A Taste for Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine 
by Anka Muhlstein, translated by Teresa Waugh.
Helen Marx, 393 pp., $16.95, November 1999, 1 885983 41 7
Show More
Show More

The Marquis de Custine is best known for La Russie en 1839, an eloquent account of his travels across European Russia and of the horrors and absurdities of the Russian autocracy. Born in 1790, Custine lost his grandfather at the age of three and, a year later, his father: both were executed during the Jacobin Terror, although both had been sympathetic to the Revolution. Indeed, his grandfather, General Adam-Philippe de Custine, had been a supporter of the American War of Independence and in 1793, as one of the few French aristocrats in favour of revolution, was appointed commander-in-chief of the Army of the North. He was tried for failing to prevent the surrender of the besieged Cond, while Custine’s father was tried for printing and distributing a defence of the General. Custine himself had a quieter life. He grew up on the family estate at Fervaques in Normandy, and travelled in Italy, Switzerland and Germany as an adolescent. He had a brief career in diplomacy, working in an undefined role under Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but returned to Fervaques in 1816.

His writing career began in 1829, with Aloys, a highly autobiographical novel, published anonymously. It was followed in 1830 by Mémoires et voyages, an account, mainly, of his travels in Italy and England. L’Espagne sous Ferdinand VII (1838) was praised by Balzac, but most of his subsequent writing – including two novels and a play – was received with indifference or outright hostility, and has since disappeared from view.

In A Taste for Freedom, an amiable if unsophisticated account of his life, Anka Muhlstein presents Custine as very much a child of his time: ‘Marked as he was by tragedy, violence, sublime moments, family ruin, crumbling châteaux and sensitivity to the natural world, Astolphe was the absolute embodiment of Romanticism.’ For all that, she often seems more interested in Custine’s mother, Delphine, and her very much more adventurous life. Marital infidelities notwithstanding, Delphine was loyally present throughout the Revolutionary Tribunal’s trials of her husband and father-in-law. She herself only narrowly avoided arrest, and possibly worse, by charming a Jacobin called Jérôme, who on several occasions moved her file to the bottom of the pile awaiting the attention of the public prosecutor. Delphine’s lovers included Francisco Miranda, the revolutionary general and former lover of Catherine the Great; Joseph Fouché, one of Louis XVI’s executioners; Boissy d’Anglas, President of the Convention after Thermidor; and Chateaubriand, who like several of the others kept up a warm and friendly relationship with Astolphe after his passion for the boy’s mother had cooled.

Although no admirer of Bonaparte, Custine was not pleased to see the pre-Revolutionary order reinstated in 1815: ‘I would like to have lived a century earlier, if only so as not to hear the 18th century talked about,’ he wrote to his mother. But, rather than engaging with Custine’s politics, A Taste for Freedom makes a confused and largely unsuccessful attempt to tell us more than was previously possible about his homosexuality. Its title refers not only to Custine’s distaste for political tyranny but also to his desire to be free of social stigma. Not that Custine’s life was unpleasant: he was a habitué of high society, and seems to have had many distinguished friends. Stendhal rather unkindly used him as the model for Octave, the hero of Armance, whose impotence complicates his love-life; and on the appearance of La Russie en 1839, Balzac withdrew the dedication to Custine in Le Colonel Chabert, fearing repercussions for his Polish mistress Madame Hanska.

Custine married in 1821, but began a lifelong relationship with Edward de Sainte-Barbe shortly afterwards. His sexuality had long been public knowledge, but in 1824, after arranging a tryst with a soldier in Epinay, he was set upon by several cavalry officers. He seems to have seen the incident – and the attendant publicity – as allowing him to give up any pretence of conformity and promptly brought his relationship with Sainte-Barbe (to whom he bequeathed his fortune) into the open.

Custine, his wife Léontine and Sainte-Barbe lived in a ménage à trois until the arrival of a fourth, Custine’s baby son, in 1822. In 1823, Léontine died and the boy, Enguerrand, followed in 1826. By this time Custine and Sainte-Barbe were established as a couple in society. Scandal reared its head again in 1835, when it became known that they had been joined by Ignatius Gurowski, a Polish rebel exiled in Paris, one of Custine’s many Polish friends: Chopin and the exiled leader Prince Czartoryski were others. Gurowski ran up considerable debts, and much to Custine’s amusement, eloped with the Spanish Infanta.

Custine’s Polish connections may have played a large part in his decision to travel to Russia, but the journey was at least in some sense undertaken to counter the ideas in Tocqueville’s La Démocratie en Amérique. ‘There are on earth today two great peoples ... they are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans,’ Tocqueville had concluded. ‘I went to Russia,’ Custine wrote in the foreword to La Russie en 1839, ‘to seek arguments against representative government.’

He arrived in Russia on 10 July; a typically morose Russian aristocract had warned him of the shortcomings of Nicholas I’s Empire during the course of the journey. After needlessly fastidious customs checks – that much has not changed – he made his way to St Petersburg, feeling decidedly lost: ‘je restais seul dans le monde des chimères.’ He spent almost a month in St Petersburg – where he attended a lavish ball given by the Tsar – and then travelled on to Moscow, Yaroslavl and Nizhny Novgorod before returning to St Petersburg in mid-September.

Custine left Russia on 26 September with an intensely negative view of its regime, which, he said, had turned the people into ‘voluntary automata’. He likened the functioning of the Empire to ‘half of a game of chess, since one man moves all the pieces, and humanity is the invisible opponent. No one moves, no one breathes here except by Imperial permission or on the Emperor’s orders.’ The extent of the ruler’s power and his ability to change tack on a whim never ceases to surprise and appal him. ‘Things do not truthfully exist in Russia,’ he concludes at the end of the journey, ‘since it is solely at the pleasure of one man that they are made and unmade.’ He presents the autocrat as both ruler and demiurge, and sees something Biblical in the appearance of the Kremlin’s architecture: ‘Were the giants of the antediluvian world to return to earth to visit their feeble progeny, after vainly seeking some trace of their original haunts, they might eventually settle here.’

Custine was alarmed by Russia’s lack of tradition and historical awareness. Piotr Chadayev had said something similar some years earlier in his Lettres philosophiques, a damning account of Russia’s cultural and historical isolation from Europe. The only consolation Chadayev could offer was that Russia would serve as an object lesson to others and that one day it might obtain some reward for this sacrifice. Nicholas I declared him insane and in 1837 he published a recantation – Apologie d’un fou – in which Russia’s present suffering was offered as proof of a future messianic role.

In La Russie dans la vie intellectuelle française: 1839-56, Michel Cadot provides strong evidence that Custine met Chadayev in Moscow. However, it is likely that he was familiar with Chadayev’s ideas long before he got to Russia, thanks to Chateaubriand’s friendship with Turgenev. Custine adopts Chadayev’s belief that Russian enthusiasm for suffering is motivated by thoughts of future reward, but La Russie en 1839 also includes the more sinister notion of Russia’s ‘immense’ ambition: ‘to cleanse itself of the shameful sacrifice of all personal and civil liberty, the kneeling slave dreams of world domination.’

A few lines later, Custine makes clear what lies in Russia’s path. ‘Russia sees Europe as its prey,’ and believes that ‘sooner or later’ Europe will be delivered to it by its disorderliness: ‘Russia is fomenting anarchy among us in the hope of profiting from the corruption it has sponsored, because this corruption serves its ends.’ What Chadayev sees as messianic, Custine takes to be demonic. And not only Custine: his opinion can be seen as shading into the paranoia that permeated European thinking in the years before and after World War Two.

La Russie en 1839 was rediscovered in the 1930s and 1940s by Western diplomats serving in Moscow, including the future American Ambassador, George Kennan, who praised it as the most faithful guide not only to 19th-century Russia, but also to Russia under Stalin. It is a rich source of aphorisms for Russianists and travellers to Russia, who are not likely to disagree with such observations as that ‘Russia is a country where everyone conspires to deceive travellers.’ Custine is also credited with great prescience, as in ‘Russia’s regime would not survive twenty years of free communication with Western Europe,’ but the appeal of his observations across more than a century cannot be explained solely by their foresight or their pithiness.

The list of Custine’s principal admirers offers few surprises: the first 20th-century translation into English of La Russie en 1839 was made in 1951 by Phyllis Penn Kohler, the wife of Foy Kohler, American Ambassador from 1962 to 1966. Her edition has an introduction by Walter Bedell Smith, American Ambassador from 1946 to 1949 (and later head of the CIA). Like Kennan, who published The Marquis de Custine and His ‘Russia in 1839’ in 1972, Bedell Smith seized on the obvious parallels between Custine’s view of autocracy and his own view of Stalinism.

The comparison leads us into a game of mirrors: Stalin drew parallels between himself and his two remarkable predecessors, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible (he criticised Ivan only for seeking absolution every time he had someone killed: repentance was a sign of weakness). For Kennan and other Western diplomats, Custine anticipates Stalin in his depiction of Nicholas I, and presents Nicholas as an echo of Ivan. In fact, Custine interrupts his description of Moscow to recount the life and misdeeds of Ivan the Terrible, as if Ivan explained Nicholas I, or the Russia of 1550 explained the country in 1839, while Custine’s Cold War resurrection suggested that the Russia of 1839 not only made sense of the country under Stalin, but could be taken as a premonitory indictment of Soviet Communism.

When the book first came out, Custine was attacked in Russia for misjudging a country in which he had spent less than three months and whose language he didn’t know. Custine anticipates these charges: ‘It is true, I have seen badly, but I have guessed well,’ he writes at the end of the book. In a rare moment of insight, Muhlstein argues that it’s thanks to the gaps in his knowledge that his book hasn’t dated.

La Russie en 1839 is indeed a beautiful, protracted piece of guesswork, an account distinguished by its author’s continual incomprehension: even the Russian landscape contained ‘a poetry written in a mysterious language I do not know’. Custine found only absences in Russia – an absence of political freedom, an absence of manners, an absence of colour, even an absence of sound. In his novel Ethel, he wrote that ‘Paris is nothing but a great scribblers’ workshop. Every city in the world has its dominant sound ... the sound of Paris is the sound of a quill scratching on paper.’ In Russia he found silence, ‘a nation of mutes’. He encounters subterfuge and duplicity at every turn. ‘I feel my poor ideas become confused, and at the end of the day I doubt my own opinion: this is what pleases the Russians; when we no longer know what to think or say about them and their country, they triumph.’

Muhlstein notes that Custine ‘was afraid throughout his journey’, but suggests that his fear was not entirely of the Russians’ making: ‘the Tsar’s absolutism always brought him back to the Revolution, because the Terror had been just as tyrannical and arbitrary as despotism appeared to be in St Petersburg.’ He refers frequently to Russian barbarity and to the horde, but the threat of violence that permeates his observations remains no more than a threat. For Muhlstein, La Russie en 1839 was ‘a journey of analysis’, revealing Custine’s obsessions with imprisonment and the possibility of unbounded violence. The relevance of his family history is clear: his journey through Russia was a journey through his own fears.

Custine himself told his friend Augustus Varnhagen von Ense that La Russie en 1839 was composed in a state ‘which resembled sleep ... a reverie between memory and hope’. While there is something unanchored about Custine’s descriptions, he also provides us with wonderful images and analogies; his writing is not so much direct reportage as metaphorical commentary. The architecture of St Petersburg is ‘a line traced by the trembling hand of a child drawing a mathematical figure’; the palace at Peterhof is ‘a lovesick giant’s dream told by a mad poet’. He describes tyranny as ‘the hypochondria of nations’ and the tyrant as a doctor who persuades the people that ‘health is not the natural state of civilised men,’ and then ‘prolongs the sickness on the pretext of curing it’.

No longer the Cold War prophet, Custine emerges as a gifted, alienated individual, whose self-absorption makes his account a faithful record of his own obsessions but a dubious authority on Russia. If we are still drawn La Russie en 1839, it is because it confirms our prejudices so elegantly.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences