Nikolai Karamzin

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Karamzin, Nikolai Mikhailovich


Born Dec. 1 (12), 1766, in the village of Mikhailovka, in present-day Buzuluk Raion, Orenburg Oblast; died May 22 (June 3), 1826, in St. Petersburg. Russian writer, publicist, and historian. Son of a landowner in Simbirsk Province.

Karamzin received his education at home and then at a boarding school in Moscow (until 1783); he also attended lectures at Moscow University. He came into contact with Freemasons through N. I. Novikov’s circle. Karamzin’s interest in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the works of English and German sentimentalists helped form his philosophy and literary views. He published numerous translations, as well as his original tale Eugene and Julia (1789), in Novikov’s journal Detskoe chtenie dlia serdtsa i razuma (Children’s Reading for Heart and Mind). Karamzin broke with the Masons in 1789. He traveled throughout Western Europe and upon his return to Russia published Moskovskii zhurnal (Moscow Journal; 1791–92), in which he printed his own works as well: the main part of Letters of a Russian Traveler; the short novels Liodor, Poor Liza, and Natalia, the Boyar’s Daughter; and the verses “Poetry” and “To Grace.” The journal also published Karamzin’s critical essays and reviews on literature and theater and helped propagate the aesthetic principles of sentimentalism.

Karamzin was intensely involved with the Great French Revolution. He was disenchanted with the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793–94, but later reacted positively on the whole to bourgeois law and order, which was preserved and consolidated under Napoleon I. After an almost complete silence imposed during the reign of Pavel I, Karamzin resumed his work as a publicist and used his journal Vestnik Evropy (The Messenger of Europe) as the platform for a program of moderate conservatism. His historical novella, Marfa Posadnitsa, or The Conquest of Novgorod (1803), was published in his journal and affirmed the inevitable victory of autocracy over the free city.

Karamzin was the acknowledged leader of Russian sentimentalism, and his literary activity played an enormous part in deepening Russian literature’s interest in the individual, perfected the literary means used in depicting man’s inner life, and contributed to the development of the Russian literary language. Karamzin’s early prose influenced the work of V. A. Zhukovskii, K. N. Batiushkov, and the young Pushkin.

From the mid-1790’s, Karamzin’s interest focused on historical problems. He abandoned literature and worked chiefly on his History of the Russian State (vols. 1–8, 1816–17; vol. 9, 1821; vols. 10–11, 1824; vol. 12, 1829; reprinted repeatedly), which became not only an important historical work but also an outstanding Russian prose work and served as the principal source for Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Russian historical drama of the 1830’s.


Karamzin’s historical views stemmed from the rationalistic conception of political development: the history of mankind is the history of worldwide progress, at the heart of which lies the struggle between reason and delusion and enlightenment and ignorance. According to Karamzin, great men play a decisive role in history, and he endeavored in every way possible to show the ideological and moral motivations behind the actions of historical figures. For him psychological analysis was the principal device to explain historical events. To Karamzin history was a science that exhorted people to social activity. He defended the inviolability of the autocracy and the necessity of preserving serfdom. He condemned the uprising of the Decembrists and approved of their punishment. His A Note on Ancient and Modern Russia (1811) sharply criticized M. M. Speranskii’s program of government reforms.

Karamzin was an advocate of the Norman theory in explaining the origins of the Russian state. His division of Russian history into periods corresponded closely to that of V. N. Tatishchev and M. M. Shcherbatov. All three identified the history of the country with the history of the state, and the history of the state with that of the aristocracy. Karamzin, however, introduced much that was new, both in terms of understanding the course of Russian history and in his evaluation of specific historical events.

Unlike Tatishchev and Shcherbatov, who saw the appanage system as a regression and the result of inept politics on the part of the great princes who divided the state among their sons, Karamzin saw it as a feudal system “in conformity with the conditions and spirit of the time” and common to all Western European countries. He viewed the formation of a single state under Ivan III as a process analogous to and simultaneous with the formation of large centralized states in Western Europe.

Karamzin was not satisfied with a purely rationalistic explanation of historical events and in a number of cases used what is known as the pragmatic view of history and the comparative historical method, thus putting himself on a level with the most advanced historical methods of that time. He was the first to use a vast number of historical documents, including the Trinity, Laurentian, and Hypatian chronicles, the Dvina Statutes, the Sudebniki (Muscovy Law Codes), and accounts by foreigners. Karamzin gave excerpts from these documents in his extensive notes to the History, which long remained a unique archive. However, in the text Karamzin frequently deviated from his sources or showed a preference for a less accurate source in order to satisfy his political aims and monarchistic conceptions or to enliven or embroider the events.

Karamzin’s History promoted the growth of interest in Russian history among various sectors of Russian society. It heralded a new stage in the development of Russian noble historiography. Karamzin’s view of history was officially endorsed and supported by the government, and the Slavophiles considered Karamzin their spiritual father. The representatives of the progressive camp (the Decembrists, V. G. Belinskii, and N. G. Chernyshevskii) reacted negatively to Karamzin’s History. It also was received critically by members of the newly formed school of Russian bourgeois historiography (M. T. Kachenovskii, N. A. Polevoi, and S. M. Soloviev). I. A. Kudriavtsev


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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