“Can the reader now understand the importance of an opinion, of a sarcastic word, a letter, a jest, a smile, or, with still greater reason, of a book in the eyes of a government thus favored by the credulity of its people, and by the complaisance of all foreigners? A word of truth dropped in Russia is a spark that may fall on a barrel of gunpowder.
What do the men who govern the empire care for the want, the pallid visages of the soldiers of the emperor? Those living specters have the most beautiful uniforms in Europe; what matters, then, the filthy smocks in which the gilded phantoms are concealed in the interior of their barracks? Provided they are only shabby and becdirty in secret, and that they shine when they show themselves, nothing is asked from them, nothing is given them. With the Russians, appearance is everything, and among them appearance deceives more than it does among others. It follows that whoever lifts a corner of the curtain loses his reputation in Petersburg beyond the chance of retrieving it.
Social life in that country is a permanent conspiracy against the truth.
There, whoever is not a dupe, is viewed as a traitor, – there, to laugh at a gasconade, to refute a falsehood, to contradict a political boast, to find a reason for obedience, is to be guilty of an attempt at the safety of the state and the prince*; it is to incur the fate of a revolutionist, a conspirator, an enemy of order, a Pole: and we all know whether this fate is a merciful one. It must be owned the SUSCEPTIBILITY which thus manifests itself is more formidable than laughable; the minute surveillance of such a government, in accord with the enlightened vanity of such a people, beomes fearful; it is no longer ludicrous.”
Marquis de Custine c.1839: Empire of the Czar
* Dedicated to Helen Thomas. Molly Ivins once pointed out how craven the Washington Press Corps is for not backing her up in the face of the Bush Junta's attempts to turn her into a joke, and then a non-person.