Russia Versus Europe: Fear and loathing in the age of the Grand Tour

A dedicated monarchist, Custine had expected to see Russia’s excellence during his travels, but exploring the country had instead made him an opponent of absolutism.

A dedicated monarchist, Custine had expected to see Russia’s excellence during his travels, but exploring the country had instead made him an opponent of absolutism.

University of California Libraries
From the point of view of the jottings and journals of travelers writing in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the time Russia looks like a decidedly unpleasant place. Europe, however, wasn’t far behind.

Illustration in "Ivan at home; or, Pictures of Russian life" by Herbert Barry.  Published 1872. Source: University of California LibrariesIllustration in "Ivan at home; or, Pictures of Russian life" by Herbert Barry. Published 1872. Source: University of California Libraries

The Russian Emperor Nicholas I famously and furiously threw down a book by French traveler Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine - at the time a personal guest of the Tsar - where he read there that Russia was one giant prison.

The Frenchman had published the book "Russia in 1839" in Paris, four years after his trip. A dedicated monarchist, Custine had expected to see Russia’s excellence during his travels, but exploring the country had instead made him an opponent of absolutism.

A Russian beggar. Overland through Asia. Pictures of Siberian, Chinese, and Tartar life by Knox, Thomas Wallace, Published 1870A Russian beggar. Overland through Asia. Pictures of Siberian, Chinese, and Tartar life by Knox, Thomas Wallace, Published 1870

Roads and beggars

Custine's four-volume book, describing Russia as a filthy country of bureaucratic tyranny, became an instant bestseller in Europe and was banned in Russia. The capricious Frenchman detested everything about Russia: From the uneven cobblestones, to the "backward" religion, from bedbugs in his hotel to the architecture. "If your children grumble about living in France, use my remedy, tell them: Go to Russia! This trip is useful for any European, " advised Custine.

Siberian people. An illustration in Reise nach West-sibirien im Jahre 1876 by Otto Finsch. Published 1879Siberian people. An illustration in Reise nach West-sibirien im Jahre 1876 by Otto Finsch. Published 1879

Reviews of Europe from Russians did not resonate as much at the higher levels, though they were equally scathing. "Out of everything in the world, I was the most mistaken in my assumptions about France," the Russian writer Denis Fonvizin remarked in 1778. "The cattle yard of our lovely landlord is cleaner than the palaces of the French kings (...) Everyone loves to have fun and they hate labor; and especially the black people cannot stand work. The filth of the city is so great that it’s difficult to distinguish the lower class members. During the summer, it’s impossible to open a window and avoid the contaminated air. "

Illustration in "Travels in European Russia." Published in 1826Illustration in "Travels in European Russia." Published in 1826

In agreement with Fonvizin, the Russian Sentimentalist writer Nikolay Karamzin published "Letters of the Russian traveler" in 1791. "Paris ... is an insulting mixture of wealth and poverty; next to a beautiful jewelry shop, there’s a heap of rotten apples and herring."

Fonvizin was more disgusted simply by the roads in Europe than Custine was of all of Russia: "Though the roads were often unpaved, everybody paid dearly for the pavement; and when, after pulling me out of the mud, they demanded money from me for the pavement, then I dared to ask, “what pavement?” In response they told me that his lordship, the sovereign, intended to order the pavement soon, and that they were collecting the money now. "

Custine was struck by the poverty of the Russian peasants, but Karamzin was likewise shocked by the hardships of London: “‘Whoever is poor is not worthy of a better share’ - the rule is terrible! Here poverty becomes a vice! If you want to oppress the poor even more, send them to England!"

Punishment of Mujik by Cossack, Nizhny Novgorod, illustration in ‘An illustrated description of the Russian empire’ by Sears, Robert, 1810-1892. Published in 1855. Source: Photo: University of California LibrariesPunishment of Mujik by Cossack, Nizhny Novgorod, illustration in ‘An illustrated description of the Russian empire’ by Sears, Robert, 1810-1892. Published in 1855. Source: Photo: University of California Libraries

Leisure and power

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Swedish pastor Henryk Soderbergh, who had been captured by the Russians during the Great Northern War, was indignant: "Against the sin of Sodomy [homosexuality], which they have just as ordinarily as Persians, they’re not exactly strict."

 Russian House Porter. Illustration in Around the Kremlin; or, Pictures of life in Moscow by Lowth, G. T. (George T.). Published in 1868. Source: Photo: California Digital Library Russian House Porter. Illustration in Around the Kremlin; or, Pictures of life in Moscow by Lowth, G. T. (George T.). Published in 1868. Source: Photo: California Digital Library

Fonvizin condemns the French for less exotic sins: "Only two things ... attract foreigners here in such a multitude: The performances and, if I may say so, the girls. If these two attractions were taken away today, then tomorrow two-thirds of the strangers would leave Paris. The outrage has reached such an extent that even the most important people are not ashamed to sit with girls in public venues. "

Custine also acts as a judge of morality: "Of all the European cities, Moscow is the most lenient for high-society debauchery. The Russian government perfectly understands that autocratic power requires an outlet for rebellion in some way, and it prefers corruption in the moral sphere, rather than political unrest."

Panoramic view of Moscow. Illustration in ‘Russia: its history and condition to 1877’ by Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace, 1841-1919; Published in 1910. Source: Getty Research InstitutePanoramic view of Moscow. Illustration in ‘Russia: its history and condition to 1877’ by Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace, 1841-1919; Published in 1910. Source: Getty Research Institute

Europeans unanimously condemned the Russian autocracy. 

"The unity of action inherent in despotism makes Russia very terrible," the Bavarian envoy Francois Gabriel de Bret wrote in the early 19th century. "The will of the leaders is enough to shake all parts of this vast body: No obstacles, no counterbalances."

Russian workpeople. Illustration in "Ivan at home; or, Pictures of Russian life" by Herbert Barry. Published in 1872. Source: University of California LibrariesRussian workpeople. Illustration in "Ivan at home; or, Pictures of Russian life" by Herbert Barry. Published in 1872. Source: University of California Libraries

However, according to Johan Yerne, a Swedish traveler from the mid-19th century, this despotism was necessary for the Russians: "I actually approve of the inhuman autocracy in this kingdom... in freedom and softness there is a deadly poison that could destroy the state; so nature itself gave them a low and slavish temper. "

View on the Nevsky Prospect - St. Petersburg. Illustration in “Overland through Asia. Pictures of Siberian, Chinese, and Tartar life” by Thomas Wallace Knox, 1835-1896. Published in 1870. Source: The Library of CongressView on the Nevsky Prospect - St. Petersburg. Illustration in “Overland through Asia. Pictures of Siberian, Chinese, and Tartar life” by Thomas Wallace Knox, 1835-1896. Published in 1870. Source: The Library of Congress

Fonvizin also regards French idea of freedom as fictitious: "A poor man can not earn his daily food except as a slave laborer, and if he wants to use his precious freedom, he will have to starve to death. In short, liberty is an empty name, and the right of the strong remains a right above the law."

Read more: Why do Russians call Moscow the Third Rome?>>>

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