The Empire of the Czar,
Chapter XX [excerpts]


...On returning from my melancholy visit, a new labor awaited me at the engineer's: a ceremonious dinner with persons of the middle classes. The engineer had gathered around him, in order to do me honor, his wife's relations and a few of the neighboring landholders. This society would have interested me as an observer, had I not at the first moment perceived that it would furnish me with no new ideas. There is no citizen class in Russia, but the petty employees and the small, though ennobled, landed proprietors, represent there the middle orders of other lands. Envying the great, and themselves envied by the little, these men vainly call themselves nobles. They are exactly in the position of the French bourgeois before the revolution; the same data produce everywhere the same results.

I felt that there reigned in this society a hostility, ill disguised, against real greatness and true elegance, to whatever land they might belong.

That starchness of manners, that acrimony of sentiment, ill concealed under an air of preciseness and propriety, recalled to my mind only too well, the epoch in which we live, and which I had a little forgotten in Russia, where I had hitherto only seen the society of courtiers. I was now among aspiring subalterns, uneasy as to what might be thought of them, and these people are the same everywhere.

The men did not speak to me, and appeared to take little notice of me; they did not understand French, beyond perhaps being able to read it with difficulty; they therefore formed a circle in a corner of the room, and talked Russian. One or two females of the family bore all the weight of the French conversation. I was surprised to find that they were acquainted with all that portion of our literature that the Russian police suffers to penetrate into their land. The toilette of these ladies, who, with the exception of the mistress of the house, were all elderly, was wanting in taste; the dress of the men was yet more negligent; large brown topcoats, almost trailing upon the ground, had taken the place of the national costume. But what surprised me more than their careless attire, was the caustic and captious tone of their conversation. The Russian feeling, carefully disguised by the tact of the higher orders, exhibited itself here openly. This society was more candid, though less polite, than that of the court; and I clearly saw what I had only felt elsewhere, namely, that the spirit of curiosity, sarcasm, and carping criticism influences the Russians in their intercourse with strangers. They hate us as every imitator hates his model; their scrutinizing looks seek faults in us with the desire of finding them. As soon as I recognized this disposition I felt no inclination to be indulgent myself. I had thought it necessary to offer a few words of excuse for my ignorance of the Russian tongue, and I finished my speech by remarking that every traveler ought to know the language of the country he visits, as it is more natural that he should give himself the trouble of learning to speak the language of those whom he seeks, than of imposing upon them the trouble of speaking as he does.

This compliment was answered by the observation, that I must nevertheless resign myself to hearing French murdered by the Russians, unless I would travel as a mute.

"It is of this I complain, "I replied; "if I knew how to murder Russian as I ought to do, I would not force you to change your habits in order to speak my language."

"Formerly we spoke only French."

"That was wrong."

"It is not for you to reproach us."

"I invariably speak my real opinions."

"Truth, then, is still thought something of in France?"

"I cannot tell; but I know that it ought to be loved for its own intrinsic merits."

"Such love does not belong to our age."

"In Russia?"

"No where; and especially in no country governed by newspapers."

I was of the same opinion as the lady, which made me desirous of changing the conversation, for I would not speak contrary to my own sentiments, nor yet acquiesce with those of a person who, when she even thought with me, expressed her views with a causticity that was capable of disgusting me with my own.

An incident occurred very a-propos to turn the conversation. A sound of voices in the street attracted everybody to the window: it was a quarrel among boatmen, who appeared outrageous in their anger. The conflict was likely to become bloody, when the engineer showed himself upon the balcony, and the sight alone of his uniform produced a miraculous effect. The rage of these rude men calmed, without its being necessary to address them a single word; the courtier, the most perfectly broken in to falsehood, could not have better disguised his resentment.

"What an excellent people!" cried the lady who had undertaken to entertain me.

"What pitiable beings," I thought, as I re-seated myself, for I shall never admire the miracles of fear. However, I deemed it wiser to be silent.

"Order is not so easily re-established in your country," continued my indefatigable enemy, never ceasing to scrutinize me with her inquisitive eyes.

This impoliteness was new to me. In general, I had found the manners of the Russians too obliging for the malignity of mind which I could detect under their fine phrases; here I recognised an accord between the sentiments and their expression, that was yet more disagreeable.

"We have among us the inconveniences of liberty; but we have also the advantages," I replied.

"What are they?"

"They would not be understood in Russia."

"They can be dispensed with."

"As can every thing else that is not known."

My adversary was piqued, and sought to hide her vexation by suddenly changing the subject of discourse.

"Is it of your family that Madame de Genlis speaks so much in the Souvenirs of Felicia, and of your person in her Memoirs?"

I answered in the affirmative, and then expressed my surprise that these books were read at Schlusselburg.

"You take us for Laplanders," retorted the lady, with that tone of acrimony which I had not succeeded in softening, and which began to react upon me, until I had nearly reached the same diapason.

"No, madam, but for Russians who have something better to do than to occupy themselves with the gossip of French society."

"Madame de Genlis is no gossip."

"Yet such of her writings as those in which she does no more than gracefully relate the little anecdotes of her times, can only, it appears to me, be interesting to the French."

"You do not wish that we should make much of you and your writers."

"I wish that we should be valued for our real merit."

"If the influence that you have exercised over Europe in matters of social intercourse were taken from you, what would be left you?"

I felt that I had to deal with a powerful adversary. "There would remain to us the glory of our history, and even that of the history of Russia; for this empire owes only its new influence in Europe to the energy with which it avenged itself for the conquest of its capital by the French."

"It is true that you have immensely aided us, without wishing to do so."

"Did you lose any dear friend in that war?"

"No, monsieur."

I had hoped that the aversion against France, which was betrayed by every word in the conversation of this rude lady, would be explained to me by some too legitimate cause of resentment, but my expectation was deceived.

The conversation, which could not become general, was carried on in this manner until dinner. I sought to turn it to our new school of literature, but Balzac alone had been read. He was infinitely admired, and fairly judged. Almost all the works of our modem authors are prohibited in Russia, which proves the influence attributed to them. At last, after a long delay, we seated ourselves at table. The lady of the house, ever faithful to her part as a statue, made that day but one movement: she transported herself, without turning her eyes or opening her lips, from her sofa in the drawing room to her chair in the dining-room. This change of position, performed spontaneously, proved to me that the idol had legs.



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