by Theodore Dalrymple
In the days—simultaneously not so very long ago and in the ancient past—when communism seemed a permanent feature of the political landscape, I traveled extensively on the other side of the looking glass that divided the world into two opposed camps. I did not take with me as literary guide and compass to my travels one of the Marxist-Leninist "classics": not because the works of Marx and Lenin failed to explain anything I found through that looking glass, but because the explanation they offered was all too obvious and self-evident. If it was difficult for a visitor to find anything to eat impromptu in Moscow, Havana, Tirana, Bucharest, or Pyongyang, it took little effort to understand the connection of this difficulty with the vulgar anti-commercialism of Saint Karl and Saint Vladimir. Indeed, it would have taken all the ingenuity of the cleverest academics not to have understood it.
I took with me instead a work by a nineteenth-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine. First published as a series of letters in 1843 under the title La Russie en 1839, the book has since appeared in a multiplicity of formats and abbreviated versions, with various titles in English, suggesting that even its translators and most fervent admirers do not consider it a flawless work of literary art. And yet this travel book is undoubtedly a masterpiece, a work of such penetration and prescience that it is worth reading more than a century and a half after its composition, not only for its antiquarian or historical interest but because of the incomparably brilliant light it sheds on one of the most important phenomena of the last hundred years: the spread of communism throughout the world. Writing before the development of modern "scientific" sociology, whose achievement has been to obscure by means of statistical legerdemain the importance of human consciousness, Custine analyzed Russian society by reference to the psychology of the individuals who made it up. His work is a supreme example of the subtle interplay between the abstract information about a political system and the imaginative entry into the worldview of the people who live in it that is necessary for the understanding of any society.
Custine's book is a prolonged meditation upon the effect of a particular political regime and its institutions upon human character, thought, and action—and, by implication, a meditation upon the dialectical interplay of political conditions and human character everywhere. As Custine well understood, the effect of czarism upon the Russian psyche was pregnant with significance for the future, not just for the Russians themselves but for the whole world, because Russia was destined to play so large a part in the world's history.
For when you read Custine, you realize that the spread of communism was not of an ideology alone but of an entire political culture: the culture of Russian despotism, which paved the way intellectually, and served as a practical exemplar, for Marxism's millenarian totalitarianism. Without the prologue of czarist despotism, Marxism would not have triumphed in Russia. And without the Russian Revolution, whose "success" so many foreigners strove to imitate, far fewer Marxist regimes would have been set up throughout the world, and none in Eastern Europe. As Stalin's literary commissar, Zhdanov, might have put it, the communist regimes that proliferated in the twentieth century were Russian in form but Marxist in content—just as approved literature by non-Russian-language authors in the Soviet Union was supposed to be national in form but socialist in content.
Custine visited Russia for only three months; he spoke no Russian (though the Russian upper class of the time spoke French fluently and even preferred to converse and think in that language). While he had read books about Russia, he was in no sense a scholar of Russian affairs. Yet the book he wrote after so short a sojourn in the country was infinitely more valuable than those written by men with a vastly more detailed knowledge of Russia than his. On reading La Russie en 1839, the exiled Alexander Herzen declared it the best book ever written on the subject and lamented that only a foreigner could have written it.
A third of Custine's long book concerned only his first few days in Russia, when his impressions were no doubt at their most intense, as travelers' impressions always are on their first arrival: but even had Custine returned to France after those few days and written nothing more than the first third of his book, he would have provided more insights into Russia, and hence into the subsequent fate of an all too considerable proportion of humanity, than any other writer of the nineteenth century.
How was this feat possible? What distinguished Custine from so many other observers? What were the methods and underlying assumptions that enabled him to penetrate so deeply in so short a time?
Custine displayed a remarkable talent for extracting the social and psychological meaning of small events that to others might have seemed insignificant. For example, on his arrival in Saint Petersburg, border guards and customs staff subjected him to a minute and pointless examination the like of which he had not remotely experienced anywhere else, though he was a well-traveled man. "Each of these men discharges his duty with a pedantry, a rigour, an air of importance uniquely designed to give prominence to the most obscure employment," he noted. "He does not permit himself to say so, but you can see him thinking approximately this: 'Make way for me, I am one of the members of the great machine of the State.'" Unlike less reflective observers, Custine asked why the Russian officials should have behaved with such a manner, keenly aware that men inhabit a mental and not just a physical world and that their conduct is determined by their thoughts about the world as they have experienced it. He surmised that these border officials had been deprived of all true discretion and were deeply fearful themselves of the power to which they were subordinate. Custine described them as "automata inconvenienced with a soul": a description true, perhaps, of all bureaucrats fearful for their jobs but truest of all where power is both arbitrary and completely centralized, as it was in Russia. Their conduct was the revenge of men constrained to behave like machines: a revenge not upon the author of their servitude, of course, for that was impossible at the time, but upon those who fell within their extremely limited power.
No doubt Custine's family history and upbringing had heightened his acuity. His grandfather was a liberal aristocrat who became a general in the revolutionary army, but whom the Jacobins guillotined as not sufficiently devoted to the cause. Custine's father went to the guillotine for having tried to defend him. Custine's mother, imprisoned as an enemy of the people for having tried to defend her husband, narrowly escaped execution herself, largely because one of the revolutionary fanatics who arrested her fell in love with her. Astolphe de Custine was brought up for a time by a faithful servant, living in penury with her in the only room of the Custine home that had not been looted and sealed off by Jacobin zealots and thieves. Such a background was likely to produce a man aware of the deep subterranean currents in life and not easily deceived by appearances. The evils of envy and hatred masquerading as humanitarian idealism had darkened his life from its outset, stamping him as a man quick to search for the reality behind the expression of fine sentiments.
He needed all his shrewdness to penetrate behind the veneer of Russia. He frequented mainly upper-class circles, traveled comparatively little, and studied no statistics. Accused of having visited Russia for too short a time to have drawn conclusions, he replied, "Il est vrai, j'ai mal vu, mais j'ai bien déviné": which might be translated as, "Yes, I have seen little, but I have understood much."
Custine grasped that the propensity to deceive and to be (or to pretend to be) deceived lay at the heart of Russia's evident malaise. The maintenance of despotism depended upon this universal vocation for untruth, because without the fiction that the despotism was necessary, that it conduced to the happiness and well-being of all, and that any alternative would be disastrous, the subject population would cease to be controllable. The inability to speak even the most evident truth perverted all human relationships and institutions. And of course the lie came to be the foundation of all twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, without which they could not survive. "The political system of Russia," wrote Custine, "could not withstand twenty years of free communication with Western Europe."
Unlike so many gullible intellectuals of the twentieth century who visited communist countries in the spirit of religious pilgrims, Custine understood only too well both the techniques and the meaning of the attempts to deceive him. "Russian hospitality, bristling with formalities . . . is a polite pretext for hampering the movements of the traveller and limiting his license to observe," he concluded. "Thanks to this fastidious politeness, the observer cannot visit a place or look at anything without a guide; never being alone he has trouble judging for himself, which is what they want. To enter Russia, you must deposit your free will as well as your passport at the frontier. . . . Would you like to see . . . a hospital? The doctor in charge will escort you. A fortress? The governor will show it to you, or rather, politely conceal it from you. A school, any kind of public establishment? The director, the inspector, will be forewarned of your visit. . . . A building? The architect will take you over all its parts and will, himself, explain everything you have not asked in order to avoid instructing you on the things you are interested in learning." No wonder, he added, that "the most highly esteemed travellers are those who, the most meekly and for the longest time, allow themselves to be taken in." No visitor to a communist country could fail to recognize the description.