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Karamzin, Nikolai Mikhailovich

KARAMZIN, NIKOLAI MIKHAILOVICH

(17661826), writer, historian, and journalist.

Born in the Simbirsk province and educated in Moscow, Nikolai Karamzin served only briefly in the military before retiring to devote himself to intellectual pursuits. In 1789 he undertook a journey to western Europe, visiting several luminaries, including Immanuel Kant, on his way. Reaching Paris in the spring of 1790, he witnessed history in the making. He described his trip in his Letters of a Russian Traveler, published upon his return in 1790 in a series of journals he founded himself. The Letters display an urbane, westernized individual in command of several languages and behavioral codes and are meant to signal Russia's coming of age. They demonstrate a keen interest in history, but primarily as a collection of anecdotes.

The short stories Karamzin wrote in the 1790s exerted tremendous influence on the development of nineteenth-century fiction. Karamzin's main purpose in literature and journalism was to promote a culture of politeness. History became one of the main themes of his works, which grappled with the paradoxes of modernity: The systematic debunking of myths, inspired by a commitment to reason, clashed with a need to mythologize the past to throw into relief the moral and intellectual emancipation enabled by the Enlightenment.

Karamzin elaborated a new political stance while editing the Messenger of Europe in 1802 and 1803. A professed realist, he argued for a strong central government, whose legitimacy would lie in balancing conflicting interests and preventing the emergence of evil. Karamzin grew disenchanted with Napoleon, who had first seemed to bring forth peace and stability, but his infatuation with consolidated political power endured.

In October 1803, Karamzin became official historiographer to Tsar Alexander I. He uncovered many yet unknown sources on Russian history, including some that subsequently perished in the Moscow fire of 1812. In 1811 Karamzin submitted his Memoir on Ancient and New Russia, which contained a biting critique of the policies of Alexander I, but vindicated autocracy and serfdom. The Memoir signaled Karamzin's turn away from an Enlightenment-inspired universalist notion of history and affirmed the distinctness of Russia's historical path.

In 1818 Karamzin published the first eight volumes of his History of the Russian State, an instant bestseller. The History consists of two parts: a naive-sounding account of events, close in style to the Chronicles, with minimal narratorial intrusions and an apparent lack of overriding critical principle; and extensive footnotes, which display considerable skepticism in the handling of sources and sometimes contradict the main narrative. The narrative rests on the notion that the course of events is vindicated by their outcomethe consolidation of the Russian autocratic statebut it lets stories speak for themselves.

Due to this narrative and political stance, the immediate reception of the History was mostly negative. Yet after the publication of three more volumes from 1821 to 1824, which included a condemnation of the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the reception began to shift (the last volume was published posthumously in 1829). Alexander Pushkin called the History "the heroic deed of an honest man," and Karamzin's stance of moral independence came to the foreground. The History continued to be read in the nineteenth century, primarily as a storehouse of patriotic historical tales. It fell into disfavor during Soviet times, yet met an intense period of renewed interest in the perestroika years as part of an exhumation of national history.

See also: enlightenment, impact of; historiography; nationalism in the arts

bibliography

Black, J. L., ed. (1975). Essays on Karamzin: Russian Manof-Letters, Political Thinker, Historian, 17661826. The Hague: Mouton.

Wachtel, Andrew Baruch. (1994). An Obsession with History: Russian Writers Confront the Past. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Andreas SchÖnle

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"Karamzin, Nikolai Mikhailovich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin

Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin

The Russian journalist, historian, and author Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (1766-1826) was a founder of 19th-century Russian imperial conservatism and a pioneer national historian.

Nikolai Karamzin was born on Dec. 1 (Old Style), 1766, on the provincial estate of his father at the village of Mikhailovka, Orenburg district. He was educated at home and was ready by his fourteenth year for advanced study in Moscow. After a period of drifting, he settled into the intellectual life of the city. He wrote poetry and several novels, including Poor Liza. He joined the active Masonic movement and was close to the liberal circle of the famous writer and publisher Nikolai Novikov.

In 1789-1790 Karamzin traveled to Berlin, Leipzig, Geneva, Paris, and London. On his return to Russia he launched his journalistic career by publishing in the Moscow Journal, which he also edited, his "Letters of a Russian Traveler," a landmark in his intellectual development. Like most of his literary efforts, the "Letters" were sentimental and romantic in the style of Laurence Sterne. But they revealed more than the popular literary mode of the day: Karamzin was moving away from his liberal, Masonic past toward the conservative attitude of his later work.

In 1802 Karamzin founded the monthly European Messenger, one of the most important "thick journals" of the 19th century. He abandoned this in 1804 to devote himself to researching the history of the Russian state, an interest he pursued until his death. In 1811 he submitted to Alexander I his "Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia," a firm historical defense of the time-honored virtues of the Russian autocracy. Meanwhile, Karamzin was working on his magnum opus, Istoriya Gosudarstva Rossiiskago (1819-1826; History of the Russian Imperial State), of which 11 of the 12 volumes were published before his death. His patriotic and conservative analysis corresponded to the chauvinism of Russian educated opinion in the traumatic aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Karamzin moved to St. Petersburg in 1816, where he established a close but guarded relationship with the Emperor. He gave the Emperor parts of his Historyto read, and he engaged the Emperor in many discussions on historical and political issues as a consequence of these readings. Karamzin always urged that the uniquely Russian state virtues not be abandoned in the artificial quest for European progress, although he did not wholly reject Western civilization. His own intellectual development had been under Western influence, so he found himself in the ambiguous position of seeking to discover and preserve the best of his own nation's historical character without fully denying the value of certain features of the Western tradition. He maintained a conservative, humane, and intelligent balance between Russia and the West.

In 1825 the unexpected death of Alexander and the Decembrist Revolt, carried out by radical, Western-oriented officers of the imperial army, undermined Karamzin's health. He died on May 22 (Old Style), 1826.

Further Reading

There is considerable information on Karamzin in his own Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, translated and with a long analysis by Richard Pipes (1959), and in his Letters of a Russian Traveler, 1789-1790 (trans. 1957). Henry Nebel, Jr., translated and edited Selected Prose of N.M. Karamzin (1969) and wrote a study of his early literary efforts, N.M. Karamzin: A Russian Sentimentalist (1967). □

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Karamzin, Nikolai Mikhailovich

Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (nyĬkəlī´ mēkhī´ləvĬch kərəmzēn´), 1766–1826, Russian historian and writer. His Letters of a Russian Traveler, 1789–90 (1792, abr. tr. 1957), dealing with a journey to Western Europe, brought a cosmopolitan awareness into Russian writing. Karamzin made the Russian literary language more polished, elegant, and rhythmic. These reforms were important for later writers, especially Pushkin. Karamzin's sentimental story of a betrayed peasant girl, "Poor Lisa" (1792), forecast the novel of social protest. His greatest work, an 11-volume History of the Russian State (1818–24), was a widely read dramatic account of the political actions of the Russian princes up to 1613. He believed in a strong monarchic state, but criticized 18th-century rulers in his vigorous Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, written in 1810–11 (1914, tr. 1959).

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