Prominent Russians: Nikolay Karamzin
The Russian journalist, historian and author Nikolay Mikhailovich Karamzin was a founder of 19th-century Russian imperial conservatism and a pioneering national historian.
Nikolay Karamzin was born on the provincial estate of his father in the village of Mikhailovka, in the Orenburg Region. He was educated at home and at fourteen he was ready for advanced study in Moscow, where he entered the University of Moscow.
After a brief period of service in the army, Karamzin settled in Moscow in 1784 and found his way into the intellectual life of the city. Karamzin established himself as the first major short-story writer in Russia with more than a dozen stories. All were in the Sentimentalist style and most were extremely popular.
The best remembered are “Poor Liza” (1792) and “The Island of Bornholm” (1793). These stories inspired a large number of imitations and provided the basis for literary Sentimentalism in Russia. Karamzin played an important role in the development of Russian standard language and
the establishment of new trends in Russian literature. He had a great influence on Zhukovsky, Batyushkov and Pushkin. Karamzin's followers and associates formed the literary society
“Arzamas,” while their adversaries, archaists headed by Shishkov, founded the “Conversations for Lovers of the Russian Word” literary circle.
Arzamas was founded by Zhukovsky (who became the secretary and invented witty “minutes” of the meetings). Karamzin was among the honorary members. Meetings were held periodically, often on Thursdays, and were usually hosted by Uvarov (21 Malaya Morskaya Street) and Bludov (80
Nevsky Prospect). The aspiration to protect Karamzin's trend in literature was realized in Arzamas by the creation of a humorous universe with comic rituals and travesty-mock literary productions. An attempt to change the character of the activity of Arzamas through the publication of its own journal was made in 1817, but was unsuccessful. By the end of 1817, many members of Arzamas left St. Petersburg for personal and official reasons. In 1818 Arzamas slowly broke up.
In 1798 Karamzin compiled “The Pantheon,” a collection of pieces from the works of the most celebrated authors of ancient and modern times, translated into Russian. He subsequently printed many of his lighter productions in a volume entitled “My Trifles.” Admired by Pushkin and Nabokov, the style of his writing is elegant and flowing, modeled on the easy sentences of the French prose writers, rather than the long periodical paragraphs of the old Slavonic school.
Soon Karamzin joined the leading literary and intellectual circle of the time, which was led by the publisher and journalist, Nikolay Novikov. Here, two main influences were exerted upon Karamzin. First, he was impressed with a favorable attitude toward the goals of the Enlightenment, a movement, experienced throughout Europe, in favor of the spread of education and the advancement of material progress. Novikov was the acknowledged leader of this movement in Russia. The second major influence on the young Karamzin was that of Freemasonry, which at the time was of great intellectual and cultural importance in Russia - nearly all of the well-known figures of that period were Masons.
Especially important to Karamzin was the work and friendship of Kheraskov, a Mason who had been one of Karamzin's teachers at the University of Moscow. Early Masonry (1740-1780) had provided enthusiastic support for the goals of the Enlightenment, but in the 1780s the emphasis began to shift from social to personal concerns, and a cult of emotional friendship became very popular.
Karamzin began his literary career in the mid-1780s. His first efforts were as a journalist and a translator. He read widely, especially contemporary European authors such as Rousseau, Richardson, Sterne, Thomson and Young. He derived the basic elements of the Sentimentalist style from these writers. Karamzin's first original work was published in the late 1780s. His first celebrated success was his “Letters of a Russian Traveler,” which he published serially during and after a lengthy tour of Europe. In 1789-1790 Karamzin traveled to Berlin, Leipzig, Geneva, Paris and London. 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 the publication in 1804 to devote himself to researching the history of the Russian state, an interest he pursued until his death. In 1804 Karamzin was named historiographer to the court of Tsar Alexander I. 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.
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 “History” to read and 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 formed 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 Western traditions. He maintained a conservative, humane, and intelligent balance between Russia and the West.
Karamzin was a firm believer in enlightened monarchy, in the early 1810s he argued against Spiransky's reforms. This scathing attack on reforms proposed by Mikhail Speransky was to become a cornerstone of official ideology of imperial Russia for years to come.
From 1819-1826 Karamzin worked on his magnum opus, “History of the Russian Imperial State,” 11 of whose 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 lived in the Vyazemsky manor house at Ostafyevo for 15 years. In the 19th century the Ostafievo Estate was one of the centers of Russian culture. Here Karamzin wrote seven volumes of “History of the Russian State.”
Karamzin started out there as the family tutor, married Yekaterina Vyazemskaya and stayed on to raise his family. “My heart is ever bound to Ostafyevo,” he wrote. Karamzin was one of many 19th century literary
celebrities who were drawn to the colonnaded mansion in the woods. Pushkin, Zhukovsky, Griboyedov and Gogol all visited the house at various times. It was Pushkin who nicknamed the lime tree avenue behind the house the “Russian Parnassus.”
In 1816 Karamzin moved with his family to Tsarskoe Selo, where he was given one of the houses in the so-called Chinese Village. Pushkin visited him there as a lyceum pupil. In 1825 Karamzin witnessed the Decembrist Uprising of 14 December at Senatskaya Square. He criticized its participants and organizers for heedlessness, though he endured their fate as a personal tragedy (many of the conspirators were close acquaintances). On the day of the uprising Karamzin caught a cold, resulting in a severe illness, which would prove fatal. In 1825 the unexpected death of Alexander undermined Karamzin's health. He died soon after in May of 1826. He was buried at the Necropolis of Artists.
Salon of Karamzin
The Salon of Karamzina is the salon of Karamzin’s widow, Ekaterina Andreevna Karamzina and of his daughter from his first marriage to Sofia Nikolaevna Karamzina. As a center of cultural life in the capital, it gathered writers, artists, composers and other art figures from 1826-50. It was visited
by Bryullov, Prince Vyazemsky, Dargomyzhsky, Glinka, Gogol, Zhukovsky, Lermontov, Prince Odoevsky, Pushkin, Countess Rastopchina, and Tyutchev. The subjects of poetry, policy, science and newly published books were discussed in the salon. According to firsthand accounts, simplicity was connected here with courtliness. Authors also read their compositions here. In 1839 Gogol read chapters from “Dead Souls” for the first time. Conversations were always held in Russian, which was uncommon for secular salons of that epoch. In 1826-32, Russian literati gathered at 41 Mokhovaya Street; in the 1830s, at Mikhailovskaya Square; and in the 1840s, at 16 Gagarinskaya Street.