THE MARQUIS DE CUSTINE & HIS RUSSIA IN 1839 by George F. Kennan

THE MARQUIS DE CUSTINE & HIS RUSSIA IN 1839

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Custine was approaching fifty when he visited Russia in 1839. Except for Balzac, his literary efforts had aroused no interest; his fellow aristocrats scorned him for the homosexual liaisons he no longer bothered to hide; his wife, child, and beloved mother had long since died. He was, as Professor Kennan remarks in his illuminating monograph, generally regarded as a wealthy dilettante defensively ""bearing the scars of a long ordeal of disgrace and opprobrium,"" outwardly cold and formal, ""but intensely grateful for any civilized and tactful attention."" Through Turgenev, his friend, he secured invitations to high or restricted places, and thus experienced at first hand the nightmare of Russian imperial anti bureaucratic life, its primitive arbitrariness, secretiveness, and dissimulation, the pettiness of officialdom, the despotism of Nicholas I, and the coarseness and brutalization of the peasant masses. Setting everything down in his reserved but piercing way, the more he held aloof from his subject the more he unnerved by the stunning objectivity of his analyses. When La Russie en 1839 appeared in 1843 it created a sensation, salvaging Custine's reputation not only for his own age but, as it turned out, for the 20th century as well. Indeed we read Custine today less for what he has to say about czarist times (not all historians agree that he was a truthful reporter) than for his astonishing, if unwitting, divination of the messianic Soviet tyranny to come. Kennan is very fine on these crucial matters, elegantly sketching the ironic historical relations between the past and present (one wishes, though, he had compared Custine's work with that recent document of internal dissent, Amalrik's Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 19847), as well as psychologically and culturally probing the mysterious Frenchman himself.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1971
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press