Globalist Bookshelf

“That Prison Without Leisure Which is Called Russia”

Astolphe De Custine’s “Letters from Russia” – (1843): What de Tocqueville is to America, de Custine is to Russia.

Takeaways


  • In Russia, the spirit of despotism always exerts itself with a mathematical rigor, and the result of such extreme proceeding is an extreme oppression.
  • A government that causes itself to be dreaded on every occasion, must inevitably render men miserable.
  • There is no people of Russia: there is an emperor, who has serfs, and there are courtiers who have serfs also; but this does not constitute a people.
  • Let the emperor suffer the responsibility of omnipotence: it is the first expiation of the political lie by which a single individual declares himself all-powerful sovereign of the thoughts of a people.
  • The Russians are nothing more than a conquering community; their strength does not lie in mind but in war, that is, in stratagem and brute force.
  • Wealth in Russia is the food of vanity.
  • If the Russians wish to be recognized by the European nations, and treated as equals, they must begin by submitting to hear themselves judged. All the nations have had to undergo this kind of process.
  • Russians are only free when in the face of the enemy; they therefore go to make war… that they may get rid of the yoke imposed upon them at home.
  • When the church abdicates its liberty, it loses its moral virtuality; --- a slave, it can only give birth to slavery.
  • Russia ought not only to stop, but to begin anew: is such an effort possible? Can so vast an edifice be taken to pieces and reconstructed?

Russia’s particular brand of despotism

“In Russia, the spirit of despotism always exerts itself with a mathematical rigor, and the result of such extreme proceeding is an extreme oppression.” (page 125)

“The longer I stay in this country the more am I impressed with the fact that contempt for the weak is contagious.” (page 414)

“A government that makes profession of being vigorous, and that causes itself to be dreaded on every occasion, must inevitably render men miserable.” (page 628)

Despotism pretending to do good

“…despotism is never so much to be dreaded as when it pretends to do good, for then it thinks the most revolting acts may be excused by the intention, and the evil that is applied as a remedy has no longer any bounds. Crime exposed to view can triumph only for a day, but false virtues forever lead astray the minds of nations.” (page 634)

“Barbarism takes more than one form: crush it in despotism and it springs to life again in anarchy…” (page 637)

Russian emperors and Russian serfs — but no Russian people

“The emperor [Nicholas I] appears to me little disposed to lay down a part of his authority. Let him suffer, then, the responsibility of omnipotence: it is the first expiation of the political lie by which a single individual declares himself absolute master of a country and all-powerful sovereign of the thoughts of a people.” (page 640)

“…there is no people of Russia: there is an emperor, who has serfs, and there are courtiers who have serfs also; but this does not constitute a people.” (pages 641-642)

Russia – the conjunction of barbarism and civilization

“I do not believe I am exaggerating in affirming, that the empire of Russia is a country whose inhabitants are the most miserable upon earth, because they suffer at one and the same time the evils of barbarism and of civilization.” (page 643)

“Russian civilization is still so near its source that it resembles barbarism. The Russians are nothing more than a conquering community; their strength does not lie in mind but in war, that is, in stratagem and brute force.” (page 649)

Russia and wealth (and oligarchs?)

“Wealth in Russia is the food of vanity. The only magnificence that pleases me is that which makes no show, and I therefore find fault with everything here which they wish me to admire. A nation of decorators will never inspire me with any other feeling than that of fearing lest I should become their dupe.” (page 357)

Russians as imitators

“…the spirit of curiosity, sarcasm, and carping criticism influences the Russians in their intercourse with strangers. They hate us as every imitator hates his model; their scrutinizing looks seek faults in us with the desire of finding them.” (page 371)

“…the future — that brilliant future dreamt of by the Russians — does not depend upon them; they have no ideas of their own; and the fate of this nation of imitators will be decided by people whose ideas are their own.” (page 651)

Russia and Europe – A fraught relationship

“It was Peter the Great, who, with all the imprudence of an untaught genius, all the temerity of a man the more impatient because deemed omnipotent, with all the perseverance of an iron character, sought to snatch from Europe the plants of an already ripened civilization, instead of resigning himself to the slow process of sowing the seeds in his own soil.” (page 632)

“Russia sees in Europe a prey which our dissensions will sooner or later yield to her: she foments anarchy among us in the hope of profiting by a corruption which she favors because it appears favorable to her views: it is the history of Poland recommencing on a larger scale. For many years past, Paris has read revolutionary journals paid by Russia.” (page 647)

“The destinies of a progressive civilization, a civilization sincere and rational, will be decided in the heart of Europe; everything which tends to hasten the perfect agreement of French and German policy is beneficial. Everything which retards that union, however specious be the motive for delay, is pernicious.” (page 652)

Russia’s desire to be equal to the European nations

“…if they wish to be recognized by the European nations, and treated as equals, they must begin by submitting to hear themselves judged. All the nations have had to undergo this kind of process.” (page 643)

“…they are only free when in the face of the enemy; they therefore go to make war in the Caucasus, that they may get rid of the yoke imposed upon them at home.” (page 645)

“If passions calm in the West, if union be established between the governments and their subjects, the greedy hope of the conquering Slavs will become a chimera.” (page 651)

The Russian Orthodox Church

“When the church abdicates its liberty, it loses its moral virtuality; — a slave, it can only give birth to slavery.” (page 414)

The sentiment of humanity in the hearts of nations

“Russia ought not only to stop, but to begin anew: is such an effort possible? Can so vast an edifice be taken to pieces and reconstructed?” (page 633)

“Russia still remains farther from liberty, not in words, but in things, than most of the countries upon earth…This best means of emancipating men is not pompously to proclaim their enfranchisement, but to render servitude impossible by developing the sentiment of humanity in the hearts of nations: that sentiment is deficit in Russia.” (page 638)

Liberty is lacking in Russia

“”…that prison without leisure which is called Russia…liberty is wanted in everything Russian – unless it be the commerce of Odessa.” (pages 653-654).

Editor’s Note

Astolphe De Custine (1790-1857) spent three months traveling in Russia, starting in July of 1839. He published the account of his journey in 1843.

The Globalist took the following excerpts from “Letters from Russia. Astolphe de Custine,” edited and with an introduction by Anka Muhlstein, published by The New York Review of Books, 2002.

Anka Muhlstein wrote in the book’s introduction: “Banned in Russia, Custine’s work was an immediate success in Europe when it appeared in 1843…As a writer, Custine’s gifts included a keen eye, an avid curiosity, and a fiercely independent intellect – characteristics that explain both the motives and the success of his endeavor…” (pages vii-viii)

“Russia had in fact been on [Custine’s] mind ever since Tocqueville, in 1835, had published his Democracy in America to enormous acclaim. Tocqueville made a point of contrasting Russia and the United States…Tocqueville believed reluctantly in the inevitable victory of the American model; Custine, more skeptical in every way, may well have hoped to discredit such a view through symmetrical comparison. The two men, in any case, had much in common.” (pages vii-ix)

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