Monday, September 26, 2016

Custine’s ‘Russia in 1839’ Indispensable for Understanding Russia Today, Shiropayev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 26 – In 1971, George Kennan observed that the travelogue of the Marquis de Custine during his visit to the Russian Empire in 1839 may not have been entirely accurate in its description of Nicholas I’s reign but that the French nobleman’s words provided a remarkably accurate assessment of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule.

            Now, today, Russian commentator Aleksey Shiropayev makes a similar argument, insisting that Custine’s words are again “very useful for understanding Russia” under Vladimir Putin and, like Kennan almost a half a century ago, selecting key passages to make his point  (

            Shiropayev focuses on two: Custine’s visit to the grave of Minin in a Nizhny Novgorod church and his attendance at a re-enactment of the 1812 Battle of Borodino. 

            The French nobleman visits a church and assumes that it is at least as ancient as the grave of Minin only to learn from the local governor that the church is new, not restored, and that Minin’s grave had been dug up and transferred to the new church where it became a pilgrimage site many assumed was ancient.

            The governor explained that he had done so because the emperor concluded that it would be better to have a newly built church than a restored on lest it get in the way of new government offices and that it was entirely appropriate to relocate Minin’s remains in order to present them more appropriately to the people.

            As can be seen, Shiropayev says, “our passion for new buildings arose hardly in the era of Luzhkov,” the mayor of Moscow in the 1990s. And that highlights something else which he describes as “extremely characteristic” of Russian attitudes toward culture: “the lack of taste for the genuine and the inability to value the genuine and unique.”

            Indeed, he continues, what happened to Minin has been repeated in Putin’s time with the reburial of the remains of White General Anton Denikin and émigré philosopher Ivan Ilin.

            And this attitude toward historical artifacts extends to history itself, as Custine pointed out in his description of a re-enactment of the Battle of Borodino. In the real battle, Russian forces retreated in the face of Napoleon’s attack. But that didn’t seem right to Nicholas I, and so even though it didn’t happen in reality, the Russian army attacked in the re-enactment.

            As a result of this change, “a defeat was converted into a victory,” something that remains to this day “one of the  favorite Russian occupations.”

No comments:

Post a Comment