Custine is not at all kind in his opinion of the Russians. In fact he is the sort of man who holds the exact opinions Russians fear Europeans have of them.
Ironic the scene when the Czar explains his actions towards the Decemberists. Custine, a revolutionized Frenchman, should have been far less eager to agree with the Czar.
Even the Czar himself tells Custine “Petersburg is Russian, but it is not Russia”.
Czar Nicholas carries on the tradition of Peter in telling absolutely everyone what to do and how to do it – even where to stand during his daughters wedding.
Custine notices how fake everything is, how like theater Russia is. This is such a theme in all Russian literature.
Custine says travelling to Russia is not enough to understand the nation, someone has to tour guide you; that’s on purpose, too.
His observation of the serfs is quite clever; since they are ‘property’ and are valued at how much each one cane produce, every time he sees a lady’s bonnet, or a rose tree, or some good, he imagines how many families those things cost.
The idea of the serfs writing to a new owner begging to be bought by them so they can stay on the land is terribly sad.
He really despises the Russian lack of ‘taste’. Prude.
Custine swings between ennui and outright contempt while experiencing St. Petersburg for the first time. He is most concerned with how the citizens are all running errands and awaiting orders. He does make a keen observation about the austerity of Peter The Great and how Russia built for the future, not the past.
And then he realized he was going to be late and so runs off to carry out his orders, too! HA!
I had to pick this book up a few times before I could finally settle into it. The language is a bit formal (and it’s a translation, too) and since it was written nearly 200 years ago there is some cultural shorthand that has been lost to bridge the reader to the author.
However, once I got going – this is great stuff.
His stories, especially of his family are amazing. He’s also the European guy in Russia Ark!