Karamzin, Nikolai Mikhailovich

views updated Jun 11 2018

KARAMZIN, Nikolai Mikhailovich

Nationality: Russian. Born: On family estate near the city of Simbirsk, 1 December 1766. Education: Monsieur Fauvel's boarding school, Simbirsk, 1777-78; school of Johann Matthias Schaden, Moscow, graduated 1781. Military Service: Preobrazhensky Guards, Saint Petersburg, 1781-83. Family: Married Elizaveta Ivanovna Protasova in 1801 (died 1802). Career: Writer; editor, Detskoe chtenie dlia serdtsa i razuma, 1787-89; took grand tour of Europe, 1789-97; tutor (to future poet Petr Viazemsky); court historian. Died: 22 May 1826.



Moi bezdelki. 1794.

Aglaia. 1794.

Bednaia Liza. 1794.

Oda na sluchai prisiagi moskovskikh zhitei e. i. v. Pavlu Pervomu, samoderzhtsu vserossiikomu. 1796.

Razgovor o shchastii. 1797.

Pis'ma russkogo puteshestvennika. 1797.

E. i. v. Aleksandru I, Samoderzhtsu Vserossiiskomu, na vosshestvie ego na prestol. 1801.

Panteon rossiiskikh avtorov. 1801-2.

Istoricheskoe pokhval'noe slovo Ekaterine II. 1802.

Sochineniia. 1803.

Istoriia Gosudarstva Rossiiskogo. 1816-18.

O drevnei i novoi Rossii v ee politicheskom i grazhdanskom otnosheniiakh. 1861.


Editor, with A. A. Petrov, Detskoe chtenie dlia serdtsa i razuma.1787-89.

Editor, Moskovskii zhurnal. 1791-92.

Editor, Aglaia, almanakh. 1794-95.

Editor, Aonidi, ili Sobranie raznykh novykh stikhotvorenii. 1796-99.

Editor, Vestnik Evropy. 1802-03.

Translator, Dereviannaia noga: Shveitsarskaia idiliia by SalomonGessner. 1783.

Translator, O proiskhozhdenii zla, poema velikogo Gallera by Albrecht von Haller. 1786.

Translator, Iulii Tsezar' by William Shakespeare. 1787.

Translator, Emiliia Galotti by Gottholt E. Lessing. 1788.

Translator, Novye Marmontelevy povesti by Jean-Francois Marmontel.1794-98.

Translator, Melina by Madame de Staël. 1795.


Critical Studies:

"Karamzin in Recent Soviet Criticism: A Review Article" by John G. Garrard, in Slavic and East European Journal, Winter 1967; N. M. Karamzin's Prose: The Teller in the Tale: A Study in Narrative Technique by Roger B. Anderson, 1974; Essays on Karamzin: Russian Man-of-Letters, Political Thinker, Historian, 1766-1826 by Joseph L. Black, 1975; From the Idyll to the Novel: Karamzin's Sentimentalist Prose by Gitta Hammarberg, 1991.

* * *

Nikolai Karamzin began his career as a prose writer in 1783 with a translation from the German of Salomon Gessner's idyll Das hölzerne Bein (The Wooden Leg). Between then and 1803, when he obtained an appointment as court historiographer and abandoned fiction altogether, he wrote some 16 short prose works. The first of any importance were "Evgenii i Iuliia" (Eugene and Julia; 1789), the simple plot of which contrasted sharply with the complex plots of the roman d'aventure then in vogue, and the much imitated story of the lower classes, "Frol Silin, blagodetel'nyi chelovek" (Frol Silin, a Virtuous Man; 1791). By far the most famous and popular of Karamzin's stories, however, is "Bednaia Liza" (Poor Liza; 1794), the archetypal work of sentimentalist short fiction.

In his other short stories Karamzin displayed a willingness to experiment. Thus, "Ostrov Borgol'm" (The Island of Bornholm; 1794) is a gothic tale, and "Natal'ia, boiar'skaia doch"' (Natalia, the Boyar's Daughter; 1792) and "Marfa-posadnitsa" (Martha the Mayoress; 1803) are historical tales, while "Iuliia" (Julia; 1796) is an early version of the so-called society tale (svetskaia povest'). Despite these differences the stories are, as A. G. Cross has pointed out, linked both by Karamzin's interest in the psychology of his characters and the depiction of their emotions and by the importance accorded to the role of the narrator.

"Natalia, the Boyar's Daughter" is set in the time of Moscow's wars with Lithuania in the seventeenth century. This historical setting anticipates "Martha the Mayoress," yet the story has much to link it with "Poor Liza," not least the character of the eponymous heroine, which differs very little from that of Liza. The heroine is young, innocent, and naive and, in opposition to the will of her parents, enters a love affair with the son of a boyar wrongly accused of treason. Both heroines speak the same language, which is neither that of a peasant nor that of a seventeenth-century Russian but rather that of an educated lady of the end of the eighteenth century. The fates of these sentimental heroines are different, however. Unlike Liza, who is abandoned by her lover and commits suicide, Natalia marries her lover, who regains the favor of the czar. Although the story purports to be historically true, the style is self-consciously humorous. The story is, in fact, a parody of Matvei Komarov's 1782 work "Povest' o prikliuchenii aglinskogo milorda Georga i o brandenburgskoi markgrafine Friderika" (Tale of the Adventures of the English Milord George and the Brandenburg Margravine Friderika). This may account for its apparent influence on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and the reference to it in the same author's "Baryshnia-krest'ianka" (Mistress into Maid), which is written in an equally tongue-in-cheek manner.

"Julia" represents a development of "Poor Liza." The social milieu is now that of the upper classes, the setting urban rather than rural. Karamzin's criticism of urban mores, embodied in the character of the cynical roué Prince N*, implies, however, that rural life is superior, a theme that runs through Russian literature to this day. The story, like "Natalia, the Boyar's Daughter," reflects Karamzin's assimilation of eighteenth-century European culture. In "Natalia" the tone of the narration is very much that of Laurence Sterne. Here the dominant influence is that of Rousseau, although the use of the nom parlant has Russian as well as European ancestry. The story was translated into French as early as 1797, and an anonymous Russian article of 1804 singled it out as the story that best exemplified Karamzin's gifts as a writer of short stories and that entitled him to be placed on a par with the most celebrated exponent of the genre at the time, Jean-François Marmontel.

"The Island of Bornholm," published in Aglaia (1794-95), a two-part almanac of Karamzin's work, is part of a triptych of stories—the others being "Sierra Morena" and "Afinskaia zhizn"' (Athenian Life)—with foreign settings. The story shows the influence of yet another European tradition, that of the English gothic novel. Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho was published in the same year as Aglaia, and Karamzin's story has many of the accoutrements that characterize the gothic novel: the sinister castle, with its equally sinister owner, the imprisoned maiden, star-crossed lovers, and incest.

Six years separate the Aglaia stories from those published in the journal Vestnik Evropy (The Messenger of Europe), which Karamzin founded in 1802. Of these "Martha the Mayoress" is by far the most important, with the possible exception of the unfinished novel Rytsar' nashego vremeni (A Knight of our Time; 1802-03). The story was termed by the author "a historical tale" (istoricheskaia povest'), the subject matter of which is indicated by its alternative title Pokorenie Novgoroda (The Subjection of Novgorod). Supposedly based on an ancient manuscript and, unlike "Natalia, the Boyar's Daughter," written in a lofty, serious style, it can be seen as a fictional precursor to Karamzin's monumental Istoriia gosudarstva rossiiskogo (History of the Russian State), to which he devoted most of the rest of his life. Unusually for Karamzin, there is an overt political dimension to the story, which gave rise to considerable controversy. Martha, an actual historical personage, is a tragic heroine who leads Novgorod's struggle for freedom against the Moscow of Ivan III. Yet her cause is doomed and for Karamzin, an advocate of centralized Russian rule, misguided. Novgorod capitulates, and Martha is executed.

Karamzin's influence can be traced in many classic works of nineteenth-century Russian literature, from Dostoevskii's Poor Folk to Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. It was, however, his practical contribution to the debate over Russian literary language that left the most enduring mark on Russian literature. Declaring that the prose of the great classical poet and homo universalis Mikhail Lomonosov "cannot serve as a model for us" because it is "not pleasant to hear," Karamzin placed himself at the head of the innovators in opposition to the antimodernist group led by Admiral A. S. Shishkov. His ideal, expressed in 1803, was that people should "write as they speak" and "speak as they write," the resulting language being devoid of crudeness and distinguished by enlightened good taste. The new literary language he created was variously called the "middle style," a term borrowed from Lomonosov or, by Shishkov, the "new style." However the new language is termed, it is clear that but for Karamzin's mastery of style, but for the naturalness and simplicity of his expression, his stories would not have attracted the attention they did. The claim that he was the first Russian writer to raise prose fiction to the level of art does not seem too far-fetched. The critic V. G. Belinskii himself remarked that Karamzin's "influence on his contemporaries was so strong that a whole period of our literature from the nineties to the twenties is, with good reason, called the 'Karamzin period,"' while the most gifted of his followers, the poet and translator Vasilii Zhukovskii, wrote of "the holy name of Karamzin."

—Michael Pursglove

See the essay on "Poor Liza."

Karamzin, Nikolai Mikhailovich

views updated May 14 2018


(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


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

Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin

views updated Jun 08 2018

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). □

About this article

Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic