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Empire of the Czar

Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia by the Marquise de Custine

This is actual an abridged version of his La Russie en 1839, which I have never found complete in English.  It's longer than the other abridgment I've read, and has more of the truly interesting anecdotes, even if they don't tell us much about Russia.

For instance the opening chapters about his family history during the French Revolution:  his grandfather was guillotined for his reaction to the execution of the king, his father for defending him, his mother nearly for defending them -- she spent months in prison from which people were taking at any time for execution -- he himself spent the time with a faithful servant who managed somehow to live in the kitchen of their house (the rest had been sealed up), and after Thermidor they lived in poverty because the government had taken all their property and left them all the debts.  He was, at least, not predisposed to hate absolute monarchy after that.

And among the fellow passenger going to Russia, I have got to love the American merchants who disapproved of frivolity who are, of course, "Jansenists of the Protestant variety."

In Russia, he covers a lot of stuff.  He was composing it in the form of letters (which he had to carry with him for secrecy), so not all of his stuff seems consistent.  For instance, he recounts the sufferings of a woman who choose to accompany her husband to Siberia.  Later, he comments that it turns out that in fact, many women have thus chosen, and her virtue is not the less heroic for not being unique.  (The sage soul will recognize the wives of the Decembrists.)

And the details are of all sorts of things.

The pettifogging bureaucracy of getting into the country through customs.

The transparent shade of the birches in the summer homes of the Russian nobles near Petersburg.

How you can tell yourself in London or Paris that one day this place might be a ruin, but you can't believe it -- but in Petersberg, you have no doubt that the city could vanish utterly any day, if the sovereign withdrew his whim. 

That the architecture of Petersburg is all wrong, because they copied Greek and Roman without noticing they had different landscape -- utterly flat, which called for towering buildings in contrast.

Old Michael Palace, which people did not even look at, because of the assassination of a czar there.

His meeting with the czar and czarina and the czarina affably permitting them to see their private English cottage.  The czar urged him to go on to Moscow, because while Petersburg was Russian, it was not Russia.

How a -- number of people drowned in a storm coming to festivities at Peterhoff, and how utterly impossible it was to determine the number because everything was muffled up.  He adds the account of how a servant woman did not return to her mistress, and the police said that since no crimes had been reported, she was bound to turn up, but fortunately, her cousin knew the tricks and found the body, which the police had sold to medical student for the money and to cover up that the crime had been committed.

How the reception (twice a year) of peasants and merchants creates the effect not of treating them as human beings like the czar but plunging the nobles to the same level as the lowest.

The ugly boots that women peasants wore.

The story he heard:  when the peasants appealed to the Czar to buy them, and he said that he wished he could but could not at this time, the peasants deduced that it was therefore the nobles' fault and went on a rampage of massacre:  many villages were transported to Siberia.

The necessity of carrying a lock with you as you travel to avoid theft.

The effect of the Kremlin in Moscow, both by night when he arrived, and by day.  A massive fortress, conveying the need for surveillance.

His attempt to visit the fortress at Schlusselberg resulted in permission to see the sluices nearby -- because in the reign of Empress Elizabeth, Ivan had been imprisoned and driven insane there!  He manages to swing getting into the fortress itself, where the governor points out the tomb of Ivan as a rosebush.

The scandalous ancedotes that Russian nobles were willing to regale him with.  He notes he can't tell whether they are true but they are certainly recounted with no hesitation to a stranger.

How a certain prison contains prisoners who have forgotten even their own names in their imbecility after their treatment, and how no one knows what the crimes were of some, so they will remain prisoner forever.

That the nobles are capable of reducing their serfs to starvation in the process of ruining their estates.

A noblewoman recounting to him her shock that merchants in France can go after nobles for debt, and how in Russia no merchant would dream of cutting off credit to a noble, and all this with the perfect confidence that of course he would think this quite right.

Nijni and its market, where the largest markets are of tea and rags -- which is so valuable for paper that export is forbidden -- and many other things, like furs.  Its situation is poor:  dusty when sunny, and any amount of rain makes it a quagmire.  

And many other interesting things.  If not exactly pleasant.  He concludes with the observation that if your son is unhappy in France, send him to Russia.  Whoever has seen Russia will be happy anywhere else.

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