Joseph de Maistre’s magnum opus is still perplexing after 200 years

Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg has often been dismissed as propaganda. It isn’t.

In 1990, as communist governments fell, political philosopher Isaiah Berlin published a 91-page trio of essays in the New York Review of Books examining the “terrifying prophet of our own day” whose works contained “the earliest notes of the militant antirational fascism” and “the heart of the totalitarianisms, both of the left and of the right, of our terrible century.” For Berlin, this evil genius of modernity was not Nietzsche, Hegel, or Marx. It was an unsuccessful French diplomat named Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821).

Most—though not all—scholars remember Maistre as a reactionary opponent of the French Revolution. But he was a nonviolent bureaucrat originally from the Kingdom of Sardinia (France’s ally). For over a decade (1803–1817), Maistre served as Sardinia’s ambassador in St. Petersburg, where he frequented salons and lived on a tiny stipend, plus whatever dinners he could sponge off Russian nobles. His habit of annoying his patrons meant that he repeatedly lost jobs; the tsar, for instance, expelled him. When the Congress of Vienna met to design a new international order, Maistre was pointedly not invited. He publicly criticized the congress’s decisions.

Maistre would be a forgettable royal functionary—if he had not written 14 volumes of elegant French prose. The English translation of his greatest work, Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (1821), is now available in paperback for the first time.