this “kingdom of facades.”

The first reflex is to brush aside these aphoristic sayings for being too banal or, mainly, oversimplistic. How, in the 21st century, can one read the phrase “people drunk on slavery” without doing a double take? Besides, the man spent fewer than three months in Russia, hardly leaving Saint Petersburg and Moscow. We have also come to learn, in retrospect, that he readily listened to gossip. Even the landscape was not to his liking!

A knack for observation and intuition

Still. The travel writer’s knack for observation and intuition was astounding. He foretold nothing less than the coming Bolshevik revolution. In fact, it was Stalinism that gave him his moment of glory. His description of Russia in 1839 had a prophetic tone: “The Russian Empire is a disciplinary camp instead of a state system, a society in a perpetual state of siege,” the aristocratic traveler writes.

Custine’s words have been all the more valuable for their air of disillusionment. The marquis was a self-professed conservative, an enemy of the French Revolution that took his father and grandfather, who were guillotined. In Tsarist Russia, he set off in search of a lost paradise, or time. All he encountered was “oppression disguised as a love of order,” “a secrecy that governs everything,” “permanent espionage” and a “fanatical obedience” that spared neither the people nor the nobility: “A regime that would not withstand 20 years of open communication with the West.”

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