Washington, Connecticut. At the end of his introduction to a re-publication of the Marquis de Custine’s “Empire of the Czar, A Journey Through Eternal Russia,” George F. Kennan recalls a quote from his friend Isaiah Berlin. Kennan relies on Berlin’s remark that “victims make acute observers” to describe why an obscure French nobleman, known in his time as the Tocqueville of Russia, produced such a remarkable book about the rising Russian Bear. The Marquis was, in fact, a victim of the ages. He was known as “the most notorious homosexual in France” and was drummed out of the army as a result of an assignation gone awry. Discovered unconscious in a ditch, partially clothed, robbed, and obviously beaten, Custine became an object of cloaked Parisian ridicule and gossip despite both his prestigious family and formidable abilities with prose.
Custine’s father and grandfather were guillotined as nobility despite their professed sympathy for the French Revolution. His beautiful mother, Delphine, an intimate of Chateubriand and one of the brightest and most sparkling of the many sparkling woman of the Paris Salons became the object of one of the most watched trials of the Reign of Terror. Imprisoned, suffering the tearing of a beloved child from her bosom, she was hounded and disgraced by the prideful furies of the Revolution and put on trial with an almost certain assassination by the mercenary thugs known as the Septembriseurs. Astolphe de Custine recites a remarkable story of maternal bravery during this trial:
“My mother, naturally timid in a crowd, stood trembling at the head of this long flight of steps, pressed on all sides by an enraged and blood thirsty populace. Her eyes involuntarily sought the spot where Madame de Lamballe had been murdered some time before. She felt her presence of mind departing, as from the ferocious mob the cry, “It is the daughter of the traitor, it is La Custine,” mingled with horrid imprecations, reached her ears. How was she to pass through this crowd of infernal, rather than human beings? Already some, with naked swords, had placed themselves before her; others, half clothed, had placed themselves before her; others, had caused their woman to draw back….a certain sign that murder was about to be re-enacted. My mother felt that the first symptom of weakness she might betray would be the signal for her death: she has often related to me that she bit her hands and tongue so as to bring blood, in her endeavour to preserve a calm countenance at this juncture. At length, she observed a fish-woman among the foremost of the crowd. This woman, who was revolting in appearance, had an infant in her arms. Moved by the God of mothers, the ” daughter of the traitors” approached this mother, (a mother is something more than a woman) and said to her, “What a sweet babe you have in your arms! “.”Take it”, replied the parent, who understood her by one word and glance; “you can return it to me at the foot of the steps”.
The electricity of maternal feeling had thrilled through these two hearts. It communicated itself also to the crowd. My mother took the child, pressed it to her bosom, and held it as an aegis in her arms.
Man, as child of nature, resumed his superiority over man brutalized under the influence of social evils. The “civilized” barbarians were vanquished by two mothers…”
So much for feminism and her cohort in this and other ages, populism.
A profound sense of exile certainly informed Astolphe’s embrace of the Romantic Movement. This found expression in his poetry and novels, but was the most acute in the sharp insights of the traveler. None other than the arch proto-Beatnik, Honore’ Balzac, encouraged Custine to write about the “half-European” parts of the continent. And so he did, first in Spain (a country he came to love for its authenticity), and then in Russia (a country he came to loathe for its imitations, artifice, and oppressive blanket of fear).
At the beginning of Custine’s voyage up the Baltic Sea toward St. Petersburg, he enjoyed the company of Prussians and some free-speaking Russian nobility. Custine expressed great admiration for the Eastern colossus and was anxious to set foot in the giant empire. His enthusiasms were quickly snuffed upon detainment at the Customs House of the Kronstadt Fortress, west of the Capitol, where the now legendary Russian Bureaucracy worked its relentless charms on his dented sensibilities. Gaining passage to the seat of Czar Nicholas I, his growing sense of diminishing expectations was subsequently compounded by the Potemkin quality of the neo-classicist architecture amid vast dusty streets, which was made starker by the low slanting light. The Marquis drank the scenes in deeply, but found wanting the Classic pediments, which were rendered in plaster and constantly under repair. How could it be, he wondered, that a nation with such distinctive eastern architecture, with onion domes redolent of the East, could participate in such slavishly debased imitations of western architecture? Even her domestic architecture, with its carved wood decorations seemed grander than the constantly under-repair plaster of Roman or Greek imitation.
Russia, under Peter The Great, abandoned its Eastern medievalism and embarked upon a campaign of modernization in the European mold. Later, Catherine the Great sought to gain respect by embracing the European Enlightenment of France. She quickly directed her court towards a strong French accent, so much so that much of the nobility came to abandon their mother tongue for the French language. By the time Custine visited Russia in the 1830’s, the enchantment with Western Europe was deeply entrenched, although Nicholas I appeared to be reversing this trend and seeking some of the old ways of Mother Russia. Napoleon’s foolhardy, disastrous, and deadly romp across the continent to Moscow severely dented the reputation of the French.
The impulse against the French was not especially strong, however, and Custine found that his connections with French nobility were strong currency in the French-speaking Court of St. Petersburg. He was immediately invited to attend a royal wedding celebration and spent time with both the Emperor and the Empress. During his moments with them, he observed the fluttering of the sycophants around the royals. Concealing his emotions about the repression he saw everywhere, Custine had this exchange with the Emperor:
“I can truly say, sire, that one of the chief motives of my curiosity in visiting Russia was the desire of approaching a prince who exercises such power over men”.
“The Russians are amiable; (the emperor replied) but he should render himself worthy who would govern such a people”
“Your majesty has better appreciated the wants and the positions of this country than any of your predecessors”
“Despotism still exists in Russia: it is the essence of my government, but it accords with the genius of the nation”
“Sire, by stopping Russia on the road of imitation, you are restoring her to yourself”
“I love my country, and I believe I understand it. I assure you, that when I feel heartily weary of all the mysteries of the times, I endeavor to forget the rest of Europe by retiring toward the interior of Russia”
“In order to refresh yourself at your fountainhead?”
“Precisely so. No one is more from his heart a Russian than I am. I am going to say to you what I would not say to another but I feel that you will comprehend me”.
Here the emperor interrupted himself, and looked at me attentively. I continued to listen without replying, and he proceeded:
“I can understand republicanism: it is a plain and straight forward form of government, or, at least , it might be so; I can understand absolute monarchy, for I am myself the head of such an order of things; but I cannot understand a representative monarchy: it is a government of lies, fraud, and corruption; and I would rather fall back even upon China than ever adopt it”
Custine replied, “Sire, I have always regarded representative government as a compact inevitable in certain communities at certain epochs; but like all other compacts, it does not solve questions…. it only adjourns difficulties.”
The emperor seemed to say “Go On.”
“It is a truce signed between democracy and monarchy, under the auspices of two very mean tyrants, fear and interest; and it is prolonged by that pride of intellect which takes pleasure in talking, and that popular vanity which satisfies itself on words. In short, it is the aristocracy of oratory, substituted for the aristocracy of birth: it is the government of the lawyers”
This “notorious homosexual” had sharp insights indeed. Though Tocqueville visited the American Republic and cae away amply impressed, we have today in our Europeanizing nation something which Custine and Nicholas I abhorred: a marriage of tyrants where the lawyers officiate and oratory is the aristocracy.
Custine continued his journey toward the fountainhead across the Russian Steppes and was alarmed at the roads, shocked at the vermin-infested road houses, and appalled at the simultaneously paranoid and proud behavior of a people who speak one way in public and quite another in private. Still, Custine was entranced by the slanting light of the North, its moody conifers, and its great open spaces with remote villages hugging the road like rail sidings. He loved and admired the authentic monumentality of Moscow, and noted how much freer her people act when the Emperor is absent. He marvels at the rites of the Orthodox Church, but bridles at its partnership in exploiting the peasantry.
All in all, it is a remarkable book, the best of classic road tales. Custine is indeed a romantic with sharp eyes for both scenery and human character. The world of pre-revolution Russia comes alive to an extent that de Custine actually sees forces lying beneath the stern control that if unleashed, will surely be barbaric. Upon leaving, he exults:
And then, ending his magnificent story:
“If ever your sons should be discontented with France, try my recipe; tell them to go to Russia. It is a useful journey for every foreigner: whoever has well examined that country will be content to live anywhere else. It is always well to know that a society that exists where no happiness is possible, because, by a law of his nature, man cannot be happy unless he is free.
Such a recollection renders the traveller less fastidious; and returning to his own hearth , he can say of his country what a man of mind once said of himself: `When I estimate myself, I am modest; but when I compare myself, I am proud.’”
America the Proud, abroad and victorious in the World since purported victory in the Cold War, has also lost the ability to properly estimate herself, and so becomes schizophrenic in her pride. This distinctive and revolutionary nation has begun to become that which she has opposed. We hang our heads in embarrassment when informed that our health system is ranked below that of Lithuania. We then seek to improve our ranking—not by attacking the problem in the American way of fearless ingenuity and innovation—but with an imitative timidity, granted valor by oratory. We fight by legislating simply to achieve legislation, confident that more legislation in the fullness of time will reach utopia.
Custine visited the behemoth bookend of Europe and came away both impressed and deeply chagrined. Tocqueville visited its antipode in the West and came away impressed, somewhat skeptical, in ways rather shocked, but admiring its determined forward movement and its noisy and open-hearted vigor. America was a Republic. Its people wore the government lightly. Russia, on the other hand, treated her people as serfs. Even when she adopted the purported brotherhood of socialism, she treated her people as fodder for the ruthless use of the Government. Cogs in a militaristic wheel, her strong people burst mightily forward but quickly sputtered under a despotic government. She is still trying mightily to find herself and may one day do, but has a formidable history with which to contend. She has never known the luxuries of civil rights and opportunities that we take for granted.
In today’s United States, we think it logical and progressive to look to our rear and continue as the purveyor of the World’s Mightiest Military even after the demolition of the Berlin Wall. We have a real and villainous terrorist foe that must be fought with diligence and alacrity. More to our detriment, we find a rising foe in ourselves. We are the new imitators of the age. We imitate something we think we are but which we have never been: a people who believe their government is here to solve all their problems through sanctioning or cosseting virtually every facet of their lives. What is worse, when we find that our government, together with the special interests she has married, so roundly makes a mockery of both our traditions and our future, we collapse into serfdom.
This is a bad bargain. Within the first books of City of God, St. Augustine reviews the impudence and hypocrisy of Rome. Sacked by the barbarians, the defeated Romans blamed their demise on the Christians who deserted the pagan gods. Augustine points to how Alaric granted refuge to those Romans, Pagan or Christian, who sought cover in the Christian churches of Rome. Though known to allow significant leeway to local customs under certain circumstances, Imperial Rome rarely gave such quarter to those she initially brought to heel. More than this, St. Augustine rebukes empire and the false bargain enjoyed by the despot. He tells the story of two men:
“But let us suppose a case of two men; for each individual man, like one letter in a language, is as it were the element of a city or kingdom, however far spreading in its occupation across the earth. Of these two men let us suppose that one is poor, or rather of middling circumstances; the other very rich. But the rich man is anxious with fears, pining with discontent, burning with covetousness, never secure, always uneasy, panting from the perpetual strife of his enemies, adding to his patrimony indeed by these miseries to an immense degree, and by these additions also heaping up most bitter cares. But that other man of moderate wealth is contented with a compact estate, most dear to his own family, enjoying the sweetest peace with his kindred neighbors and friends, in piety religious, benignant in mind, healthy in body, in life frugal, in manners chaste, in conscious secure. I know not whether anyone can be such a fool , that he dare hesitate which to prefer.”
Employing “felicity,” one of his most oft used, St Augustine continues:
“In this world, therefore, the dominion of good men is profitable, not so much for themselves as for human affairs. But the dominion of bad men is hurtful chiefly to themselves who rule , for they destroy their own souls by greater license in wickedness; while those who are put under them in service are not hurt except by their own iniquity. For to the just all the evils imposed on them by unjust rulers are not the punishment of a crime, but the test of virtue. Therefore the good man, although he is a slave, and that not of one man, but, what is far more grievous, of as many masters as he has vices; of which vices when the divine Scripture treats, it says, “For of whom any man is overcome, to the same he is also the bond slave”
“We The People” is a proud song, but within it lies a refrain of humility that has ably carried us forward like a fine and sturdy mount. We championed the little guy by giving him a hand and by crafting a mode of life in which all of us revered the bracing release of opportunity and community. We were not a people of empire, we were an empire of people who control their own destinies and do it in a manner that has seen no equal in history. History was our touchstone, but not our guide.
It was not all a bed of roses. Poverty is a blight that will not be removed. From the Projects of New York to the pathos of abandoned Detroit, South Side Chicago, the flats of Ogden, Richmond in the Bay Area, and Compton in L.A., the American Dream is some kind of bait and switch for a populace that knows no opportunity besides crime or the public dole. Many still emerge from these places and grab their seat at the table this nation has set more consistently than most. Were this not true, we would not be discussing immigration with the vehemence we do. Like in times past, immigrants take the jobs of the lowest laborer, the lawn mowers and dish-washers, house-keepers and janitors. We embrace a notion that an entire nation of college educated “consumers” (in effect debt serfs) is anything but consumptive. We have “overcome” the rest of the planet with our pursuit of luxury and disdain for physical “dirty work” and so are now the bond slave of those nations who have gladly obliged our surrender of skilled labor.
Liberty, in this land at least, has been and hopefully shall always be, an exaltation of humility. This is the good news because of all things, humility cannot but produce that thing which has always carried us to our best times: The Brotherhood of Respect. This very real thing that we call the American Dream is a waking dream, engaged in fruitfully while toiling along a reliable if frequently demanding furrow of opportunity. Our best days are ahead only if we make them so. We have forgotten that victory can frequently lead to vice. We seem dumbfounded and astride a clumsy Babylon because we have forsaken the genius of this place in our fear. We fight now against ourselves, that imitation of enemy.
Breathe, America. With it shall come that exhale, a sigh of relief the world will come to once again know as that place within the City of Man that can become nearest the City of God. It is perhaps an impudent thing to consider ourselves as occupying such a role. Perhaps a little impudence, leavened by humor and humility, will rekindle our stubborn genius—warts, calloused knees, curious minds, busy hands, easy smile, and all.