Preferred Citation: Gross, Irena Grudzinska. The Scar of Revolution: Custine, Tocqueville, and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

3 Russian History: The Tangled Tradition

Russian History: The Tangled Tradition


To understand the violence he saw (and felt in Russia), Custine turned to history. He found autocracy unacceptably, inexplicably oppressive. In search of some sort of explanation, he reached for a tradition that was close to him. The choice of this particular tradition, although predetermined, had profound consequences for Custine's vision of Russia. He found in it a confirmation of his rejection of that country and the arguments and vocabulary in which to express this rejection. It is worth taking a brief look at this tradition in order to see how Custine, by relegating Russia outside of Europe, tried to assuage his own fear of perpetual revolutionary violence.

In fact, Russia was for Custine a state of heightened violence. "This empire," he said in one of his most celebrated aphorisms, "immense as it is, is no more than a prison, of which the emperor keeps the key" (p. 237). "Tomorrow," he predicted,

in an insurrection, in the midst of massacre, by the light of a conflagration, the cry of freedom may spread to the frontiers of Siberia; a blind and cruel people may murder their masters, may revolt against obscure tyrants, and dye the waters of the Volga with blood; but they will not be any the more free: barbarism is in itself a yoke. (P. 608)

The question that needed to be posed was, What was the reason for this perpetual violence?


Custine phrased this question by quoting words written in 1549 by another traveler to Russia—or, rather, Muscovy—Sigismund von Herberstein.

"He [the tsar] speaks, and it is done; the life and fortunes of laity and clergy, of nobles and burghers, all depend on his supreme will. He is unacquainted with contradiction, and all he does is deemed as equitable as if it were done by Deity; for the Russians are persuaded that their prince is the executor of Divine decrees. Thus, God and the prince have willed, God and the prince know, are common modes of speech among them. Nothing can equal their zeal for serving him. . . . I cannot say whether it is the character of the Russian nation which has formed such autocrats, or whether it is the autocrats themselves who have given this character to the nation."

"It appears to me," comments Custine,

that the influence is reciprocal; the Russian government could never have been established elsewhere than in Russia; and the Russians would never have become what they are under a government differing from that which exists among them. (Pp. 94–95)

Custine introduced the author of his quotation as a "German diplomatist" (p. 95), "the Baron Herberstein, ambassador from the Emperor Maximilian, father of Charles V, to the Czar Vasili Ivanovich" (p. 94). And he agreed wholeheartedly with the bitter criticism he could discern in that quotation. "This letter, written more than three centuries ago, describes the Russians precisely as I now see them," he declared (p. 95). "This letter," however, was not a letter at all but a book, entitled Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii and published in Latin, in Vienna, in 1549. Custine did not read this book: "The following passage I have found in Karamsin [sic ]," he conscientiously indicated (p. 94). Who was Siegmund (or Sigismund or Sigmund, as his name was sometimes written) from Herberstein? And why would Custine quote him?

The question of the responsibility for autocracy is particularly well formulated by Herberstein, but the weight of his quotation is greater than its meaning. By the very act of repeating Herberstein's words, and then commenting on them, Custine made himself part of a very concrete tradition of writing about Russia of which Herberstein's name was a sign. For the reader who did not know the tradition, Custine presented it before he used it. He introduced Herberstein to the readers, and, to indicate his reliability, he quoted him from still another source. To grasp the reason for this double quoting, and Herberstein's importance for Custine, as well as for the whole European tradition of


writing about Russia, it is necessary to talk about the baron, his book, and its influence on later writers.

In Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii Baron von Herberstein reported on his two embassies to the court of the Grand Prince Vasili Ivanovich, undertaken in the years 1517 and 1526. His mission was to bring about the end of the war between Poland and Muscovy, so as to free the two countries to fight the Turks. The second voyage was partially successful, but Herberstein's true success was the book, which had many editions in Latin and in German.[1] The popularity of the book was due to its comprehensive and serious character, and to the novelty of its subject. It was also very well written.

Herberstein was born in Vipava, near Trieste, in 1486, and died in Vienna, in 1566. In Vipava he learned the local Slavic language, Slovenian, and later learned Russian and Polish as well. (It is quite unusual to find a report on Muscovy, Russia, or the Soviet Union by an author who understands Russian.) The son of an Austrian nobleman, he worked in his native language—German. He graduated from Vienna University, in 1502, having had a very thorough Renaissance education. His Latin and Italian were excellent, and he also knew French and Spanish. He was interested in the sciences and his education prepared him for a life of scholarship, but instead he became a diplomat for the Habsburgs. His missions to Muscovy were only two of several embassies he undertook. Written at the request of the monarch, his book was an act of public service: it was a report, initially addressed to the emperor, in which he rendered account of his actions and the knowledge he acquired as a result of his missions. In writing his book, he followed two traditions. The first was that of the Renaissance reports addressed to the prince, which were meant to form a basis for wise foreign policy, the most famous reports being the description of Germany by Niccolò Machiavelli, of Spain by Francesco Guicciardini, and of the Netherlands by Ludovico Guicclardini. The second tradition was that of reports written by papal and Venetian envoys and by merchants—the most famous of these, of course, being The Travels of Marco Polo.

In preparing for his difficult and perilous missions, as well as in his

[1] Herberstein himself translated his book into German, but there were other more popular translations. See "Editor's Preface" to Sigmund von Herbcrstein, Description of Moscow and Muscovy (1557), ed. Bertold Picard, trans. J. B. C. Grundy (London: J. A. Dent and Sons Limited, 1969). This translation of selected passages was made from Herberstein's 1557 German text considered definitive by the editor.


writing, Herberstein used several books and reports that belonged to that second tradition. He read the report by Joannes de Plano Carpini, an Italian minorite who in 1245 went to the Mongolians on behalf of Pope Innocent IV. Two Latin versions of this report, one short and one long, were easily accessible.[2] He also used Viaggio in Persia, the report of the Venetian ambassador Ambrogio Contarini on his journey in 1474 through Germany, Poland, Kiev, and the Crimea to Persia. This work was published in 1482, in Venice, where many of the reports of travels to near and distant lands were printed at that time. Herberstein also read and quoted Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis by the Polish prebendary Mathias Miechowski (1517), and the work of the bishop of Vienna, Johann Fabri, whose report, published in 1525, was a survey of the religious situation in Muscovy based on his conversations with Russian ambassadors to Spain. This last book was recommended to Herberstein by the then archduke, Ferdinand. All four of these works (Western sources of Herberstein's information) were written by Catholics, whose perspective on the "wrong" religion played a critical role in their interpretations. Herberstein was himself a Catholic and felt estranged from the exotic rites and religious customs of the Muscovites. Devoutly Catholic Custine was bound to reach for this tradition.

Herberstein also used other sources. He talked with his hosts and with the guides—more with the latter, because of the severe isolation the Muscovites imposed on their visitors. Several of his guides were Polish or Lithuanian Catholics, whose opinions must have influenced his writing. In the many years he spent researching his book, he corresponded with many scholars, several of whom were his "Polish friends."[3] And—what was unusual—he read and quoted written Muscovite annals of the monasteries, chronicles of the cities, and other reports. In that way, he preserved an enormous amount of information and became an important source for later Russian historians. It was in Nikolai Karamzin's History of the Russian State that Custine found his quotation.

But Herberstein was quoted by everybody, and for good reasons. The seriousness and thoroughness of his work was unique. In fact, he

[2] See the Introduction to Sigismund von Herberstein, Notes Upon Russia: Being a Translation of the Earliest Account of that Country, Entitled "Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii," trans. and ed., with Notes and an Introduction by R. H. Major, 2 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin Publisher, n.d.), xvi–xviii.

[3] See Christine Harrauer, "Die Ziegenössischen Lateinischen Drucke der Moscovia Herbersteins und Ihre Entstehungsgeschichte (Ein Beitrag zur Editionstechnik im 16.JH)," in Humanistica Lovaniensia 31 (1982): 141–163.


became known as the "discoverer of Muscovy." He went to a country that was emerging from a long isolation under the Mongol occupation. It was a faraway country: Herberstein's mental map must have had Vienna as its political and Rome as its religious centers. Muscovy was a relatively unknown entity—it was not only distant but had a harsh climate, no roads, and a very unfriendly attitude toward foreigners. No adequate maps of Muscovy were available, and Herberstein went around collecting data, formulating definitions, and making geographical decisions.[4] One of the main determinations to be made was the geographic placement of Muscovy.

It is interesting to observe the terms in which Herberstein thought about Russia. He was moving from the center of the known world toward its borders. Certain places were too far away to be visited. "Siberia," he wrote, "is a land which borders upon Perm and Vyatka [now Kirov]. I have been unable to learn whether there are castles and towns within it" (Description, p. 36). He went as far as Tula, "the last place before the desert [wilderness]" (p. 24). Already in Nizhni Novgorod [now, but not for much longer, Gorki] "Christendom comes to an end" (p. 23). He devoted much attention to tracing the trajectory of the Tanais [Don], "that celebrated river which is called a frontier between Europe and Asia . . . if a line were drawn from the estuary to the source of the Tanais and projected northward it might be said that Moscow lies in Asia and not in Europe" (pp. 24–25). But the answer to the question whether Moscow, the capital of Muscovy, was in Europe or in Asia depended on more than geography. Herberstein thoroughly described the political and cultural map of the country and found it distinctly non-European. The state organization—the absolute power of one person, the submission of the Church to state authority, the state ownership of all property, the servile forms of address to the authority, the military customs—were more Mongol and Chinese than European. The calendar and the alphabet were also different. Coats and dresses,

[4] Probably modeled on the Greek genre of the commentary to a map, his book methodically described the country, the people, the government, religious life, the economy, and customs. Herberstein's geographic description provided information for several new maps, which accompanied his book from the very first edition. He devoted much time and attention to finding and checking the geographical names, distances, and particulars of landscape (as well as the names of animals and plants). Given his historical and geographical interests, his knowledge of languages, of the systems of government–given his general culture—the Vienna University graduate was perfectly prepared to write a comprehensive work of discovery.


religious rites, and the seclusion of women reminded Herberstein of what he had read about Asia.

The comparisons of Muscovite customs to Chinese and Mongolian customs were not accidental. Comparison—this basic way of assessing foreign reality—is necessarily founded on difference, similar things being of no interest; but what really matters is how the difference is classified, compartmentalized, grouped. Herberstein, in trying to define Muscovy, had little doubt about its non-European nature. In fact, it was around this time—in the middle of the sixteenth century—that the opinion that Muscovy belonged to Asia became entrenched.[5] All the early "discoverers of Muscovy," that is, authors of the most widely read books about Muscovy—Herberstcln, Giles Fletcher, Adam Olearius—called Muscovite society Oriental. This was stated, one might say, not as a judgment but as a fact. And yet there was still a certain hesitation in Herberstein's report. Russia was a Christian country and that made it part of the European family. The people there were Slavs, as they were in other parts of Europe. And there was no clear geographical boundary to divide Europe from Asia, certainly not before one got to the city of Moscow. If the customs were to change—for example if the hoped-for conversion to Roman Catholicism took place, the border of Asia could be pushed farther away from the center of Europe. For where Asia began, Europe ended. Herberstein traveled from the center of Europe toward the "desert," and he had to decide where the desert began.

He was not writing on a blank slate—although he was in some sense the first, there were several books and authorities that he had to take into account. As we have seen, he carried with him concepts and loyalties that came from his education, from his readings, and from his role as a diplomat. His book was a continuation of a tradition. But it was still possible to have placed the accents differently from the way he did. There were

[5] In 1559, the Venetian humanist Giovan Battista Ramusio published an anthology of travels with a volume on Asia that contained reports of travels to Muscovy. Herberstein's report was included in this volume, together with works by Ambrogio Contarini, Iosaphat Barbaro, Alberto Campense, Paolo Giovio, and others. In another collection, by Manuzio, travels to Muscovy were printed in a volume devoted to visits to Persia and India. (See Arturo Cronia, La conoscenza del mondo slavo in Italia: Bilancio storico-bibliografico di un millennio [Venezia-Padova: Istituto di Studi Adriatici, 1958], 116.) Many of these travel reports were, in fact, written by people who went to Persia or India and crossed Muscovy on their way. Even today, Herberstein is considered a major contributor to the field of Asiatic geography and cartography. See Helmuth Grössing, Humanistische Naturwissenschaft: Zur Geschichte der Wiener mathematischen Schulen des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts (Baden-Baden: Koerner, 1983), 186.


Catholic reports in which positive, acceptable sides of the new society were stressed. In 1525, a year before Herberstein's second voyage, the Dutch Jesuit Alberto Campense praised the Muscovites for their moral purity.[6] Another relatively positive report about Muscovy was Paolo Giovio's Libellus de legatione Basilii magni . . . ad Clementem VII (1525).[7] Both of these books had political objectives, and, in order to create a propitious atmosphere for anti-Turkish alliance with Russia, they were more generous to the Muscovites than was common. Both books had no actual journey to a distant, unfriendly country as their basis—a journey, one might add, the end of which left most travelers exhausted, bewildered, and hostile. Herberstein, although interested in the anti-Turkish alliance, was bothered by the Greek Orthodox rituals and truly repelled by the political tyranny, by the secrecy, by the fear and submission of individuals, by the isolation of foreign visitors, by the pomp at the court, by the seclusion of women. So when he placed Muscovy on the map, he located it—culturally as well as geographically—in Asia.

We have seen the sources of his book. Once written, it itself became a source, or rather the source for thinking about Muscovy. Indeed, it was because Herberstein firmly placed that country on the mental map of Europe that he was called a "discoverer" of Russia. His description was accepted as authoritative and therefore was quotable. And he was quoted, invoked as an authority, and simply plagiarized. Antonio Possevino, sent as Pope Gregory XIII's personal emissary, in 1581–1582, to arrange a truce (again!) between Ivan the Terrible and the Polish king Stefan Batory, used Herberstein as his source (and Johann Fabri, as well as Paolo Glovio and Alberto Campense). He also used Alessandro Guagnini who "republished Herberstein under his own name without mentioning the real author."[8] Possevino, then, not only

[6] "The vices against nature are totally unknown to them," he wrote. (See Croma, 136.) Herberstein, however, as well as Fletcher and Olearius, reported widespread sexual license, homosexuality, drunkenness, and thievery. Campense based his relatively positive description of Muscovy on information he received from his father and brother. He thought Muscovy would be useful in a proposed league against Turks (see Hugh E. Graham, "Introduction" to Antonio Possevino, S.J., The Moscovia, trans. with Introduction and Notes by Hugh E Graham, Series in Russian and East European Studies, No. 1 [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977], 142), and his writings were colored by this intention.

[7] This, too, was not the fruit of personal experience but a compendium of information given by the Russian envoy (or translator) Dmitrii Gerasimov. See Possevino, 142, fn.

[8] Walter Leitsch, "Herberstein's Impact on the Reports about Muscovy in the 16th and 17th Centuries: Some Observations on the Technique of Borrowing," in Forschungen zur Osteuropäischen Geschichte, 24 (1978): 163–177; esp. 171. During his lifetime Guagnini was accused of plagiarism by Maciej Strykowski, who claimed the book as his own! (Leitsch, 171–172). That may be a proof of the extent to which Herberstein's book became "common property"—a necessary, though often unacknowledged, component of all writing about Muscovy.


used Herberstein (doubly, if one counts the content of Guagnini's book) but also used Herberstein's sources, as if to knit them all together anew. All of these works belonged to the same tradition—that of the Catholic Europe—and the net of quotations was made wider and stronger by every follower and user.

Walter Leitsch has shown that for a hundred years after his journeys Herberstein remained the most influential authority on Muscovy. Another student of the period, Samuel H. Baron, has stated[9] that Herberstein's book was the basis for three of the most important early books about Muscovy: On the Rus Commonwealth by Giles Fletcher (1591), The Travels to Muscovy and Persia by Adam Olearius (1647), and Juraj Krizanic's Politika (1666). Giles Fletcher, the "discoverer of Muscovy" for the British,[10] plagiarized Herberstein with no acknowledgement at all of his enormous debt. S. Baron has counted 131 instances in which Fletcher used, with slight modifications, fragments from Herberstein. Several ideas of Fletcher's treatise were taken from Herberstein, although the strongly Protestant Englishman was more critical of the Greek-Orthodox Christianity and compared it to the papacy.[11] Fletcher's way of writing his book was typical. He stressed sources he had hardly used—Strabo, Bonfinius, Martin Kromer—and hid the work he had appropriated, that is, the Latin edition of Herberstein. For almost a century after its publication (in 1591), Fletcher's work was considered definitive, therefore it was quoted and used in other works. This was the reason it served as a source for John

[9] During a lecture in the Russian Center of Harvard University, in the spring of 1987.

[10] Or the second "discoverer," after Richard Chancellor; see Giles Fletcher, Of the Rus Commonwealth, ed. and with an Introduction by Albert J. Schmidt (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966).

[11] Educated at Eton and King's College, he traveled to Russia in 1589. Throughout his journey he was badly treated by his hosts; he, too, was kept from contact with the natives (whose language he ignored). One would suppose that the social isolation in which Fletcher and most foreign visitors to Muscovy were kept might have increased the temptation of plagiarism; however, books about even such an open and well-known country as Italy show an equal degree of unacknowledged borrowings. Herberstein may have been especially tempting to plagiarize because he had more direct experience of Muscovite reality than was common: he knew the language and, while in Muscovy, he was relatively less isolated. Also, his book was comprehensive, intelligent, and well written, which, I am sure, had a lot to do with its attractiveness for other writers.


Milton's A Brief History of Moscovia, a secondhand treatise written in the 1630s.[12] In this way, Herberstein, although unacknowledged, entered the bloodstream of British culture.

Another Protestant writer to use Herberstein, and to use with him the entire Catholic tradition—Guagnino's rewriting of Herberstein, Giovio, Matthew from Miechow, Posscvino—was Adam Olcarius (1603–1671), who traveled to Russia in the years 1634, 1636, 1639, and 1643 and published the first version of his famous report in 1647. A 1627 graduate of the University of Leipzig, Olearius had a thorough education in philosophy, literature, mathematics, astronomy, an geography. His book was extraordinarily popular and very critical of Muscovy.[13] It was so critical, in fact, as to be found slanderous by Juraj Krizanic (1618–1683), the author of a strongly pro-Muscovite book called Politika . Born in Croatia, Krizanic went to Russia with the vision of unifying all Slavs. Politika, one of his many books, was written while Krizanic was in Siberian exile. It was a description of Muscovite society, composed in an invented Pan-Slavic language ("Common Slavic"). The objective of the book was to teach the ruler how to govern. The religion Krizanic foresaw as common to all Slavs was Roman Catholicism. He approvingly mentioned Herberstein, Possevino, Giovio, and Pernisteri,[14] who, since they were

members of the Roman Catholic faith . . . do not curse us [Slavs], do not shame us, and they do not exaggerate our sins. On the contrary, they praise what is good and tell honestly what they have seen. . . . As for Adam Olearius, Petrejus,[15] Jacob the Dane,[16] and the rest of the writers, they belonged to the Lutheran heresy, and as a result they have spoken libelously in accordance with their custom and teaching.[17]

[12] See Albert J. Schmidt, "Introduction," in Fletcher, xxvi. Fletcher's work was known in a censored version, due to the pressure from British merchants afraid of possible limitations in their trade with the severely criticized Muscovites.

[13] Adam Olearlus, The Travels to Muscovy and Persia, trans., ed., and with an Introduction by Samuel H. Baron (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967).

[14] Phillipi Pernisteri, author of Relatio de Magno Moscoviae Principe, printed in Frankfurt in 1579.

[15] Peter Petrejus, Historien und Bericht von dem grossfürstenthum Mushkow, 1620.

[16] Jacob von Ulfcldt, Hodeaporicon Ruthenicum; De hello Moscovito (Moscoviticum?) commentariorum libri, 1581. Olearius used Jacob's book and plagiarized Petrejus, see S. H. Baron, Introduction to Olearius, 14.

[17] See Iurii Krizhanich (Juraj Krizanic), Russian Statecraft: The "Politika" of Jurii Krizhanich, an analysis and translation by John M. Letiche and Basil Dmytryshyn (London: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1985), 122. In fact, it is true that Protestant writers were more critical of Muscovy than Catholic ones because of the religious meaning they saw expressed in manners and everyday behavior.


So Krizanic, by his quotations, introduced the Catholic writings about Russia into Muscovite culture. Although there is no sure proof that his book was read by Russian rulers, an indirect influence is almost certain (Introduction to Krizanic, xiv–xv). This would be, then, still another way in which Herberstein's thought traveled to other countries.


When quoting the famous question by Herberstein—whether it was "the character of the Russian nation which has formed such autocrats or the autocrats themselves have given this character to the nation"—Custine was borrowing from the Catholic tradition of writing about Russia; yet Custine himself pointed to the fact that the quotation was not taken directly from Herberstein. As is typical of the progress of travel opinions, this one meandered to him by an indirect route—the already-mentioned History of the Russian State by Nikolai Karamzin. Herberstein's quotation came to Custine in French, translated from the Russian; but it must have been translated into Russian from the German translation or the Latin original and only then into French.[18] This multiple remove from the source did not alter the question's meaning: "Incertum est an tanta immanitas gentis tyrannum principem exigat: an tyrannide principis, gens ipsa tam inimanis, tamque dura crudelisque reddatur."[19]

The ironic twist in this case comes from the fact that the quotation came to Custine via a Russian historian who wrote an apologia for Russian autocracy. In order to produce a respectable, quotable history of Russia, Karamzin had to quote—even if only to rebut—the Catholic tradition of writing about Muscovy. Hence, although Custine had not read Herberstein and had no idea what kind of book the baron's "correspondence" was, he picked up in this one sentence and proposed again

[18] The first French translation (from the Latin) appeared only in 1965. See La Moscovie du XVIe siècle: Vue par un Ambassadeur Occidental Herberstein, Présentation de Robert Delort (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1965).

[19] Sigismundi Liberis Baronis in Herberstein, Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Basilea: Ioannis Oporinus, 1551), 18. The two versions in English: from the Latin—"It is matter of doubt whether the brutality, of the people has made the prince a tyrant, or whether the people themselves have become thus brutal and cruel through the tyranny of their prince" (Notes upon Russia, 1: 32); and from the German—"It is debatable whether such a people must have such oppressive rulers or whether the oppressive rulers have made the people so stupid" (Description, 43).


the question containing all the main elements of Herberstein's critique of Muscovy: the condemnation of the Russian system of government, the feeling of radical estrangement from both the autocratic rulers and the submissive people, and the puzzlement of a rational (that is, Western) man at the mysterious nature of that country. These themes became the main motifs of Custine's critique of Russia.

As can be seen from this example, Karamzin's history served the detractors of Russia. And yet he worked all his life for Russia's glory. His predicament may be taken as symbolic of a problem Russian culture had to face time after time: the tense (and subversive) relationship between the new and old. Acceptance of Western cultural forms—for example, of the Western way of dresing—implied criticism of the native culture. History, as written by Karamzin, was a Western genre: it contained the idea of historical progress and of the irreversibility of the movement of history.[20] He followed Montesquieu and British and Scottish models—the historians John Gillies, Adam Ferguson, and William Robertson. The leading Russian historians of the end of the eighteenth century were editing and commenting on medieval chronicles and not writing narrative, unified stories.[21] Karamzin, like Herberstein, was "the first." Some Western histories of Russia existed already and also served as models. Karamzin wanted to write a history based on primary, sources, and the reports of foreign travelers were for that purpose priceless. Yet these sources were almost entirely critical of Muscovite society. To use them was to introduce into Russian historiography a constant tension—found also in other modernized or "Westernized" areas of social life—between the modern and the old, the native and the foreign. This tension is one of the central features of post-Petrinc Russian culture.

Karamzin's life and work are good examples of this tension. Born in 1766 and educated in the provinces, he acquired an excellent command of German and French and a working knowledge of English. As a young man he traveled abroad, and in the years 1789–1790, while the French Revolution was changing forever the face of Europe,

[20] Rather than history that was a "return to the past." See Iurii M. Lotman, "Binary Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture," The Sennotics of Russian Cultural History, 30–66; see p. 64.

[21] Richard Pipes, Karamzin's Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia: A Translation and Analysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), 52–53. On Karamzin, see as well A. G. Cross, N. M. Karamzin: A Study of His Literary Career 1783–1803 (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University, Press, 1971); and, especially, Andrzej' Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism, trans. Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1979).


Karamzin visited Germany, Switzerland, France, and England. His most important literary work, apart from the History of the Russian State, was an account of his foreign travels (in which the Revolution is barely mentioned at all). First published serially in magazines founded by himself—the Moscow Journal and Aglaia —and later enlarged and rewritten, the Letters of a Russian Traveller was completed in 1801. Based on his travel diary but enriched by extensive readings in Western descriptive literature and rewritten through the years, Letters was the first travel memoir published in Russia, and one of the best prose works of Russian eighteenth-century literature. From 1803 until his death in 1826, Karamzin worked on his history of the Russian state in the official capacity of Historiographer of the Russian Empire. Between the years 1818 and 1829, twelve volumes of the history were published in Saint Petersburg, and it was there that the French translation used by Custine was prepared almost simultaneously.[22]

It has often happened that history has been written at the request of the king. In France, the legitimizing role of history was exploited by François I, the first absolutist monarch. The chronicles and genealogies written in Europe before his time also had the function of reconfirming the God-given nature of royal power. Even if the history was not contemporary, the mere act of establishing a royal genealogy contributed to the seeming legitimacy of the ruler's dynasty or system of government, and thereby to his glory. But the modern state needed more complex narratives. Louis XIV appointed as his historiographers two bourgeois (but excellent) writers, Boileau and Racine, and sent them to the battlefields of his campaigns to create a proper record of his glory. History in which the king—the one who made history —was its object and recipient at the same time was difficult to write. Racine, who classified that kind of history as éoge, was unable to write it, partly because his archives were destroyed by fire. In Custine's time, Napoleon deemed history so important that he made it subject to the Minister of Police. The powerful "owned" history: they granted permissions to consult the archives, they paid for the printing of books or suppressed, censored, and forbade them.[23]

[22] The translation, entitled L'Histoire de l'empire de Russie ("par M. Karamsin"), was made by two professors from Saint Petersburg—St. Thomas and Jauffret—and published in nine volumes in Paris, by A. Belin, in the years 1819–1826. Vols. 10 and 11 were subsequently translated by D. G. Divov (or Divoff) and published in Paris by Bossange Pare. The history went only to the beginning of the seventeenth century.

[23] See G. P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957; first published in 1913), 154–155.


The function of the historiographer of the tsar, then, was borrowed from Western tradition. Karamzin, who was the first to occupy this post, was paid an annual pension by the state and was guaranteed that each of his successive volumes would be printed. The state commissioned the translation into French from which Custine quoted. The writing of the History of the Russian State was supervised by Tsar Alexander I, to whom Karamzin read parts of his work. Custine discovered this fact in another Russian source, Wiazemski's Incendie du palais d'hiver à Saint-Pétersbourg . Custine's conclusion was that like "every Russian writer," including Wiazemski (whom he had met in Russia), Karamzin was a courtier. As such, he could not be suspected of calumnies against the absolute Russian monarchy, and therefore his credentials as a believable source whenever he described brutal or horrifying events were established. But even though the function of state historiographer may have been modeled on the French, the role of the courtier was for Custine incompatible with that of a historian.

In Russia, history forms a part of the crown domain: it is the moral estate of the prince, as men and lands are the material; it is placed in cabinets with the other imperial treasures, and only such of it is shown as it is wished should be seen. The emperor modifies at his pleasure the annals of the country, and daily dispenses to his people the historic truths that accord with the fiction of the moment. (P. 617)

Custine called Karamzin "the courtier" and "the flattering historian," not only because of his official function as state historiographer but also because Custine strongly disagreed with Karamzin's apologctics for the Russian autocracy. Custine did not study Karamzin thoroughly and was unable to see the evolution and nuance in Karamzin's opinions. As if in despair, he quoted Karamzin's "blood-soaked pages" without restraint. Yet the more he quoted, the more reconciled he became, it seemed, with the historian himself—feeling for him, at the end, "an admiration mixed with pity."[24] And indeed, Karamzin was a courageous, incorruptible man. His independence led to his estrangement from the tsar, whose ideas (initially, at least) were less conservative than Karamzin's.[25] Alexander I did not want his history to prevent his attempts at reform, whereas Karamzin wanted to prove that autocracy was the traditional form of

[24] Vol. 3: 225. The entire letter 26 and its appendix are devoted to quotations from Karamzin (3: 175–238). But he is quoted all throughout the book's four volumes.

[25] See I. M. Lotman, "The Decembrist in Daily Life (Everyday Behavior as a Historical-Psychological Category)," in The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History, 95–149; see pp. 115–119,


government in Russia, and, as such, not to be tampered with. He understood autocracy as a system in which the political power of the monarch was undivided but limited to matters of high politics. (In despotism, by contrast, the monarch's power reached into every sphere of life.) The governing of the "manor," he believed, belonged to the rights and obligations of the gentry. Autocracy, as the traditional Russian system of government and as the result of long historical development was best suited for Russian society and should not, Karamzin felt, be changed according to legalistic, and therefore abstract, Western ways of dealing with the individual's relationship to the state. Karamzin lauded the specific character of Russian society and saw Peter the Great's reforms as the imposition of Western elements on the native body of an authentic culture. Such was generally also the opinion of Custine, who was respectful of tradition and opposed to the imposition of abstract political ideas on a different civilization but who in the particular case of Russian society felt repugnance toward the native culture and toward its political system—despotism. Karamzin and Custine differed in their attitudes to freedom but less radically than Custine thought. Yes, Karamzin did "defend the power that limited freedom, but he defended it as a free man."[26]

According to the oft-quoted passage from Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History,

the term History unites the objective with the subjective side, and denotes quite as much the historia rerum gestarum, as the res gestae themselves; on the other hand it comprehends not less what has happened, than the narration of what has happened.

This quotation is used to prove the point that history is in the writing—in the books—and that the facts cannot be apprehended as such before they are organized in verbal form.[27] For Karamzin, the action of writing history was truly a deed of historic proportions. He opened his "Foreword" to the History of the Russian State with a sentence full of biblical overtones:

In a certain sense, history is the sacred book of a nation, the main, the indispensable book, the mirror of its existence and activity, the table of revelations and

[26] I. M. Lotman, Sotworenije Karamzina (Moscow: Kniga, 1987), 279. For the extraordinary role Karamzin played in Russian culture see pp. 280–320 of Lotman's book and N. Eidelman, Poslednij Letopisec (Moscow: Kniga, 1983).

[27] It can be found, for example, in Hayden White's The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 12.


rules, the ancestors' bequest to posterity, the supplement and explanation of the present, and the example for the future.[28]

Custine, although critical of Karamzin's apology, was no less convinced of the outstanding role of the historian.

Karamzin, even though a timid historian, is nevertheless instructive, because he has an underlying loyalty which cuts through his habit of prudence, and which fights against his Russian origin and the prejudices of his education. God called him to avenge humanity, perhaps in spite of himself, and in spite of humanity's wish as well. (3: 224)

In fact, Karamzin's history became a source of enormous national pride: he seemed to have given Russia its past.[29] Also, he may (as one of several factors) have influenced the tsar's retreat from his liberalizing bent. In his "Foreword," Karamzin writes about the necessity for the historian to submit to the factual truth. He describes the glory of strong and undivided power but also the deplorable violence and cruelty perpetrated by some Russian tsars. The pages devoted to the description of the violence were the ones Custine paraphrased, reported, quoted—often in their entirety. Even the "obsequiously partial" Karamzin found it necessary, in Custine's opinion, to write damagingly about Russian history, because Russian history itself was "anti-Russian" in what it revealed about the Russian state. Only "a darkness [is] equally favorable to the repose of the despot and the felicity of his subjects" (p. 94). Thus, the activity of this "most widely read Russian of his time" (Pipes 1959, 89), while strengthening Russian identity, was also malgré lui ("in spite of himself ") critical of Russia.

In La Russie en 1839, Custine made extensive use of Karamzin's history to show not the wisdom but the senseless brutality of the Russian autocracy. He read Russian history as a catalogue of cruelties. "Quoting from a certain author usually provides proof of a specific authority, proof of the aesthetic or conceptual validity of the cited words within a new work of art."[30] But "the same word changes its meaning depending on the force that takes hold of it," wrote Antoine

[28] In Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology, ed. Marc Raeff, Introduction by Isaiah Berlin (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966), 117–124, esp. 117 (in the translation of Jaroslav Pelenski). Karanuin dated his Foreword December 7, 1815.

[29] In Stalinist times Karamzin's History was not published. Only now, with glasnost, is it being printed (in installments!) in a Moscow publication.

[30] Nina Perlina, Varieties of Poetic Utterance: Quotation in "the Brothers Karamazov" (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985), 10.


Compagnon.[31] The example of Custine's use of long quotations from Karamzin proves that point. In Custine's version, Karamzin's history is one long criticism of his country. Even the historian's intention to praise his nation's past is turned into an accusation. Is this illegitimate? Is Custine's version of Russian history truthful? Certainly his description of Russia was truthful to the extent of being faithful in his use of the sources. In historical works, quoted material is verified by checking it against its source and other related texts; Custinc found Karamzin's facts true but disputed his opinions. The referentiality of historical quotations is indirect: it cannot simply reside in their relationship to the past (which cannot be visited) but is to be found in written texts and other testimonies. In that sense, travel writing is concerned as much with traveling through books as with traveling through countries.

There is, then, a certain inevitability in a tradition—a necessary course things must run. Karamzin wanted to write a laudatory work, yet he had to adopt the heritage he wanted to become part of. the Western (that is, the only one then available) way of writing history. He used, for example, the French definition of civilization: arts but also laws.[32] He compared Ivan the Terrible to Caligula, to Nero, and to Louis XI, and Custine scoffed at him for this (Custine, 3: 226). The central problems of his work—the questions of authority and responsibility, of the relationship between the people and their princes, between tradition and political institutions—these are the questions of Western historiography. Karamzin belonged to the same tradition as Custine (and Herberstein and Contarini), and he "appropriated" the same quotations.

Yet the texts he quoted from were overwhelmingly hostile to Russia, so Custine was able to build his case against Russia on the work of the native historian. It was in Russian history—history written in Russian, by a Russian, and about Russia—that Custine found and revived Herberstein's Catholic critique of Russia. Of course, Custine was not a historian, as Karamzin was, hence his frank dependence on quotations.

[31] Antoine Compagnon, De la Seconde main ou le travail de la citation (Paris: Seuil, 1979), 38. ("Le même mot change de sens selon la force qui se l'approprie.")

[32] "In the happy respite of peace, the monarch feasted with the lords and the people like the father of a large family. Cities populated with chosen inhabitants began to adorn the deserts; Christianity was softening the fierceness of wild customs; Byzantine arts made their appearance on the shores of the Dnieper and Volkhov. Iaroslav gave the people a scroll of simple and sagacious civil laws, which conformed to the laws of the ancient Germans. In one word, Russia became not only the most spacious of all states, but also, compared to others, the most civilized." Karamzin, "Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia," in Pipes, 104–105.


But his quotations are incomparably longer than is common in travel narratives; there are more of them; and their sources are indicated with more emphasis. The history of Russia, as shown in the quotes from Karamzin, is unacceptably cruel and bloody. Custine does not assimilate the quoted sentences, does not take them out of quotation marks. These quotation marks indicate not authority, as when Custine quotes Herberstein, but distance, rejection, the nonassimilative quality of Russian history, which Custinc seemed to be unable to translate into his own words.

The complex working of tradition can be seen here within and without Russia. Karamzin's history was built on and against the Western Catholic opinion about Russia; it contained, then, two diametrically opposed evaluations of that country. The negative one, although rejected, is restated in his history, recalled, and therefore reaffirmed for a moment, just before being negated. Custine has no trouble pulling it out, intact, to use it anew. The name of Herberstein led him to a thread that unraveled the work of the Russian historian.


3 Russian History: The Tangled Tradition

Preferred Citation: Gross, Irena Grudzinska. The Scar of Revolution: Custine, Tocqueville, and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.